Home Sweet Clone

Twenty-year-old Highlands Ranch has grown into a mega-planned community of mythic proportions.

First comes the Wells Fargo Wagon.

Then bulldozers and John Deere tractors.

Then the Centennial sanitation trucks.

 
Francisco Cateres
 
Highlands Ranch
Anthony Camera
Highlands Ranch
The mow the merrier: Workers with industrial lawn mowers take part in the Highlands Ranch 20th Anniversary parade.
The mow the merrier: Workers with industrial lawn mowers take part in the Highlands Ranch 20th Anniversary parade.
Diane Santangelo is a Highlands Ranch covenant cop.
Anthony Camera
Diane Santangelo is a Highlands Ranch covenant cop.
Fish out of water: This red pirhana by artist Troy Pillow is one of five backyard sculptures that sparked a neighbor's complaint against homeowner Vikki Stevens.
Anthony Camera
Fish out of water: This red pirhana by artist Troy Pillow is one of five backyard sculptures that sparked a neighbor's complaint against homeowner Vikki Stevens.
Not God forsaken: Cherry Hills Community Church pastor David Meserve warns that prayer is needed to balance homogeneity.
Anthony Camera
Not God forsaken: Cherry Hills Community Church pastor David Meserve warns that prayer is needed to balance homogeneity.

And then a gaggle of industrial lawn mowers, doing spins. A semi-truck from Albertson's. The Douglas County Republican wagon. And row upon row of marching elementary students.

Creeping up the street on a rainy September morning, the Highlands Ranch 20th Anniversary community parade is a march of city services, HR officials, corporate sponsors and schoolkids. In the gray morning drizzle, it looks less like a celebration and more like the grim first wave of a Highlands Ranch colonization effort. Near the end of the parade route is an open field. You can imagine marchers coming to a halt on the grass, bulldozers digging in, banks arranging home loans, retail representatives organizing a strip mall, and community officials picking out mandatory color schemes.

One passing parade car is marked "First Highlands Ranch Baby -- Jennifer Dani." She looks to be in her late teens now.

"I know!" Dani yells to clapping onlookers. "I'm not alone anymore!"

Which is so very true. Since 1981, the suburban community has swelled to more than 70,000 residents and continues to grow by an average of 1,000 homes per year. By some standards, it is the largest planned community in the country, a pinnacle of suburban development.

Yet locally, Highlands Ranch has remained singularly divisive. There are few middle-ground opinions about it. It's residential community as cultural litmus test. You look at Highlands Ranch and find a sea of rooftops or a well-kept community; an ultra-conservative bastion or a haven for family values; a place for them or a place for us. It's a culture that's hermetically sealed, a community with more than twenty houses of worship but not a single retail bookstore. And its residents, by and large, love it.

The sniping from Denver residents began in 1979, when California-based Mission Viejo Company bought 22,000 acres of prairie ranchland for residential development. Critics said the community would be a haven for West Coast transplants, a white-flight magnet and a sprawling eyesore.

As Highlands Ranch evolved from a Mission Viejo master plan to a mega-community, such complaints have only grown more emphatic. After all, Highlands Ranch is very popular with new Colorado residents, a comfortable community that looks and feels just like McHome for transplanted suburbanites. And, yes, the Ranch is also very homogenous. According to the 2000 Census figures, 91 percent of Highlands Ranch residents are white, and more than 70 percent of households are made up of married couples with children.

And is it a sprawling eyesore? Well, that's open to interpretation. But Denver City Councilwomen Susan Barnes-Gelt, a 25-year resident of Capitol Hill and advocate of mixed-use development, calls Highlands Ranch "one big smush of beige puke" that is "the antithesis of what a real community is about."

Joe Blake, former vice president of Shea Homes and current president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, counters that critics are short on firsthand knowledge.

"The [criticizing of Highlands Ranch] is not done from within Douglas County; it's done from other areas," says Blake. "The families that live there are the community's greatest advocates. That's how I gauge the reality of those observations, and I think that's the standard by which any community should be judged."

