Raising Holy Hell
Ida Mae Brueske has lived in her small, north Golden home since 1962. An affable 76-year-old grandmother who raised five boys in this house with her late husband, Brueske thought she'd spend the rest of her days on the quiet street of well-kept lawns and backyard barbecues that, appropriately enough, is named Iowa Drive.
"I intended to live in this house until they drug me out by the heels," she says.
But today she's thinking of moving. The reason is just on the other side of her backyard fence: a gabled, shiny-white addition now being put up by the Hillside Community Church. The addition towers over the one-story red-brick church that's been part of the neighborhood for over thirty years--and a good neighbor for most of those years.
The addition is either 35 or 42 feet tall, depending on who's measuring. It's a charming, Southern-style architectural design or a massive eyesore made of cheap vinyl siding, depending on who's looking. The City of Golden either went out of its way to help a struggling young congregation or failed miserably to enforce its own zoning code, depending on which side of a lawsuit you happen to be on. And from the pews of the church, members see a charismatic pastor working diligently to lead his flock to God, while across the street, neighbors see a charlatan who is fleecing his congregation in order to pay for a born-again barn-raising that has robbed the neighborhood of its peace and quiet.
"They came in with the attitude, 'We're taking over this neighborhood, and you people just don't matter,'" says Brueske.
Now Hillside and nearby residents are in the midst of a holy war, with the backyard fences that surround the church property marking the front lines. The Hillside congregation and much of north Golden are rife with tales of bulldozer engines being gunned intentionally late at night to rile neighbors, vindictive residents smearing dog poop on a preacher's car and pickets marching in front of the church with placards. And while neighbors say they're losing sleep over the construction, Hillside's pastor says their opposition puts them at risk of losing their souls.
Pastor Thomas K. Murphy, known to his followers as T.K., is a former Wheat Ridge High School basketball star who got his start in the ministry as a youth pastor at Denver's giant Riverside Baptist Church. Eager to start his own church, the lanky, blond Murphy founded Hillside in 1994 in Lakewood. Two years later, the congregation had outgrown that home and started looking for another.
The Ford Street Baptist Church had been calling people to worship at the small building on North Ford Street in Golden since the early Sixties. The congregation was always fairly small, and the church had its ups and downs. By summer 1996, Ford Street's Sunday services were drawing only about 25 people, and Southern Baptist officials became alarmed--especially since the church owed the Southern Baptist convention $23,000.
One member of the church offered to personally pay off the $23,000 debt, but the Southern Baptist convention had another idea.
Reverend Floyd Littlepage, then the pastor of Ford Street, says he was approached by Southern Baptist officials who told him that Hillside, a fast-growing congregation in south Jefferson County, was looking for a building. They suggested the two churches could merge, with T.K. Murphy's young congregation energizing the older one.
"I thought maybe this group could be good for us," says Littlepage, who wanted to stay with the new church and minister to the senior members. "We started out thinking we could merge and put the two congregations together. That's why we agreed to sit down and talk."
When the church went into debt, the convention gained title to the building. "That turned out to be our downfall," says Littlepage, "because it gave them the legal right to take over our building."
A Southern Baptist official says the church just wanted to make both congregations happy. "We facilitated in trying to use the building in a multi-congregational aspect," says Kenny Moore of the Denver Baptist Association. "Ford Street had talked about merging or disbanding."
Moore now calls the situation a "poster-boy case for miscommunication," but says he doesn't want to comment further on a deal that has created ill will between the two pastors and their followers.
"There's a lot of anger on the part of our members," says Littlepage. "A lot of them feel like T.K. was a thief. It was supposed to be a merger, but it turned out to be a hostile takeover. We asked to be part of their congregation and were told there was no place for us."
One Hillside member blames a generation gap for the hostilities, since many Ford Street members were elderly, while most of Hillside's congregation is in its twenties and thirties, and many members have young children. "I believe [the Ford Street members] wanted to have services at a different time," says Doug Faude, who lives near the church he attends. "There may have been some generational conflict."
Littlepage acknowledges that several members of his congregation were troubled by Hillside's lack of a traditional baptismal font and its emphasis on contemporary music. "There's a lot of symbolism in a church," says the former pastor. "There's no pulpit in that congregation. The pulpit should be in the center, and a baptismal pool should be in the back. When you do away with the symbolism, you lose a lot of subconscious teaching."
