The Black Sheep

Unitarian minister Joel Miller finds out it's hard to lead the wrong kind of church in southwest Jefferson County

The two Christianities in the neighborhoods surrounding Columbine High School will never become one, and so working together on spiritual matters is a pointless endeavor, says Foothills' Oudemolen. But he is willing to work with non-evangelicals on community issues. "In terms of making schools safer and opening our facility to people who need it, we can work together, but if we're invited to unite around spiritual issues, that's a problem, because we'll be perceived as beating people over the head with Jesus," he explains.

When a Methodist preacher needed a larger church in which to hold the funeral of slain Columbine student Lauren Townsend, Oudemolen lent him the use of his church. And when a group of counselors invited local clergy to gather to discuss their feelings about ministering in the midst of such tragedy, Oudemolen gladly accepted. A minister from Light of the World Catholic Church also came to the counseling session. Afterward, Oudemolen introduced himself to her. She told him she's a hugger, and the two ministers embraced. "I liked that moment," Oudemolen says. "It was a pure moment about loving someone no matter what they believe. It is possible to be civil and kind. I may take exception to what other clergy say, but the message I want to give is that we can still love one another."

Oudemolen says he hasn't yet participated in meetings and community projects with non-evangelicals because he feels he doesn't even have enough time to dedicate to his own ministry--pastors need to tend to their own flocks before they can get involved in things outside their churches. "We, as shepherds, need to be taking care of the sheep, not getting together with other shepherds," he says. "I hope all the mainline ministers criticizing us now will take care of their sheep and let us take care of ours."

But that attitude--you take care of your sheep and we'll take care of ours--is precisely what bothers some other ministers.

"There is a profound sense of loneliness and isolation here, and I see it in my ministry all the time. Churches inadvertently add to that sense of isolation," says Poos-Benson. "A lot of people move out to the suburbs for jobs, and they leave their extended families behind. They find their extended family in their church, but they don't take it to the next level and find it in their own neighborhoods, on their own blocks--and that's what's missing. It takes an extra effort to cross denominational lines.

"Out here in the suburbs, people drive home, hit their garage-door openers, go into their houses and never go out in their front yards again. That is not how you create community," he adds.

Just after the Columbine shootings, Joel Miller felt even more alienated, and he started examining how he had contributed to the suburban ghetto that had formed around him. "I only have contact with about six ministers on a continuing basis," he says. "I've never had a conversation with a conservative evangelical minister. I'm afraid that if I try to bridge the gap, conservative Christians won't want to talk to me." But, he wonders, "how can we be neighbors if we can't even talk?"

Miller's soul-searching led to a plan of action. "I need to start calling other clergy," he says. "I should have been doing it a long time ago. I believe we have more in common than not. If only we could work together to talk about what our community is lacking and what it needs, what our teens need."

Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church is taking on a project Miller hopes will involve everyone. His church is planning to construct a stone labyrinth on property it owns near a new park that's being built across from West Bowles Community Church, the other of the big three evangelical congregations in the area.

Since the Middle Ages, walking through labyrinths has been a way for people to meditate or pray. Curved lines leading to a center have been found carved into the floors of old cathedrals in western Europe; since the 1980s, labyrinths have appeared all over the United States. They serve as metaphors for the journey of life, with the walk from its outer circles to the center symbolizing the retreat into an individual's own center.

At the moment, the labyrinth's new home is a 3.8-acre field of overgrown weeds. The center of the property is up a slight incline from Bowles Avenue. It's a serene setting, with wildflowers swaying in the breeze; the only disturbance is the swoosh of cars as they pass on the busy avenue. Dakota Ridge High School is the solitary structure against the mountain backdrop.

Members of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church hope to model the labyrinth after one at Chartres Cathedral in France. Depending on the amount of money they raise, it could be up to forty feet in diameter, with two different colors of brick or stone denoting the path. The church members have already selected its name--Columbine Peace Labyrinth--and hope to have it completed by October 20, the six-month anniversary of the high school shootings.

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