In other words, you can't understand Highlands Ranch unless you're part of the parade. The following five individuals help explore some of the urbanite myths about the place.

Cop

Diane Santangelo is a covenant cop. She cruises Highlands Ranch five days a week in a gray Honda, inspecting homeowner improvements, citing aesthetic violations. Her job is to sweat the smallest stuff. She can spot weeds creeping between rocks from twenty feet away, can spy an inappropriate paint job without consulting the Color-Dex in her truck.

Santangelo's official title is assistant architectural coordinator, one of a team of six full-time employees in the Highlands Ranch architectural enforcement office. Today she is on patrol, looking for violations and checking the progress of past offenders.

This particular tour is on September 12. The day before, the covenant cops did not get much done, Santangelo admits, but they still went out on patrol.

"It was really hard going out [yesterday]," she says. "People looked at us like, 'How can you come out here and cite this nonsense with all this going on?'"

Covenant cops can, and did, because their job is considered vitally important to the Highlands Ranch Community Association (HRCA). The HRCA is the largest of the 231,000 community associations in the United States, making Highlands Ranch one of the most populous planned communities in the country, making covenant cops the thin beige line that keeps this master of master-planned communities from descending into aesthetic scruffiness. Covenant cops rule their beat, armed with dozens of guidelines specifying exactly what Highlands Ranch is supposed to look like. They are often ridiculed, but residents have all purchased houses based on the success of covenant-cop vigilance.

"Property maintenance is what we're really keeping an eye out for," Santangelo says. "We want to make sure that everything is kept up so property values are kept up. So we're out here to assist the homeowner. They actually appreciate it -- 90 percent of the time."

And when they don't appreciate it?

"We work with them," she says, though the governance is clear: Homeowners agree to abide by the covenants when they purchase their homes. Non-compliance can result in a $25-per-day fee or legal action.

As Santangelo drives along pedestrian-free streets, houses roll past. Highlands Ranch is divided into four quadrants: Northridge, Southridge, Eastridge and Westridge. Despite its use of "curvilinear development" (curving roads and boundary features), there is still a very geometric feel to the community. Strip-mall shopping is here. Houses are over there. Schools are interspersed throughout as needed.

Bob Kelly, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who has sold homes in Highlands Ranch for twenty years, says the emphasis on order over chaos is a selling point.

"There's a designated place for churches, for housing, for open space, for recreation centers," Kelly says. "It's not like [Denver], where you see houses next to industrial next to apartments and there's no rhyme or reason to anything."

New-urbanism proponents such as Barnes-Gelt counter that zoning compartmentalization is the greatest drawback of planned communities. Instead, she advocates diverse development that encourages community interaction and pedestrian traffic.

"Real communities have streets that are a public realm where dialogue and democracy and human life take place," she says. "That does not exist in Highlands Ranch. [The zoning] contributes to sprawl, it contributes to pollution...it's the reason that everybody needs a car for everything. The closer you are to where you play, work and shop, the more lively a community is."

In Highlands Ranch, not only are the streets largely vacant, but the street names themselves provide an example of the community's homogeneity. The names were selected by developers yet seem constructed by a computer that spliced two wildlife words together for a soothing compound title: Woodland Drive, Quail Ridge Road. In addition, some neighborhoods spurn variation altogether and recycle a single street name ad infinitum. For example, there's a Spring Hill Parkway, Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill Street, Spring Hill Court, Spring Hill Way, Spring Hill Place, Spring Hill Lane and Spring Hill Peak -- all within a few blocks of each other.

Complaints from confused residents and fire officials have since prompted Shea Homes to limit the number of times a street name can be used. Still, the effect is rather mind-boggling. The neighborhoods are like those Hanna-Barbera cartoons in which animators cut corners by having Fred Flintstone run past the same rock, tree and house over and over again.

Santangelo doesn't see homogeneity, though. She sees "a very mixed, diverse group."