Veteran members of Ford Street complain that they were suddenly treated like guests at their own church. "They came in and just sort of took over," Wanda Hudson says of the Hillside congregation. "I thought at least they should have made an effort to include us. I felt like we were locked out of our own church."
And, in fact, by July 1996 they were: Ford Street worshippers discovered that the locks had been changed on their longtime spiritual home.
The Southern Baptist convention had sold the building to Murphy, who had renamed the church Hillside and changed the locks.
Murphy says changing the locks was actually Littlepage's idea. "I said to the pastor, 'We're about to take possession of the building. Who has the keys?'" recalls Murphy. "He said, 'I don't know who has the keys; maybe you should change the locks.' We'd moved in $7,000 worth of sound equipment and were concerned. But he didn't tell his people. When they came to the church to get their stuff, they said I'm this horrible ogre who locked them out. They still call me a thief and other things. We communicated, but at that point they were just incensed."
Murphy says the members of the old congregation have been waging a war of words against his church, spreading lies and misinformation. "The people from the old church are very gossip-oriented," he says. "They'll speak badly about us to anyone who will listen."
The bitterness of the Ford Street faithful was soon shared by people living near the church. In the spring of 1997, Hillside began construction on an addition.
Neighbors now charge that the church did so without the proper permits and variances required under Golden's zoning rules.
The church used many volunteers during the project, and one Golden official suggests that that contributed to the confusion over permitting and design. "When you've got a bunch of volunteers who are champing at the bit, it's hard to keep it straight," says Golden city planner Chuck Hearn. "The church people in general were pretty naive about the process, including the architect."
For example, Hearn says, the church's architect should have been aware of Golden's height limits, since the city staff had "red-marked" the blueprints to show how high the building could go--which was exactly thirty feet above the top of the small hill where the original church stood. "The architect didn't understand a thing," he says.
But in the beginning, the city wasn't keeping particularly close watch on the project--and neither were the neighbors. Although Hearn says the church broke ground without a foundation permit, Murphy disputes that. City records show that Golden granted Hillside a foundation permit in May 1997. At that point, much of the controversy over Hillside was inside the church, not outside; neighbors say they don't know the exact date the Hillside crew started moving dirt.
But soon the neighbors were watching every move and raising hell over the construction project.
One day last summer, Brueske was trying to have dinner outside with her seven-year-old granddaughter. She says the racket and dust from the construction site was so intense, they couldn't stay outside, and she went over to talk to the foreman. "It was seven o'clock," she recalls. "Finally, I'd had it. I said, 'Pardon me, but nobody along here can get any rest or eat supper. Don't you know you're disturbing the peace?'"
The foreman just told her he had to make a living, Brueske remembers. When she contacted a city zoning official to complain about the construction project, he acted like she'd done something wrong. "The code officer told me, 'You have no right to tell those people to turn off the machines,'" she recalls. "I said, 'I think I have the right to talk to anybody I want to.'"
After she complained, Brueske says, the construction crew ran a loud machine just behind her gate until 10 p.m. "They weren't doing anything; they just wanted to run it until 10 p.m.," she claims. "They were doing it just to show me they could."
And Golden didn't stop them. Brueske says she thinks the city allowed Hillside to blatantly violate ordinances simply because it's a church.
When she first called the city last summer to complain about the noise and dust, she says she was told that Golden wouldn't interfere with a church project. "The city told me, 'They're a church; they can do whatever they want to,'" Brueske recalls.
"The city was so protective of the church," she says. "I'm mad at the city; they haven't done anything for us. I've lived in Golden for forty years. My five boys all went to school here. These people claim to be Christians, then take advantage because they know the city will let them."
Hearn, however, says his office didn't receive any complaints from neighbors until earlier this year, when much of the new building was already up. When he went out to measure the height of the construction, he adds, he was surprised to see it was well over the limit.
"We went out there and measured it twice," Hearn says. "I couldn't believe what they had done to the back of the property. When they excavated, they removed ten feet of dirt, and that increased the height of the building."
Hearn rejects Brueske's allegation that the city staff didn't take any action against the project because it involved a church. "I don't think they were treated any differently than any other property owner," he says.
