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O Scum all ye faithful: Christianity gets the punk-rock treatment at this Denver church

O Scum all ye faithful: Christianity gets the punk-rock treatment at this Denver church
Cover illustration by Alvaro Diaz-Rubio

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the Scum of the Earth, the garbage of the world — right up to this moment.

— I Corinthians 4: 11-13

Tucked behind a 7-Eleven and a liquor store, a historic church building rises above the Santa Fe art district. Commissioned in 1881 by former Colorado territorial governor Alexander Hunt, the building was once owned and restored by artist Lonnie Hanzon; you enter through a 300-year-old antique door from Paris, then pass under a cosmically decorated ceiling. The under-the-sea-meets-Mardi Gras-in-space theme continues through the bathrooms and hallways, but it co-exists comfortably with the current occupants. One large room holds scattered rows of chairs and a handful of musical instruments strewn about the far end; two upstairs bedrooms are home to a handful of young crust punks; the garage outside hosts a free bicycle workshop every Sunday afternoon.

This is the new base of the Scum of the Earth Church, a radical group of Christian outcasts hoping their brand of spirituality will find a home here, in a place where they can shed the stereotypes of being both Christians and punk-rockers. In the ten years since its inception, Scum members have congregated in everything from basements to coffeehouses to rented churches to homeless shelters. "Sometimes it's felt like sleeping on someone's couch for too long," says Mike Sares, Scum's 56-year-old senior pastor. Though he's comfortable in his church's new home, which Scum purchased in September 2008, he's quick to point out that owning a building was never the goal. "The church is the people, not the building," he says.

This is one of the many ways in which Scum differs from other evangelical churches; then there are the tattoos, piercings and bicycle-grease-stained hands of many of the congregants at a Sunday evening church service. Scum does not pass around a collection plate at that service, but it does serve a free meal in the middle, and the smokers in the group serve as church greeters "because they're out front anyway," Sares explains. While Scum services feature sermons, songs and readings from the same Bible used at other churches, the congregants dislike other aspects of mainstream Christianity, and see most church services as insincere and lacking in any real human connection. "People at Scum are a bit more introverted because they don't want to be seen as inauthentic," says Sares. "Sometimes we're viewed as the most unfriendly church in town.... It can be a very safe and warm place once you've found your place, but at first blush, sometimes it appears rather cold and indifferent. And I think that's the way people like it here."

Scum's neighborhood has a rich history of residents looking to establish a home outside of the mainstream. From Latino immigrants with their mariachi music and taquerías to artists living and working in storefront studios, the area has long been a melting pot of various cultures. In the '90s, anarchists began setting up collective-living houses in the blocks around the church building, where the rents were cheap and they could set up non-hierarchical organizations like Food Not Bombs and the Derailer bicycle collective. Like a lot of Scum members, many of these anarchists grew up in suburban Christian households whose sterile materialism didn't mesh with the way they wanted to live. But unlike Scum's members, they threw aside any connection to Christianity. Many identify as queer and/or transgender, and they don't like the way Christianity views them as hell-bound sinners. They call the kids who belong to Scum "Crustians" — a cross of "crust punk" and "Christians."

"Organized religion is responsible for a lot of horrible things in the world," says Maria, a punk anarchist with green dreadlocks and a giant ring through her septum. "And identifying as a Christian, you have to take on a lot of responsibility of explaining that. To just expect to be welcomed as Christians into this community, that would be like having a swastika tattoo and going to a hip-hop concert and not feeling it needed any explanation!" Maria lives at the L7 collective, located directly behind the Scum church building. Despite her hatred of the Christian ethos, Maria says that some of Scum kids are okay; one even lives at the L7 house. But still, she'd like to know where Scum stands on the issues of sexuality, women's rights and the political hierarchy that most evangelical churches promote.

And that's not easy to determine.

Its website bills Scum as a church for the "left out and the right-brained." A significant portion of the congregation consists of anarchists, though they emphasize their belief in the non-violent pursuit of individualism. Joshua Peebles Dylan is an anarchist and Scum staffer who, on breaks from Scum, travels the country in a converted bus with his wife, Liann, and their Husky/German Shepherd mix dog, Ronon. Dylan is connected with a larger movement called the Jesus Radicals, composed of Christian anarchists who work to open debate on the issue of living a Jesus-centered life within the ideals of non-coercive anarchism. "We're not in the job of changing people," he says. "That's God's job. Our job is to make sure people are comfortable here and that they know the love of Christ."

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