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."
Liann, a feminist pastor who runs a women's ministry program at Scum, does not identify as an anarchist. "There may be some issues that everyone [on staff] disagrees on, and that's okay," she says. Scum strives for diversity, the couple points out. Some members vote Democrat, some Republican, and some (such as the anarchists) don't vote at all.
This mission statement is posted on Scum's website:
We strive to be a church who:
seeks intimacy with God and honest relationships with others
cultivates creativity and uses everyone's gifts
asks questions while seeking Truth
recognizes our need for a Savior
passionately yet respectfully shares the saving love of Christ
demonstrates God's love in our community
But sometimes it seems that if Scum has any mission at all, it is to completely scramble the public's image of Christianity.
Mike Sares recently published a memoir: Pure Scum: The Left Out, Right Brained and the Grace of God. In it, he chronicles the path that led him and his church to the place where they are today, describing a difficult road of rejection, failure and consistent conflict with the established powers of Christianity.
He was born into a Greek Orthodox family in Toledo, and it was years before Sares heard a sermon in English. For most of his youth he was cynical about Christianity, but he got involved in the Young Life ministry because "there were a lot of hot girls there," he says. That was in the early '70s, when many hippies stopped dropping acid and began picking up Bibles. Ministries like Young Life and Billy Graham's Youth for Christ were riding on the cresting wave of the counterculture aesthetic; such mainstream artists as Barry McGuire and Bob Dylan were becoming "born again" and recording rock albums with a new message. Suddenly churches were full of earnest worshippers with beards and bell bottoms and folk guitars, wanting to sing about Jesus. Some were embraced with loving arms, others told to get a haircut.
Sares was one of those Christian hippies. In Pure Scum, he describes the mystical experience of dreaming that he was being filled up by all those who'd loved him in the name of Christ: "They were like clouds in a clear-blue sky.... I could see water pour out of each cloud, like a stream...descending straight toward my head.... Suddenly I was an empty jar being filled up.... It was a total spirit-meets-body experience." Converted, he returned to his Greek Orthodox church, assuming his newfound enthusiasm for Christ would be accepted as a breath of fresh air amid the centuries-old traditions. (On the Scum of the Earth website is a picture of Sares with a Welcome Back, Kotter mustache and 'fro.)
"I volunteered to teach Senior High Sunday School Class," he writes. "We talked about how radical Jesus was in the Gospel stories. I'd bring my guitar and lead the students in songs I had learned from my Young Life buddies." But there was a group of women (called the "church ladies" in Pure Scum) who didn't appreciate the new methods Sares was using to teach their children about Jesus. Recalls Sares: "They talked to the priest, and he talked to me: 'You're causing division in the church, Michael,' he said. 'So you're going to have to stop teaching Senior High Sunday School Class.'"
Sares was undeterred. He felt that God had called him to preach to the ones who were "left out," people from his generation who were eager to know the love of Christ but were not accepted because of the way they looked and talked. He took various positions in churches as he married and raised a family, supplementing his income with jobs ranging from sticker salesman to steel-mill worker to English teacher. He was convinced that his life's purpose was to set up a ministry for young outcasts — but by the time he turned forty, he felt that he'd made no progress toward that goal, and he felt like a failure. He confessed his existential crisis to a group of close friends, who talked him into moving his family west so that he could enroll at the Denver Seminary. "Moving to Colorado at age forty with my wife and four kids was no picnic," he remembers in the chapter titled "Risk."
While at the seminary, Sares began working with the Corona Presbyterian Church in Capitol Hill, where he met a group of musicians who were starting a band and looking for a church that didn't want them to check their ideals at the door. It was 1995, and a new alternative Christian movement was starting to bloom — one that was into punk. "I was a very lost young college student who had stumbled through the doors of the church nearest my house," one of those musicians, Reese Roper, writes in the foreword to Pure Scum. "I had recently been asked to leave the third church I had been to in four years — either that, or cut my hair, or at least stop dying it obnoxiously bright colors, and get rid of some of the earrings and the nose ring. It was, in a way, the death of church as I knew it. The smaller institution of the church — as in 'the building' — was becoming far less relevant to me."
Sares and the musicians bonded instantly. The band they started, Five Iron Frenzy, would soon grow into one of the biggest Christian rock bands in the country, even though their lyrics included heavy criticism of Christian culture. The kids loved them — the adults weren't so sure. "We had far more acceptance outside of the church than inside the church," says Roper. "Early on, we played a lot of bar shows, and the Ska Against Racism tour with Less Than Jake and Mustard Plug. And the church was pointing fingers, saying, 'Why are you playing in bars?' But that's what Christ was about. He wasn't hanging out with religious people in the temple. He was hanging out with prostitutes and thieves and tax collectors."
