To the Lighthouse

Samantha Spady died in the Sigma Pi house. Pastor Reza Zadeh is planning its resurrection.

If it was 11 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. and the students were toting keg cups of Icehouse rather than buckets of cleaning solution, the scene could have been mistaken for a total rager. Two hundred college kids packed the old Sigma Pi house, everyone sweaty, spilling out on the lawn, hip-hop thumping from the sound system, doors knocked off their hinges, the carpet ripped up, couches tossed into the street, an unidentified pounding from the other side of the walls. And that smell in the basement -- what's up with that?

"Mildew," says Reza Zadeh, taking a brief break between cell-phone calls. The 27-year-old youth pastor for Timberline Church has plans to turn the former fraternity house into a Christian-oriented community center called the Lighthouse, where students can socialize in an environment free of booze and other damning temptations. Zadeh envisions outfitting the place with pool tables, a flat-screen TV, wireless Internet, and housing, study and prayer rooms. There will be worship nights in the back yard, Bible studies in the living area, and don't forget the almighty Xbox in the game room.

But first the house has to be gutted. A guy working a broom describes the stench as a combination of "every bodily fluid mixed together" and maybe a splash of rancid milk. "Yeah, it's nasty," laughs Zadeh, shrugging his thick shoulders as he supervises volunteers from between the tall white pillars that adorn the front entryway.

If it was a Saturday night a year ago, the former Colorado State University linebacker could easily have been mistaken for some meathead doorman assigned to maintain the chicks-only entry policy when freshmen showed up in search of beer and excitement. Two blocks northwest of campus, the house was known for its party-till-you-puke bashes and met all expectations for Animal House excess. Visitors entering the foyer were greeted by a chandelier festooned with more than a hundred panties and bras. A ceiling-to-floor stripper pole stood on a stage next to the bar in the basement.

For the past five months, though, the house has been officially vacant, inhabited only by squatters and miscellaneous vandals blamed for the trashed interior. And now the only thing this once stately brick building is known for is the single dark room on the second floor, the Boom Boom Room, where nineteen-year-old sophomore Samantha Spady died, intoxicated and alone, early in the school year.

Spady's death was the first in a series of alcohol poisonings that took the lives of two more Colorado college students last fall. Later that month, Lynn "Gordie" Bailey was found dead at a CU fraternity; in December, another CSU student, twenty-year-old Bennett Bertoli, succumbed to a mix of booze and painkillers. But the shroud of Spady's death, in particular, lingers in the minds of students here, largely because her girl-next-door background contrasts so sharply with the astonishing details of her liquor consumption. A coroner's report showed that the 126-pound homecoming queen from Nebraska had a blood-alcohol content of .436 when she died. That's the equivalent of thirty to forty drinks over a twelve-hour period, according to police officials, a mix of beer and hard liquor at a house party, then vanilla-flavored vodka chugged straight from the bottle in a friend's room at the Sigma Pi house.

In the basement, six members of a nearby sorority puzzle over the brown mess crusted to the filthy tile. One of them begins jabbing at it with a snow shovel without much success. As they pour bleach water from the buckets onto the floor, steam leaps into the air and they scatter out of the way, screeching and laughing. For some reason, a brunette has a brand-new mop head but no mop handle; crouching over, she slops it across the floor. Although these girls haven't done a lot of big cleaning jobs before, their efforts are sincere. Rolling up her pant legs, the brunette calls the project an "analogy." It's like taking something bad that happened and cleaning it out, "like cleaning a wound," she says.

The symbolism of this venture is unavoidable, the metaphors unrelenting. And in case Zadeh's intentions aren't clear enough, every one of the hundreds of volunteers wears the same black T-shirt made specially for the occasion. On the back is a white lighthouse projecting a beam of light through the darkness, illuminating Greek letters that represent each of the 23 frats and fifteen sororities on campus; below is a biblical passage popular with evangelical Christians that was often quoted by Ronald Reagan in foreign-policy speeches:

You're here to be light, bringing out God in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If you are light bearers, you shouldn't hide God's light under a bucket, you are going to be put on a light-stand now that Jesus has put you there on a hill top, shine! Keep open your house, be generous with your lives.-- Matthew 5:14-15

At this point, Zadeh doesn't care whether a volunteer is a Christian. He's careful to keep all his ministry projects -- from youth missions to sermons to this week's pilgrimage to Mexico, where he and two dozen young followers will minister to college students on spring break-- lighthearted and fun. He's intent on avoiding any holier-than-thou cliques. Still, with his personable approach, disarming humor and conversational ease, Zadeh is well-equipped to broach the subject of religion with the college crowd. Many young people consider Christians judgmental and preachy, he says, and they'll often put up a reflexive mind block when a holy roller comes within earshot.

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