After more than 100 years in West Highland, Emmaus Lutheran Church is gone. The church had hoped to build a two-story medical facility to prop up its finances, but the neighborhood fought the proposal and Denver City Council denied a rezoning request in January 2016. Eight months later, the church ceased operations.
"It was a big loss," says Keith Bushdiecker, who attended Emmaus for twenty years and chaired its property board. "Close to twice as many people spoke for the rezoning than against, and twice as many councilpeople voted for the rezoning as did against, but we still lost.... I felt like we won, but we still lost."
Emmaus got its start more than a century ago, when St. John's at 700 South Franklin Street decided to plant several additional locations around Denver. When the expansion didn't work, the sites were sold off to other groups; a spot at West 32nd Avenue and Irving Street became Emmaus Lutheran Church.
The following year, Emmaus built a school that was attached to the church. The congregation grew steadily, peaking in the ’50s. But then a decline in membership began; in 1986 the church added a preschool and daycare to the school in hopes of shoring up finances, but instead they wound up draining resources. In 2009, Emmaus sold two lots for $1.2 million, but even that didn't stabilize the situation.
In 2012, Emmaus shut the school. The next year, church leadership came up with the idea of creating a medical facility facing West 32nd Avenue, drafting building plans with Denver architecture firm Anderson, Mason and Dale, holding design meetings, doing traffic studies, and talking with the neighborhood. But the plan required rezoning, and that bid failed after a marathon council session that had close to sixty people speaking for and against the project.
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After that, the congregation and church leadership discussed their next moves, and ended services in September 2016. This past January, St. John's, which had been thinking about resurrecting the idea of multiple campuses, took over the building in exchange for assuming Emmaus's debts. In March 2018, it plans to start hosting services at what's now named Renewal Church, "a church that blesses its community, is a good listener and good neighbor and all of that," says AJ Mastic, St. John's multi-site director and Renewal's pastor.
Renewal hosted an open house in October, sharing plans for the future with the community. Mastic says about $800,000 will be put into the building, adding technology, lights and a bigger stage to the sanctuary, and replacing the eyesore of a chain-link fence around the church's parking lot.
"Obviously, there was a little tension with the neighborhood and Emmaus, but I think they really at heart wanted to serve the neighborhood, and it was no longer financially feasible to be here, so they voted to give the property back to St. John's," explains Mastic. "And that really sets us up well to be able to remodel it and start a new community here that blesses the neighborhood."
And while Bushdiecker isn't happy about losing the church he'd help build, he still feels that Emmaus's congregation accomplished its overall mission. "It wasn't the way [we] intended or expected, but we got what we wanted, what we prayed for, what we asked for, which was a continued Lutheran ministry at that site in the West Highland neighborhood," he says. "So, yes, I'm sad, but we did accomplish our ultimate objective."