"This is a melting pot," the covenant cop says. "You have every diversity. You have everything from $100,000 homes to the $1 million homes."

She pauses at a house with a partial paint job. The tentative color is a deep sea blue. She says she spotted it earlier and told the painter to stop working, explaining that it wasn't an approved color.

"A lot of people get mad at us and say we want all earth tones, but that's not true," she says. "We allow a lot of the golds and yellows and blues. It's just we want it in a blending way. You don't want to see a house that's going to be a fluorescent lime green in the middle of a block -- that's not going to help anybody's property value."

Santangelo then spies a ladder leaning unattended against a house. She taps her brakes.

"This ladder would need to be stored," she says, "but I know they just painted, so I'm not going to say anything, because that ladder will probably disappear within days."

Moving on. Up Cresthill Lane, down Weeping Willow Circle.

Considering the conservative demographics of Highlands Ranch, it's surprising how many traditional emblems of Americana are either banned or require approval by the architectural committee. Porch swings, for instance, are nowhere to be found. Ditto for flagpoles and permanent clotheslines. Only a few neighborhoods permit white picket fences. ("We don't want to have one fence lattice, one fence white, one fence picket," Santangelo explains. "You get all those going on, and you get a little circus-y.") Satellite dishes, though, are grudgingly permitted. The 1996 Telecommunications Act overruled homeowner associations on restricting the placement of satellite dishes.

"Homeowners hate them," she claims, "but we can't do anything about it. FCC rules apply."

Turning onto one of the Ranch's broad, six-lane boulevards, Santangelo proudly points to a narrow field sandwiched between the street and a row of backyard fences. This is an example of what Highlands Ranch calls "open space."

Highlands Ranch advocates stress that 61 percent of their community is preserved for open space. The official HR anniversary magazine even reminds readers that community founders "decided to do something quite unique" by leaving "61 percent of the property as open space."

Looking around Highlands Ranch, 61 percent seems like an unbelievably high figure. And it is. According to a spokesman for Shea Homes, the claim actually refers to a zoning category that includes streets, schools, community facilities and churches.

Yes, in Highlands Ranch, a church is considered open space.

And critics say Highlands Ranch's inclination to stuff houses into one neighborhood, then have a meadow next door, makes little sense.

"True open space is clustering housing and retail and business so you can maintain separation between communities...and having trails and parks integrated into the community," says Barnes-Gelt. "Open space isn't about a culvert in somebody's backyard or a drainage ditch. That's just a waste of land."

A waste for some, perhaps, but not wasted by developers. Open-space views are valuable, and buyers who purchase certain homes are also buying "view rights." One covenant-cop responsibility is to watch for residential landscaping and renovations that might obscure a neighbor's rightfully purchased scenery.

Santangelo turns onto another street -- Timberwood? Tanglewood? Teakwood? -- and more postage-stamp lawns stretch up and over the hill.

Even though she patrols these streets every day, does Santangelo ever have a difficult time, you know, finding her way around?

"Get lost?" she asks. "On a regular basis. Constantly!"

Witch

Foxfire is sixteen years old, attends Thunderridge High School and has a secret. Some of her friends know her secret, but she doesn't want her mom to find out. Her dad already knows, but he's an atheist, "so he doesn't really care." But her mom, well...her mom is a "hardcore Christian" who sometimes works in their church. So it would be ugly if her mom ever found out Foxfire is a practicing wiccan. Foxfire isn't worried about her dad telling her mom, though. Since the divorce, her parents "never talk to each other."

"[Christianity] wasn't soothing to me," she says. "I thought [wicca] was more open and not as judgmental."

There are three other girls in her coven, she says. Their wiccan names are Foxfire, Blue Spiral, Moon Dancer and Star. They all attend Thunderridge. They were twelve or thirteen when they first started getting interested in witchcraft.

One might think that with the current pop-culture trendiness of adolescent pagans (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Harry Potter), being a sixteen-year-old wiccan in suburban Denver would be a blast -- accessorizing at Park Meadows, casting spells in the food court. But there is a narrow definition of what is cool at her school, and Foxfire has unsuccessfully tried to keep her interest in witchcraft private.