This spring, after the building was shown to be over the height limit, Golden issued a stop-work order against Hillside. A variance hearing was scheduled for a Golden City Council meeting in June.
The anger between the neighbors and Hillside came to a head before Golden City Council. Spirited testimony, tears and harsh words kept the June 18 meeting going until early in the morning.
"It was rather emotional for the church people," say Golden councilman Brian Starling. "But both sides were rather emotional."
Eventually the council granted the church a variance to the height limit, with Starling the only councilmember voting against Hillside. "I voted against it because of due process," he says. "The residents should have gotten a chance to review this prior to it being built in their neighborhood."
"I've sat through sixteen years of city council meetings, and I've never seen such a poorly run meeting," says former Golden mayor Frank Leek, who until recently owned a home in the Hillside neighborhood. "The people from the church were personally bashing the neighbors. They were weeping and sobbing, trying to make themselves out as victims. If I'd been mayor, I would have said, 'We're talking about a variance, not a bunch of sobbing.'"
After making his views known at the meeting, Leek says he found a tin fish on his front porch, which he believes was left by a Hillside member. "I took that as a slam," he says. "I figured it was a good Christian way of being neighborly. If that's Christianity, maybe I read the Bible wrong. It's amazing to me they wouldn't try to be the best neighbor, instead of the worst neighbor."
Many north Golden residents who attended the meeting felt like they were patronized by both the city council and Hillside's members. "We've basically been blown off as a bunch of hysterical women," says Judy Jones, who lives next door to Brueske. Murphy often tells his followers that he's praying for the church's angry neighbors, she notes. "I am praying for Mr. Murphy, as well," she says tartly.
After the city council granted the church its variance, Brueske and another neighbor, Marian Olson, filed suit in Jefferson County District Court against both Hillside and the City of Golden. The suit alleges that the church violated their rights by denying them access to an easement into their backyards, and claims the city grants preferential treatment to churches in enforcing its zoning rules. It also charges that the city violated legal guidelines in allowing the church to proceed with construction and in granting the variance.
Within days of the lawsuit's filing, a member of the Hillside congregation was walking up and down Ford Street with a sign saying "Save Our Church."
Last month, the two neighbors asked District Judge Leland Anderson for a temporary restraining order that would halt all work on Hillside's addition until the case goes to trial, but that request was denied. Murphy now predicts the addition will be finished this fall.
In the meantime, Olson, who lives next to the construction site, has covered the rear windows of her home to block her view of the church and keep out the dust. She listens to music on a Walkman to block out the noise.
"Every movement out there is a message from the City of Golden that they don't care," says Olson. "That building is a symbol of the abuse of power that goes on in Golden. It's like being next to the antithesis of the Statue of Liberty."
Pastor Murphy says the neighbors have become so vindictive, it's virtually impossible for his church to open a dialogue with Olson or others in the neighborhood. "One of the neighbors is throwing dog poop on my car," says Murphy. "I don't know where the hostility comes from. We've sent people to Mrs. Olson's house with flowers. We didn't realize she was so fired up."
Olson is so fired up that, even though she's lived in her home for seven years, like Brueske, she's thinking of leaving the neighborhood. "I can't live here now," she says. "I've essentially moved into my basement."
The clash with the church has become a crusade for Olson, who was on the phone one recent morning ordering aerial photos of the construction site. She believes her most basic constitutional rights have been violated by an uncaring city and a Baptist preacher out to build a religious empire. She thinks the new church building is even taller than the 35 feet the city measured--her own estimate is that the highest wall reaches 42 feet--and she insists Hillside would never have been allowed to violate city zoning codes if it weren't a church.
"If this were a 7-Eleven, they would have followed the rules to the letter," Olson says. She notes that Golden has required a new King Soopers under construction in the south part of town to be extensively landscaped. In order to mollify neighbors, King Soopers workers also hose down the dust regularly.
If the city has been lax, the church has been outright arrogant, she says, recalling one encounter with Murphy in January that left her in tears. "I went over there and spoke to him about the trash and dust," Olson says. "It was about then I said, 'What happened to "do unto others"?'"
According to Olson, the pastor flew into a rage. "He lashed out and said, 'Don't preach the gospel to me,'" she says. "I was in tears and a shambles. That conversation led us down this path."
