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The Black Sheep

The Reverend Joel Miller stood solemnly before his congregation. The normally jubilant Miller had moved to Colorado only a few months earlier and was already known for injecting his sermons with lively anecdotes--but this Sunday, the usual spark was missing. The congregation could tell something was wrong, and later, Miller wouldn't even remember what he had preached about.

On the previous Thursday, Miller and his pregnant wife, Wendy, had gone to her doctor for an ultrasound. The obstetrician had discovered something that came as a shock to the Millers: three heartbeats. The triplets were a result of in vitro fertilization--Miller and his wife were having trouble conceiving their second child, so they had turned to science for help, and what had seemed like a blessing became a curse. A fertility specialist at Presbyterian/Saint Luke's Hospital found that two of the embryos shared an amniotic sac and that the odds of Wendy giving birth to all three babies were fifty-fifty: If she lost one, she'd lose them all.

By this time, Wendy was in the eleventh week of her pregnancy. If she wanted to increase the odds of giving birth to at least one baby, she would have to abort the two in the same amniotic sac, and she would have to do it the next day--week eleven is the cut-off date for safely performing what doctors call "selective reduction."

The Millers had chosen to have the abortion.
After the service, Miller talked to the nine members of the church's board of trustees, who later called other churchgoers to tell them what had happened.

The congregation of the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church meets in a small building on Coal Mine Avenue and Webster Street, in an unincorporated pocket of Jefferson County that some people call Columbine and others call Ken Caryl. "I just call it 'nameless suburban sprawl,'" Miller says of the region, home to approximately 200,000 people and bounded on the east by the Platte River, on the west by the foothills, on the south by Chatfield Reservoir and on the north by Marston Lake.

It's a part of the metro area that's recently been identified as Denver's Bible Belt, where it would seem that the news of a minister's wife's abortion could destroy his career.

But members of Miller's congregation arranged a memorial service for the family's lost babies the following Sunday. Miller was in such shock that he doesn't recall a thing about the service, but he's still moved by the fact that his congregation pulled together for him. "I was in too much pain at the time to minister to them, so they ministered to me," Miller says. Six months later, the couple's second child, a healthy baby girl, was born.

"Hearing about what happened allowed a lot of people to connect to him in a pretty strong way," says church member Sue Dressel. "The fact that he and his wife let us into their lives was a gift. We're a small church community and a very child-oriented church."

In the months following Miller's ordeal, he found that because he had been candid about the abortions, his congregation grew closer. Others began to share their own stories of failed pregnancies and abortions.

"One thing [Miller's admission] did was emphasize how valuable and meaningful our kids are. Also, when you finally open up a subject that's taboo like that, people feel free to talk about it," Dressel says.

"By opening up to them about what I went through, it gave them permission to come forward with their own stories," Miller says. "Hearing what people in my congregation had gone through really provided a lot of solace. It's nice to know you're not the only one going through something horrible."

Miller grew up in a close-knit community in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended First Unitarian Universalist Church. His hometown was much like the family-oriented Columbine community, with its manicured lawns and two-car garages. "If I ever misbehaved, it would get back to my parents," Miller says with a chuckle.

Miller was the only one of the three Miller boys to work for the company his grandfather and father had started. Business was steady at Homer Miller and Son Jewelers and the clientele was loyal, but Miller's father's wish that he carry on the business wasn't to be. He worked for the business for a while but felt that something was missing, so he went back to church. "I found myself thinking about church while I was at work, but I wasn't thinking about work while I was at church. Then someone at church told me I should become a minister."

Miller says the jewelry business is a lot like a church. "You're with people at very important times of their lives--engagements, marriages, anniversaries. In many ways, it was very hard to leave the business, but eventually the call, as we say, was compelling enough."

 

Miller was already married when he decided to become a minister; he had met Wendy, the woman who would become his wife, at his church in Columbus. His new vocation took them to Berkeley, California, in 1988, where Miller enrolled in a three-year program at the Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry. Wendy Miller got a job as a medical writer and supported her husband after he graduated in 1991. At the time, he was a member of a committee that was responsible for establishing churches in areas where none existed, but he was having a hard time forming one in the San Francisco Bay area. Starting churches isn't easy for Unitarian Universalists, because one thing they believe is that it isn't right to tell potential converts that there is something wrong with their faith and that they should join a Unitarian Universalist church instead.

So Miller was out of work, and he made his wife a proposition: He wanted to start a family, and he offered to stay home with the baby if she continued working. She agreed.