"People think you worship Satan. We don't even believe in Satan," she says. "Once I made the mistake of telling somebody at school who, I guess, is a Mormon? And she keeps trying to get me to go to church and telling me that what I am doing is wrong."

And a current Buffy plot thread in which a witch came out as a lesbian hasn't helped her image, either.

"Everybody thinks all homosexual people [practice wicca]," she laughs. "People ask me if I'm a lesbian. I'm like, 'No!'"

Highlands Ranch advocates insist their community is perfect for kids. But kids do not buy houses. It's probably more accurate to say the Disneyfied aesthetics and restrictive nature of Highlands Ranch appeals to adults with kids rather than kids themselves.

William Porter, a Cherry Creek psychologist and co-author of Bully-Proofing Your School, says one of the toughest challenges for teens in places like Highlands Ranch is finding an identity in a community where homogeneity reigns.

"There's a lot of pressure to live up to the standards of their parents and the mores and values of the community," Porter says. "That's why you see a higher rate of suicide, you see a higher rate of eating disorders in those communities, and a very high use of recreational drugs: It's really self-medicating to take the edge off of living up to this expectation."

One common complaint by teens in planned communities is that there's nothing to do. Parents are often bewildered by such complaints, since associations like the HRCA offer an array of activities. But the same sensibilities that mandate blending earth tones and ban treehouses also regulate the community's playtime, leaving little room for the improvised and unexpected spaces where kids make their own fun.

Take going to a pool, for example.

According to the conduct rules of Highlands Ranch, the following are prohibited at HR pools: food, drink, possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages, unacceptable loitering, dress-code violations as defined by specific areas, standing or sitting on the shoulders of another guest, squirt guns, rafts, kickboards (for children), standing on or swimming under float toys, throwing objects over a large length of space, catching objects off the side of the pool and "actions or activities that annoy, inconvenience, or endanger the well being of persons." Many pools also have something called "adult swim," where for ten minutes of each hour, all kids are ordered out of the pool so that adults can swim laps.

To escape the playtime master planning of the HRCA, some kids burrow under Highlands Ranch instead. Teens have been repeatedly found exploring the Highlands Ranch sewer system. Douglas County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sergeant Tim Moore says there's evidence of "graffiti, alcohol, drug use and sexual activity" in the HR sewers. Moore notes that the tunnels are one of the few places in Highlands Ranch where a teen can get away from the watchful eyes of a hundred residential windows.

Foxfire says many of her classmates kill time at the recreation centers or hang around the local cineplex. She describes Highlands Ranch as "very structured."

Sometimes on Sundays, her mom takes her to church. Foxfire goes along and fakes it.

Rebel

Every so often, a feud between the HRCA and a resident will make the news. Like the case in 1997 when the HRCA sued a 69-year-old widow for having a faded-beige garage door (neighbors eventually volunteered to paint it). Or last year's failed attempt by a handful of residents to force a homeowner-based review of the covenants. In every such story, you will hear the biggest self-perpetuated myth about Highlands Ranch.

The myth goes like this: Without the covenants, neighbors would grow weeds ten feet high, paint houses lime green and park junked cars on their lawns. The ensuing chaos would result in an ugly neighborhood and decreased property value.

The argument essentially uses extreme examples of homeowner neglect to justify Highlands Ranch's dizzying array of restrictions that control every possible aspect of neighborhood aesthetics, from address-number sizes to xeriscaping. The phrase "protecting property values" is often bandied about, as if other values, such as charm and character, were notorious for crashing housing prices.

The notion that extra-strict covenants somehow ensure higher property-value returns is also a real estate fallacy. There has been very little statistical difference between property appreciation in Highlands Ranch and its chaos-friendly urban antagonist, Denver. According to figures provided by Coldwell Banker, the median housing value in Highlands Ranch increased 62 percent from 1990 to 2001, while the housing value in Denver increased 57 percent during the same period. The figures do give Highlands Ranch a slight lead, but not after one factors in the Ranch's continuous influx of new housing.