Even as Five Iron Frenzy's fame spread, its members and Sares were dreaming up their ideal church. They wanted a place where the homeless were welcome, where making money was not the focus, and where there definitely was no dress code. Their combined vision was everything Sares had dreamed about since he was a young Jesus freak in the '70s — but he also recognized that there would be no financial security in starting a church that courted a congregation with no money. Sares had two daughters about to enter college, and the offers he was getting to pastor at the mega-churches blooming around Colorado at the time were looking pretty good.
In Pure Scum, he compares this time in his life to the gospel story of Peter seeing Jesus walking on the water during a horrible storm. Peter's boat was in the middle of a lake, and when Jesus invited him out onto the water, Peter conquered his fear and stepped off the boat and into the chaos. Sares was terrified to put himself and his family in financial peril, but eventually he came to the conclusion that "Peter was actually safer on the lake in the storm with Jesus than on the boat with the rest of his friends."
The thunder only grew louder when Roper suggested they call the church Scum of the Earth. The name comes from the writings of the Apostle Paul, describing the persecution of his ministry. Sares wasn't sure that a church with such a name had a chance, but he was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that young people had for the project.
He stepped out onto the lake.
Over the years, Scum of the Earth has attracted a large following of young people — around 250 today — most of whom have outgrown their suburban homes and are looking to find their own identity as Christians. "If you can come to a place called Scum of the Earth and that pisses your parents off enough, a place where people look and act and think like this," Sares says, referencing the anarcho-punk stream flowing through his church, "then you're far enough away that you can think about Jesus and whether you are really a follower of his."
"We're more mission-driven than doctrine-driven," says Joshua Dylan. "We welcome discourse at Scum. It can be frustrating at times but has a lot of value."
"It's not my job to tell someone what to believe," says Liann Dylan. "It's our job to show God's love to people, and he can take care of the rest." She and her husband are showing God's love by hosting the free Sunday bike workshop in the garage by the church. As she speaks, a handful of kids — some Christians, some not — work on bicycles. The Dylans' dog sleeps on the ground as tools clank, cigarettes burn and Wu-Tang Clan plays on the stereo. The Dylans, like almost everyone else at Scum, insist that they don't want to push their ideals on anyone; unlike most evangelicals, they say, they aren't zealots.
But even with the wide collection of ideals and personalities that are encouraged at Scum, when it comes to issues like sexuality or abortion, the church swings to the right. "I think we're probably more conservative than we want to be," says Liann, who adds that she has many gay friends and is not necessarily 100 percent pro-life, though she also is not a liberal.
"Theologically, we're very conservative," Sares explains, "but we're far, far away from being fundamentalists." Still, he becomes somewhat uncomfortable when these controversial issues are brought up. He and other members of Scum worry that the church will be lumped in with gay-bashing, abortion-clinic-protesting groups like the Westboro Baptist Church (best known for its "God Hates Fags" signs). "Sometimes [people] will talk to me about their sexual struggles," he explains. "And they're in the struggle already; it's not like I'm causing the struggle. They're conflicted and they want to talk about it." Sares says he often points these sexually questioning young people to the scripture, though at times he will also direct them to Where Grace Abounds, a counseling center for what it describes as the "the sexually broken."
"WGA seeks to be a third voice within a culture that often leans toward the extremes of 'blanket acceptance' or 'blanket condemnation' of homosexuality," explains WGA executive director Roger Jones. "On the continuum between these two extremes, WGA is positioned in the middle: 1) God accepts everyone as they are. As for all of humanity, He has a plan for us, which includes how we express our sexuality. 2) God's standard for sexual expression lies within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage, but homosexual behavior is not better or worse than any other sexual activity that lies outside these boundaries."
While Jones says that no one chooses their sexual orientation, sexual behavior is a choice. He and Mike Sares both believe that while God does make some people gay, it is best that they remain celibate.
"I think that is really sad and hypocritical," says Lonnie Hanzon. "Had I known that, I never would have helped them. Because I'm gay."
Hanzon bought the building Scum now calls home back in 1998 and spent years and almost a million dollars renovating the property, where he lived and ran Hanzon Studios.