A few years later, when Miller took his son to a play group in a Fremont, California, library, a mother sitting beside him asked Miller what he did for a living. "When I said, 'I'm trained as a minister,' the conversation stopped and all the women stared at me. Another woman asked what kind of minister, and when I said Unitarian Universalist, they gasped," Miller recalls with a grin. "I thought, 'Oh, I'm in trouble now.' You see, evangelical ministers there were known for cruising play groups for new converts."

As it turned out, the women had been stunned because a dozen families in their neighborhood had wanted to start a Unitarian Universalist church.They formed the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Church, the first Unitarian church started in northern California in forty years. Unitarian churches, which pride themselves on their acceptance--and even encouragement--of doubt, had for decades been questioning their very existence. "It was a time when Unitarians doubted the validity of religion in general, including our own, and we didn't have the inspiration to start more churches. Our struggle was that we were very sure of what we didn't believe in, but we were never sure what we believed in," Miller says.

Unitarians don't believe in the holy Trinity. Instead, they believe in one God who sent Jesus to teach people how to lead their lives; they do not believe Jesus was divine or that he should be worshiped. Unitarians don't follow any creeds, and they respect all religions. In 1961 they merged with the Universalists, who hold similar beliefs.

Because the Mission Peak Church had humble beginnings--starting with only 25 members--it didn't bring in enough money to employ Miller as a full-time minister. When the company his wife worked for started losing money, Miller asked leaders in the church's Boston headquarters to match him with a church that could pay him. They offered him positions in Texas and Colorado. "I chose Colorado because of what the congregation wanted, which was someone who likes children, who is passionate about Unitarian Universalism and who would talk about what we believe in, not what we don't believe in," Miller says. "That was the clincher."

So in February 1993, Miller and his family moved to Colorado. Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church was housed in what was then a daycare center. It's easy to miss the church, a tiny brown wood-and-brick structure with no cross on top.

New tan-colored townhouses twice its size are popping up next door. Miller's church is located just east of Wadsworth Boulevard, in a residential area past a covenant-controlled row of nondescript gray condos squeezed between Builder's Square and Wal-Mart. On almost every block, a cross pierces the sky. There are 48 churches in this unincorporated enclave of southwest Jefferson County, and at least half of them are evangelical.

"When I moved here, I knew it was suburbia--our biggest competition on Sunday mornings isn't another church, it's the [Southwest Plaza] mall," Miller says. "But I didn't know it had such a strong representation of conservative evangelical Christians."

Miller's bookshelves are lined with plays by Euripides, Aristophanes and Shakespeare--they're left over from his performing arts high school in Columbus. There's also Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, a biography of Colin Powell, a pile of Scientific American magazines and a smattering of religious titles on doubt and faith. After Miller opened up to his congregation--and they, in turn, confided in him--he knew he had found a group of kindred spirits in his new church, which is now made up of eighty adults and eighty children. But he would quickly learn that he was still very much alone.

 

It's Sunday at the mammoth, white Foothills Bible Church. Sunlight peeks through tiny purple- and yellow-paned windows. A 22-person choir belts out tunes of praise for Jesus while a drummer, a pianist and two musicians playing electric guitars accompany them. Five small microphones dangling from the high ceiling pick up each voice. A man in the choir's front row raises his right hand, tilts back his head and closes his eyes, lost in the rapture of the moment.

Foothills Bible Church, one of the largest and fastest-growing evangelical churches in the area, runs like a well-oiled machine. Volunteers are in their places, ready to direct kids to their Sunday school classes. Maps guide first-time visitors to their destinations. Upstairs, ushers help people find seats in the packed sanctuary. Two large screens display song lyrics and Bible verses. The congregation, which used to meet in a smaller building on Belleview Avenue and Simms Street, moved to its current 38-acre, $6.7 million site on C-470 and Bowles Avenue in September 1997. Since then, membership has grown by 20 percent, with more than 2,200 people attending the church's three Sunday services. Last year the church collected $1.9 million in revenues.

Pastor Bill Oudemolen reaches the podium with a skip in his step. He jokes about a brand of wheat bread called Ezekiel 4:9, then dives into a sermon on chapter eight of Ezekiel, which describes how God's chosen people worshiped other gods. Oudemolen is dressed in a dark three-button, double-breasted suit, his hair styled in its usual bouffant. Oudemolen reads from a book in which a pastor was quoted as saying, "There are many ways to the top of the mountain."