Angela Burdick, president of the South Suburban Metro Realtors Association, says newer communities always appreciate faster than older ones because of increased energy efficiency and modern amenities.

The real reason residents like the covenants -- a reason that HR residents are loath to admit and that outsiders fail to consider -- is that most residents like the way the covenants filter their neighborhood into a uniform vision.

"For most people, buying a residential home is an emotional experience; it's not mainly an investment issue," says Burdick. "A lot of the people who live in Highlands Ranch like [the aesthetics], they like having that conformity, they like knowing what to expect. And if they did not like it, they would petition the association to change [the covenants] or move."

So when asked about the covenants, residents will cite practical reasons for them such as "property values," because few people will confess to the tranquil pleasure of an undistinguished neighborhood, the joy of sameness, the ease of knowing that when you drive home from work, your neighborhood will look exactly as you left it. They say you can't go home again, but you can in Highlands Ranch, as nothing is allowed to change.

Homeowner Vikki Stevens, however, is an exception. Stevens and her husband, Daniel Yagow, are transplants from San Francisco and true Highlands Ranch rebels.

"We don't have kids," Stevens says. "We don't drive a pigmobile, we don't have a cell phone, we don't play Bonko, we don't patronize the chain restaurants and the movie theaters out here."

Stevens and Yagow moved to Colorado on April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine massacre. The couple searched for houses in many neighborhoods but kept returning to Highlands Ranch. The realtor pointed out that the community was close to Yagow's office and that buyers can get plenty of house for their money: extra bathrooms, multi-car garage, a kitchen stuffed with new appliances.

Stevens reluctantly agreed, then set about designing the interior of her new home to be a cultural oasis to match her taste. Her house is loaded with architectural customizations, primary colors and modern art. It looks like a hipster's dream and a covenant cop's nightmare.

Now go outside, and you'll find that the exterior obediently matches every other house on her street...except for the five modern-art statues on her backyard patio.

The metal figures are colorful and playful; three are designed by Denver sculptor Troy Pillow. Their colors blend with her landscaping, but the pieces still catch your attention, as good art is prone to do. Neighborhood kids like to come into her open back yard and play with the figures, sticking their hands in the jaws of the red piranha. Quips Stevens: "The statues are probably the only exposure to modern art these kids are going to get."

Then, four months ago, Stevens received what some residents call "the nasty-gram."

"During a recent neighborhood survey, it was noted you have installed ornament(s) that are not in compliance with the guidelines," begins the letter from an HRCA "architectural technician."

At first Stevens dismissed the notice, thinking it must be some misunderstanding. Later she was told that one of her neighbors called to complain, a notion she finds appalling.

"There are tons of covenant violations all over," she says. "But I would never dream of picking up the phone to call and narc on my neighbors."

(Santangelo, the covenant cop, says her offices receives about ten neighbor-narcs per day).

Stevens argues that the covenants once permitted sculptures up to five feet high. The restrictions have since been lowered to three feet. Thus far, Stevens has successfully haggled the architectural committee to allow two of her five statues. But for Stevens, that's not good enough.

"I suppose some of them could come inside, but they're not going to," she says. "I will be happy to bring my sculptures inside when all of the jungle gyms have to come down. I think that's fair. Our five sculptures together do not total a fraction of one of those jungle gyms -- and without all the noise."

Stevens's covenant battle is an unusual case. Her fight isn't about the legality of a fence or weeds or parked boat. It's about art. And in a sense, both sides are right: Stevens should be allowed to have her sculptures, but the HRCA is also correct to target them. They are alien here. There's nothing Highlands Ranch about them.

"I've got the time, the energy and the money to fight this," Stevens says. "And I totally intend to."

Reporter

Tamra Monahan is a bit apprehensive as she slides into a booth at Dewey's American Grill. She's meeting a reporter for a story about Highlands Ranch. And she is a reporter who writes stories about Highlands Ranch. And, well...wait. Let's back up.