But in 2008, when Scum came calling, he was broke and the bank was about to foreclose. The church was looking for a new location after leaving the Church in the City on East Colfax Avenue. Hanzon says he worked hard to convince the bank that a church called Scum of the Earth could survive and be a good custodian of his beloved church building. Ultimately, he sold it to Scum for about $625,000, and even threw in his grandfather's Fiat and took on a $15,000 tax debt on the sale.
"If I'd known they were so conservative, I would've just let the bank foreclose," says Hanzon, who explains that he feels strongly about this because he has family members who work for the anti-gay Focus on the Family. Hanzon, who regularly cites God as having a strong influence on his life, is a member of an interfaith community that is accepting of LGBTQ in a way that Scum is not. "I would've just let the place rot if I'd known this," he continues. "I thought I was doing something for the grace of God, and this is just...ugh."
Sares and others at Scum say they did not mislead Hanzon in any way, although they acknowledge there was some miscommunication when they bought the building. "I respect Lonnie Hanzon as an artist and admire him as a compassionate, kind human being," says Sares.
However Scum got its new home, it's proven to be a mixed blessing. Despite the fortune that Hanzon spent on renovations, when the Denver Fire Department paid a visit in July, it found the building in violation of several fire codes and forbade Scum of the Earth from holding services there. Right now, Scum is holding its evening services, complete with free dinners, at His Love Fellowship Church, two blocks away. It could cost upwards of $250,000 to get Scum up to code, and the church — which raised the money to buy the building at a gala fundraiser — barely gets by on the meager tithings its congregants can afford, along with random donations from other churches. "It's looking like it's going to be pretty expensive," says Joshua Dylan. "It's pretty rough, because we don't have a lot of money."
Unlike Lonnie Hanzon, the anarchists living in collectives around Scum were well aware of the church's position on homosexuality. That's exacerbated the tensions between two scenes that, on the surface, would seem to fit well together. Not only do the anarchists and the church members dress the same, but they're both vehemently pro-bicycle, are very environmentally conscious, and aren't opposed to dumpstering for food. But once their Christian identity is revealed, many Scum members have found punks in the neighborhood taking offense. "To try and mask [Christianity] with a punk uniform is trying to avoid responsibility. I mean, the punk movement is opposed to everything Christianity stands for," says Maria, who's somewhat exhausted by the friction between Scum and secular anarchists. "I've had a lot of people tell me they felt uncomfortable coming to the house because of the large Christian presence there."
"They see Christianity as part of the machine, the man, the oppressor," Joshua Dylan responds. He says he sympathizes with criticisms of his religion (many Scum members spend just as much time complaining about Christian culture as anyone else, he notes), but does not see his faith and his identity as an anarchist as being at odds with each other. Dylan cites scripture that teaches man to "follow no law but God's law" (although he also supports the division between church and state), and also says he finds Jesus's message of anti-materialism and charity to be perfectly aligned with anarchist ideals of individualism and non-hierarchical fellowship.
Aaron Pott, who lives on the second floor of the Scum building, agrees with Dylan. He plays drums for the evening church services and volunteers each Sunday in the bicycle workshop. His band, Munster Boogie, is firmly integrated with the secular punk community — yet many members also attend Scum and play music at the services. Coming from a Christian community in suburban Denver, Pott says he's benefited a lot from the oasis that Scum provides — a quiet place to reflect on his life and his spirituality without his parents looking over his shoulder. He's a quiet, unassuming young man who is well-liked in the anarchist scene, despite his pro-Scum alliance. But then, like Dylan, he has his frustrations with some of the ideas that come out of it. "In that community, there's a strange way that people will push to be accepting and open-minded about the things that are outside of normal society," he says, sitting in a thrift-store chair on the second floor of Scum, a dog-eared copy of The Hobbit on his lap. "But whenever something falls within 'normal society' [like Christianity], then these walls come up."
"But they're the majority!" Maria says. She's fond of Pott, but tired of this argument. "They are the white-male majority. You can't be oppressed as a Christian white male. Christians are responsible for so much queer oppression. They have to account for that."
"I can totally relate to them not liking Christianity," Marcus Hyde says of the secular anarchists. Hyde is a regular fixture at Scum of the Earth, volunteering at the weekly bicycle workshop and services. Accepted by the secular punk community, Hyde lives at the L7 collective. Raised in a conservative Christian family in Colorado Springs, he rejected Christianity as a teenager; in a moment of desperation, his parents pleaded with him not to give up on church, and to "just go to the weird church." They were referring to Scum, of course. In time, Hyde expanded his view of Christianity, tapping into that same radical message of peace and tolerance that Jesus spoke of and eventually realizing that "if more Christians read the Bible, they wouldn't be such assholes," he says.