"The common belief in our society today is that there are many ways to get to God," Oudemolen tells an audience held captive by the intensity in his eyes. He lets the book drop to the ground. A brief pause follows, and the first cracklings of applause begin. "There's the Buddhist way, the Jewish way and the New Age way. People say exclusion makes them feel uncomfortable, but it inhibits our ability to witness. The only way to get to God is through Jesus, and the evangelicals are the only ones left who understand this.

"Brothers and sisters," he says, in an appeal that takes on a Southern accent. "God. Has. Passion. For. You."

With his fingers pointing to the audience, Oudemolen concludes his sermon by challenging his congregation to ignore the feel-good talk of accepting all religions and to focus on the one and only way: Jesus Christ.

Later that week, in his spacious office in the administrative wing of Foothills Bible Church, where a secretary offers to refill his coffee mug, Oudemolen leans back in his swivel chair and ponders the relationships between different clergy in his neighborhood. "It is clear to me that we've fallen into two camps. Until the Columbine shootings, there was a kind of acceptance of the way things are. There was no strong, warm, energetic connection between clergy, but there was also no anger and hostility," says Oudemolen, who has been the pastor at Foothills Bible for more than fourteen years. "Columbine is the first community-wide episode that called for a church response, and it brought out the differences that were below the surface."

Those differences, Oudemolen says, rest in the churches' varying methodologies, and the Unitarian Universalist methodology is one he just can't understand. "When I think about how they value doubt and accept all religions, I just don't understand how that can be a rock in the storm of life. Where is the truth in their system? Where do you put an anchor?" he asks. "They would say there are many ways, while we say there is one way, one absolute truth. Their system is philosophically flawed. Saying there is no absolute truth is making an absolute statement, and that seems circular to me."

Miller is one of those people who think there are "many ways to the top of the mountain," and for that reason, his little church has become an island, drifting farther and farther away from a mainland of evangelicals. New Unitarian Universalist churches typically receive a nice reception from other churches, be they Baptist, Catholic or fundamentalist, Miller says. But no one in Colorado rushed to lay a welcome mat before his door. "The Lutherans have been very good neighbors, as have the Latter-day Saints across the street," Miller concedes. The quilt hanging on the wall above his couch was a gift from the Mormons.

Shortly after Miller arrived in Colorado, he was invited by a liberal pastor to attend a meeting of about thirty area clergy who met regularly. A woman from Focus on the Family was there, and she was outraged over a Columbine High School assembly featuring a speaker who addressed students about the challenges of growing up gay or lesbian. "The tone of the meeting immediately changed, and a few of the ministers shot me a disapproving glance while she was talking," says Miller, whose church is open to gay, lesbian and bisexual members. "When I introduced myself to the other clergy members, two of them turned their backs on me and wouldn't even shake my hand."

 

After that meeting, attendance dwindled to about seven clergy--mostly liberal Lutherans. The gatherings eventually ended. "I later learned that conservative evangelicals consider Unitarian Universalists beyond the pale. I've had people come to my church services to see what they're like because they've heard evangelical ministers say we are evil people," Miller says. "People have even classified us as a cult, which is ironic, considering one of our main principles is that people should think for themselves."

When the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church featured a Denver gay and lesbian choir one Sunday, Miller posted fliers in front of his church and throughout the community, advertising the guests. All of the signs were torn down. That's when he realized that he and his congregation were just too different to be accepted, and so he went his way and they went theirs, each operating in their own vacuums.

"I think our church represents something that conservative people of any faith don't want to acknowledge, and that's doubt. A faith that hasn't been doubted is a fragile faith indeed. Doubt is a healthy part of faith," he says. "In a lot of conservative religions, everyone is supposed to put their faith in Jesus, and doubt doesn't play a role. But in our religion, everyone doubts. As far as I can tell, people of a conservative faith fear doubt, and I think that's why the conservative evangelicals dislike us so."

The Columbine High School shootings only amplified the differences between the evangelical and non-evangelical churches; instead of uniting for their community, mainline pastors say, the conservative evangelicals have segregated themselves. Miller attended a meeting of area clergy the Friday after the shootings during which they talked about how to support the school district with a memorial service, how to deal with the media and how to handle the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. "The clergy were all very friendly, but one evangelical minister asked if anyone would be threatened if they had their own memorial," Miller says. "What makes me sad is that it meant they didn't want to work with someone like myself."

"A lot of people in this community discount Joel and his church," says Steve Poos-Benson, minister of the liberal Columbine United Church, an amalgamation of Presbyterians, Methodists and United Church of Christ members. "They are viewed as so far liberal that people think they're on the fringe of Christendom."