Monahan is the only full-time reporter for the Highlands Ranch Herald, a free weekly community newspaper distributed to HR residences. She has lived in Highlands Ranch for ten years and has exclusively covered the community for nearly two. She has the delicate task of objectively reporting on an image-conscious community.

How Monahan came to Highlands Ranch is a prototypical suburban-family story. She and her husband once lived in Washington Park. They walked everywhere, loved downtown culture. Then came kids -- one, two -- and downtown life suddenly seemed less appealing. Their house and yard were too small. There was crime in their neighborhood. The nearby schools were okay, but couldn't they find better?

The Monahans, married with children, hit the Great Priority Shift.

They believed the safest community, best housing prices and -- most important -- the best schools were in Highlands Ranch.

In reality, most Highlands Ranch schools are given an academic performance ranking of "high" in the Colorado School Accountabilty Reports. On average, their scores are far superior to those of schools in metro Denver, yet there are several elementary, middle and high schools in south suburban communities that outrank their Highlands Ranch counterparts. For example, the two HR high schools -- Thunderridge and Highlands Ranch -- are ranked "high," while nearby Heritage, Arapahoe and Cherry Creek high schools are ranked "excellent." So Highlands Ranch does have justifiable bragging rights about its schools, as long as it doesn't brag too close to home.

Monahan, however, has no complaints about the schools or her community, though she does admit to taking her kids on what she calls "urban trips" to avoid the Highlands Ranch weekday rut of Starbucks/work/recreation center/Olive Garden/Blockbuster/home. She doesn't make the trips for anything specific, but for something intangible.

"When living here, you have the tendency to feel disconnected," Monahan says. "It's very easy to stay out here. You've got your restaurants and movie theaters...but there's a difference. There's a difference going to Park Meadows and going to dinner -- which is good -- then hopping on the light rail, going down to Denver and walking around Larimer Square."

In particular, Monahan misses walking to Washington Park. Her oldest son still talks about seeing the ducks. "There are parks here, but it's not quite the same as an older, established park, with trees and a real history," she says.

When asked how Highlands Ranch has changed over the years, Monahan says the sense of community has decreased a bit. "The people who bought the original houses in Highlands Ranch were the only ones out here," she says. "There was a real pioneering sense."

For Monahan, her perception of Highlands Ranch also shifted once the community became her beat. She is sometimes amused by architectural bickering and corporations that insist on adoption of their PR euphemisms, such as the Park Meadows Town Center, the Aspen Grove Lifestyle Center.

"Stuff like that kinda cracks me up," she says. "If it's a shopping mall, I'm going to call it a shopping mall."

And then there are the police reports.

"I always knew there was domestic violence and that kind of stuff," she says, "but to actually read about it, and to see that it's two streets away from where you live, or see a name that you recognize..."

An HRCA representative says the most common crimes in Highlands Ranch are traffic violations. That may be true in terms of quantity, but Sergeant Moore says the biggest crime concerns in the community are teen-nuisance crimes, property theft and domestic violence. The teen crimes -- vandalism, petty theft -- are expected, as "the area is so densely populated, yet primarily made up of residential homes." Robbery, he says, is a result of residents overestimating their security: Residents leave their cars unlocked on the street or their garage doors open, then get surprised when they are robbed.

According to August incident reports, most crime in Highlands Ranch seems pretty tame. A woman demanding the arrest of her neighbor who went into her yard to fetch his son's stray ball; several barking-dog complaints; auto theft; seemingly nonstop shoplifting and check forgeries at Park Meadows (which is often misclassified as part of Highlands Ranch). Some reports are uniquely suburban. One recent domestic-violence report described a woman who threatened to kill herself by overdosing on Aleve. Her husband admitted hitting her in the head, but only, he said, as way of saying, "C'mon Amber!"