Murphy remembers the encounter differently.
"She came into my office one day," recalls the pastor. "I had no idea anybody was less than thrilled with our progress. In the course of our conversation, I realized this lady was very angry. She told me, 'Whatever happened to "do unto others"?' I said, 'You're quoting Scripture to me, yet you're in here yelling at me.' I did what a pastor does. I said, 'If you die today and stand before God, will He let you in?'"
Brueske had her own confrontation with a church elder after she complained about the dust storm in her backyard at the city council meeting. She says Murphy's father-in-law, Douglas Kinner, a director of the church, approached her.
"The father-in-law said to me very rudely, 'We're sorry about the dust, but I'll come clean your house.' I thought that was an uncalled-for remark by a Christian man. He was very rude."
Brueske declined the offer of free housekeeping, but later she had second thoughts.
"My son said, 'Mom, you really goofed. You should have said, "I accept your offer, but please send Merry Maids."'"
"The neighbors think we tried to pull something over on them," says T.K. Murphy. "You had an ignorant pastor who was getting some bad advice. None of this was done maliciously."
But as a result, Hillside now faces a court battle, as well as a debt of more than $400,000 to pay for its new building. Murphy makes it clear that financial concerns weigh heavily on the 200-member congregation.
"We're not a money-hungry church," he says. "We're paying $4,000 or $5,000 a month in interest [for the addition]. We're having to get guys in the church to give up their savings. Myself and two other guys signed our houses over to get an interim loan."
During a recent sermon, Murphy alluded to the church's financial problems. Most Americans are caught up in materialism, he said, and "part of the sin in our material world is lawsuits."
Saving souls is the real work of Christians, Murphy reminded the congregation, and he made it clear that giving to the church was an important part of making a commitment to God. He drew a chuckle when he speculated on a church member saying to himself, "Lord, I give enough money to that church, I could be driving a Lexus."
"But those things do not last," Murphy told his flock. "I am simply saying do not store up treasures for yourself on earth. Use your earthly possessions as a spiritual investment."
One former member who lived next to the church says she was turned off by Murphy's constant appeals for money and eventually decided to leave the congregation. "It was above and beyond tithing," says Catherine Skelton. "They wrote every member a letter asking for money for the building fund. I felt there was too much emphasis on money."
But many of Murphy's followers remain tremendously loyal. "T.K. is an inspired speaker, and he really brings the word to people," says Faude. "We noticed an excitement level there. There's been steady growth in the congregation."
"T.K. and his family are so giving, they're incredible," says Renee Hirsch, who runs Hillside's children's program. "I have a very deep respect for him. He's devoted to studying the word of God and standing for the truth."
Those outside the church are less charitable. "I get the impression they don't worship God, they just go to worship T.K.," says Brueske.
"T.K. Murphy has turned out to be too aggressive," Littlepage says. "The same mentality that made him a good basketball star makes him a bad preacher."
For his part, Murphy believes the neighbors' hatred of Hillside is so intense that there must be some anti-Christian element involved. "I think they hate God," says the pastor. "I pray that they're just angry at me. It hurts me, and I just pray that they're not blaming God.
"I think until they come to Christ every action they take hurts them spiritually," he continues. "Do I think these people are Christians? No. Do I think they want to hurt us as a church? I do."
Murphy says he regrets all the animosity against Hillside and takes some of the responsibility for it. The church failed to communicate with its neighbors during construction, he says, and is now paying the price by enduring a gossip campaign that has sullied the reputation of Hillside in its adopted hometown. For example, he says, last month the church was invited to participate in Golden's annual Buffalo Bill Days parade--the city's largest civic event--but had to decline because of all the ill will.
"We just kept a low profile," Murphy says. "Right now we're seen as this bad group of people that's just trying to make amends." In reality, he says, he and his church are misunderstood.
"I admit I've made mistakes," says Murphy. "But I don't tell people 'give me your money, and you'll be rich.' We're not funky or charismatic. We don't have snakes in there biting people. I'm saying you do have a responsibility to love your neighbor."
Love between neighbors may seem far off in north Golden, but Murphy says that's now the challenge facing his flock.
"Half the church is saying, 'Let's sue Mrs. Olson back,'" he says. "Talk about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.