At one time, the residents of L7 were evenly divided between atheists and members of Scum. "They never tried to push anything on us. They're not preachy," Maria remembers. "They're our friends." Like Scum, L7 encourages debate within the community — but last fall, when some of the Scum roommates wanted to turn L7 into a literal monastery, the debate got heated. "Some people felt weird about it," Maria says, "like they were being pushed out. They definitely didn't want to live in a monastery."
Most of the Scum members wound up moving out; only Hyde stayed. He says he often gets questioned regarding his beliefs by others who live at L7, many of them wanting to know where he stands on the issues that concern them. "Christianity has been used to promote homophobia, bipartisan politics, patriarchy — all of the things that I don't identify with," he says. "They ask me what I believe, and my answers are pretty simple: I believe in a living God and his love."
L7 hosts the Wednesday afternoon Food Not Bombs, and often will donate leftover food to Scum for the free Sunday night meals. "We have a good relationship on a personal level," Dylan says. "When we go over there, there's smiles and we hang out and we're nice to each other — and the same when they come over here. But there's still that tension."
Israel Rose Oka has a unique perspective on Scum.
He currently lives in Villa Ville Kulla, one of the oldest punk houses in the neighborhood, and for the past few years has been self-employed as an escort. "It's no different than any other job," he says, pointing out that being a sex worker provides a consensual service that doesn't exploit anyone. Like many in his community, he identifies not as "gay," but as "queer" — which suggests a more fluid sexuality that is not conforming to gender or monogamy. Israel works to defend the rights of sex workers, he says, as well as a more universal understanding of the complexities of his generation's approach to sexual identity.
At one point, though, he was a Christian youth pastor who attended Scum services.
Oka was raised as a fierce evangelical, and at age fifteen began going to Scum when it was still at the Church in the City location. He made friends there and firmly established himself in the Scum community. At eighteen, he began work as a youth leader in Young Life Ministries — the same organization that led a teenage Mike Sares to Christianity. But then he began noticing that his sexual instincts were not aligned with those around him.
After some reflection, Oka decided to come out to his friends at Scum, attempting to explain that he was queer. "They disagreed with me," he remembers. "They said, 'We don't think that you are gay.' A lot of them stopped talking to me." Ultimately, he dropped out of the church.
Years later, Oka says he's not bitter about his past as a Christian, though he does have his criticisms of Scum. "Their whole 'love the sinner, hate the sin' attitude is kind of bullshit," he says. "Because to love someone, you have to accept them for who they are. It's not my place to judge how people want to live their lives. Just don't tell me how to live mine."
Members of Scum know that their positions on issues of sexuality and abortion are not popular in the neighborhood, but they insist they're not telling anyone how to run their lives. Their goal was never to push their ideals on anyone — or condemn anyone to hell who doesn't agree with them. Instead, the goal has been to create an environment of thoughtful debate and welcoming fellowship. "Some people get to a point in their belief where they decide 'What I know is exactly right, and I'm going to make everyone else believe it,'" says Reese Roper. "Or you get to the point where you get further into Christianity and you accept the idea that 'I don't really know much. I can't tell you anything definite except that Jesus is real and he loves me and he changed my life.' When you get to that point, you just drop all those evangelical pretenses." Five Iron Frenzy broke up in 2003, and Roper ultimately resigned as co-pastor of Scum of the Earth. But he often returns as a guest preacher and is proud of the church he helped build, a place where weird-looking young people can worship God in their own way and not be hassled to cut their hair and lose the nose ring.
"People are looking for a more meaningful connection," Sares says. "We have people who grew up in suburban churches and saw this 'fellowship' time as shallow crap. And we're trying to get away from that. To some, that makes us seem inhospitable. But sometimes you find a common ground with somebody; like if you see someone wearing a Bad Religion T-shirt and you love Bad Religion, then you have something to talk about."
A lot to talk about: Bad Religion is a band whose ethos is based on a hatred of Christians. But Sares recognizes that Bad Religion's celebration of individualism and pursuit of truth fit with Scum's mission. As a hybrid of Christianity and punk rock, Scum is indeed a place for the left out and right-brained — and an embodiment of the message in Corinthians that gave the church its name: 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.
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