So Highlands Ranch has more crime than is presumed, but is still pretty safe. [Actual crime statistics are unavailable for Highlands Ranch as a whole; instead, the county is broken into zip codes for tallies]. If a new resident doesn't leave his garage door open his first night in a new home, he does so after gradually becoming accustomed to an otherwise secure neighborhood. And Monahan, despite knowing the worst details of all the worst crimes that occur in her neighborhood, has no regrets.

"I would not trade Highlands Ranch for anything," she says. "It's been wonderful. It still is."

Sermon

Follow the chain of cars up Fairview Parkway on a Sunday morning, past the Douglas County sheriff's deputies directing traffic, and you can't miss Cherry Hills Community Church. The 195,000-square-foot church squats imperiously atop a hill. It's mammoth, towering, bulging. And inside it seems, if at all possible, even larger.

In the bi-level auditorium (that's the best word: auditorium) are seven concert-style video screens, each at least five feet wide. The stage is blond hardwood, with a decorative rug thrown downstage center, like something out of a residential loft. Padded fold-down chairs replace wooden pews. Plain windows covered by white vertical blinds stand in for stained glass.

As the services begin, the mega-church's house band performs a Christian pop ballad. The sound system is excellent, complete with well-timed lighting effects. A mid-stage curtain parts to reveal about 110 choir singers. Mounted at the back of the stage is a single cross.

The action is directed off stage, in a soundproofed room packed with seventeen video monitors, several laptops, and high-tech production equipment. Cherry Hills fans can purchase the band's CDs online for a donation of $15.99 per disc.

One HR myth is that everybody who lives here is devoutly religious, near evangelical. But some conservative critics, such as The Geography of Nowhere author James Howard Kunstler, depict the suburbs as bastions of consumerism and anonymity that are "bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically and spiritually."

The members of the flock in this Presbyterian church, up bright and early on Sunday morning, seem less than spiritually ecstatic. As choir singers blast the congregation with their song and the lyrics scroll upward on every video monitor, many of the parishioners simply mouth the words. Some stand there blankly watching the stage. And when the song concludes, the parishioners applaud. It's entertainment, after all.

From the stage, there are repeated pleas for members of the congregation to join the Cherry Hills small-group ministers, along with acknowledgements of the impersonal nature of the mega-church. Finally, Pastor David Meserve takes the stage.

Meserve is bright and witty, inherently likable. He tells the congregation that he just returned from a sabbatical in Europe, where he became concerned about "our culture." There's a Greek word he learned while he was abroad: homothymadon. The word literally means "the same wrath" but is used in the Bible as a synonym for "together."

"Now, in our congregation, we have a fairly homogenous congregation," Meserve says. "We tend to be very similar in our appearance; most of us happen to be on the fair side of skin color. Our socio-economic varies, but 'middle-class suburbia' tends to describe a lot of us. Even our political views, I imagine, have a lot in common. These things, homogeneity, have nothing to do with homothymadon. It's not about just being the same kind of person. It is something outside of you that you come together with. And when it comes together, it's powerful."

The congregation is silent.

"I think we need prayer to balance the power God wants to give us through homothymadon," Meserve continues. "As we come together with one mind, we're dangerous. Isn't this the story of the Tower of Babel? Genesis 11? All the cultures were together, and there was only one culture, one language. And they came together and built a city, a marvelous city. And they built a tower. Why? Not to give glory to God, but to make a name for themselves."

Meserve asks parishioners to turn to a page in Acts. Some members reach for the Bibles usually located on the back of the pews. But Cherry Hills doesn't stock Bibles in the balcony level, and parishioners search fruitlessly.

"[Homothymadon] is a dangerous thing to have," Meserve says. "And if prayer is not part of the package, I'm afraid that our homothymadon will be used for dangerous purposes rather than holy purposes."

Meserve concludes his sermon, and there is polite applause. As the congregation is led in final prayer, several people begin to leave. First a few, then in large groups.

Within seconds of the prayer's conclusion, everyone is rushing through the lobby. Looking straight ahead. Trying to beat the traffic on the way out.

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