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That night, Puckett and his wife were having dinner with friends. Tom Fortson, then the president of the men's faith organization Promise Keepers, was also there. Though he and Puckett had never met, they struck up a conversation about aviation because Fortson's son was studying to be a pilot. Puckett told Fortson about Melton's idea to take pastors on helicopter rides over the city. The purpose, he said, would be to give them a break — a twenty-minute respite from their six-days-a-week servitude.
"I thought, 'Here's a really good idea,'" Fortson says. "Here's a guy who's interested in his community, and he wants to do something for it."
Fortson took the idea and ran with it, assigning a Promise Keepers staff person to book pastors on the helicopter rides that Puckett promised to make every Monday (a day that many pastors have off). He believed the experience would help them bond with each other, a goal that's sometimes elusive because of busy schedules, denominational differences and cultural divides. "This is a natural for pastors to come together," Fortson says. "The ice is broken and they begin to share and talk."
Soon, the helicopter had a name: Prayer One. It also had a purpose.
Prayer One's mission has changed over time. Through five years and three different helicopters (Puckett has traded up twice now), it's morphed from a novel way to give back to overworked pastors into a profound, multicultural, cross-denominational, inter-generational connectivity and networking tool. Puckett and his crew insist the change was organic, and that they couldn't have planned it if they'd tried.
At first, Prayer One's passengers were almost exclusively Christian, identified through Promise Keepers' connections. But the deal between Promise Keepers and Prayer One was never meant to be permanent; Promise Keepers was just trying to help Prayer One get going. After more than a year, the organization pulled out.
In need of a scheduler, Puckett turned to Del Hierro, who founded Confluence Ministries twelve years ago with his wife. Housed in a beautiful renovated synagogue in a working-class neighborhood off West Colfax Avenue, Confluence hosts monthly meetings for missionaries, pastors and youth, as well as GED, computer and English-language classes for the people in the neighborhood. Del Hierro also heads up the Confluence Band, a mishmash of Christian musicians who come together at a moment's notice to play events and church services.
Under Del Hierro's watch — and with the help of his cell phone, which seems to contain the phone number of every religious mover and shaker in Denver — Prayer One gained some diversity. Del Hierro is hesitant to claim credit, comparing the way he schedules passengers on Prayer One to the way the seemingly bumbling television detective Columbo solved mysteries. But in the past few years, Prayer One has flown government officials, religious businessmen, Christians of all stripes, rabbis, Muslims and, most recently, young former gang members involved in a church program.
Del Hierro's style fits perfectly with Puckett's vision for Prayer One. A helicopter ride can be a very bonding experience, says the latter: There's often fear and anticipation, followed by wonderment and joy. The result, he says, "is almost like going to battle. There's something that draws you close."
In 2007, Melton invited the members of Mayor John Hickenlooper's Clergy Council to fly on Prayer One. The council had been created a year and a half earlier when Denver Leadership Foundation president Don Reeverts asked Hickenlooper at the annual Colorado Prayer Luncheon about his dreams for the city. "He thought a minute and said, 'I have this dream. I've been thinking of the homeless issue in Colorado: If every church, synagogue and mosque could mentor a homeless family, it would change the face of homelessness in the metro area,'" Reeverts recalls. "I said, 'Would you like me to help you with that?' He said, 'Do you think you could?'"
Reeverts did. He called a powwow of religious leaders: a rabbi, an Islamic professor, a Catholic bishop and three Christian pastors, including Melton. They compared the number of churches in the city to the number of homeless families. At the end of the meeting, Reeverts had all of them on board, and the Family and Senior Homeless Initiative — tagline: One Congregation, One Family — was born.
The goal was for 1,000 churches to mentor 1,000 homeless families over ten years. Five years later, 724 families have been helped into housing by 290 congregations, says FSHI director Brad Hopkins. The congregations provide the families with $1,200 for a security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment. A team of congregation members also meets with the family to mentor them on how to be self-sufficient. A study of families helped in 2008 showed 85 percent of them were still housed a year later.
Prayer One is not directly connected to FSHI or the Clergy Council, but observers say it's helped the initiative in more ways than one. Hopkins says that with the help of Melton's connection, he uses Prayer One as a "soft sell" for religious leaders to get involved. "It maybe gets to be a perk," he says. "It's a thank-you to them."