Poos-Benson says he was "flabbergasted" when he learned Miller wasn't invited to participate with other clergy who were reaching out to the community after the shootings. "We are sharply separated in this community, and anyone who says we're not is blind."

Long before Columbine emerged on the national radar, relations between evangelicals and non-evangelicals were polite at best. "It's terrible. There are two Christianities in southwest Jefferson County," says Don Marxhausen, pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church. Marxhausen has gained prominence since the shootings; after he performed the funeral service for Dylan Klebold, he spent a few days as a sort of spiritual spokesman for the family. He also has been outspoken about the evangelicals' approach to dealing with the tragedy. "There are the uncivil conservatives and the mainline Catholics and Protestants. As a Lutheran, I can walk into a Catholic church and give the priest a hug, and we can talk about our differences. But I can't do that with an evangelical. We don't see it as we're right and they're wrong, but they're individualistic and we're for community."

In his nine years in the Columbine area, Marxhausen has tried to work with evangelicals on various community projects. Six years ago, the Jefferson County parks and recreation district, the sheriff's office, the district attorney's office, community members and several area churches started a program for middle-school kids called the Neutral Zone. In the program, approximately 250 kids spend two Saturday nights a month at a local YMCA, where they play games, watch videos and dance. Different churches take turns chaperoning the students, but the purpose of the program is to give kids a safe place to go on weekend nights, not to proselytize, says Marxhausen. "We tried to invite evangelicals to participate," he says, "but they wouldn't help unless they could make the kids fair game for their churches."

 

Marxhausen, who chairs the Denver Area Interfaith Clergy Conference, says tension between conservative evangelicals and mainline Protestants and Catholics exists everywhere--it's just been more evident in southwest Jefferson County lately. But Michael Carrier, pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church in southeast Denver and head of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado--a group of 400 clergy and laypeople representing different religions--says there's a lot more cooperation among different churches elsewhere in the Denver metro area. And evangelicals are part of the alliance, which formed a year ago to work on political issues. Last fall the members drafted a code of civility, asking incumbents and aspiring politicians to pledge not to use religion as a weapon in their campaigns.

On Sunday, June 6, St. Philip Lutheran Church held a dedication for its new sanctuary, and Marxhausen invited clergy from area Catholic and Protestant churches. He didn't bother inviting evangelicals. "They wouldn't have attended, and they would never invite us to one of their dedications," he says. "When you meet evangelical clergy, they'll say hello, but if you invite them to a meeting, they don't come. Some would never show up at a mainline meeting if you sent them a dozen invitations."

On the west side of Wadsworth Boulevard, a colossal peach-colored church looks more like a suburban high school than a house of worship. Gerald Nelson is the minister of the evangelical Southern Gables Church, and he has been meeting each week for the past three years with approximately eighteen local members of the clergy from various Christian denominations.

"I believe there is no such division in our community," Nelson says of the rift Miller and Marxhausen have described. "But there are distinctions. This is not a situation where you have two camps. The distinction isn't mainlines versus evangelicals; it's more subtle than that. If you put an issue like abortion on the table, some people would align one way, but if you put out Billy Graham, those same people might align another way."

Nelson understands how Miller might feel isolated around evangelicals, but he says that's to be expected. "When Roman Catholics discuss a mass in my presence, I feel left out. Different doesn't have to mean divisive," he stresses, adding that Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and evangelicals come together to pray at the weekly meetings.

Miller wasn't even aware that clergy in his area were meeting, and Marxhausen hasn't been invited to attend, either. In fact, Marxhausen says, he has invited Nelson to get together with him and other clergy fourteen times, but Nelson always claims he's too busy. "I told him, 'You're a leader in this community; you need to be there.' I personally sent him letters for two to three years in the early 1990s, in hopes that we could find a way for the two Christianities to come together," says an exasperated Marxhausen.

But Marxhausen received plenty of letters after he heard evangelical preachers speak at the April 25 Columbine memorial service and publicly commented that he "felt hit over the head with Jesus." For about five weeks after that, he averaged four letters a day from evangelical churchgoers angry with his remarks. "As mainlines, we suffer and walk into the valley with grieving people instead of standing on a mountain and talking down to them," Marxhausen says. "That's the difference between mainlines and evangelicals. Those are two credible ways of doing things, and we're not going to say they're wrong, but there should be a way of talking to each other about it."

The two Christianities in the neighborhoods surrounding Columbine High School will never become one, and so working together on spiritual matters is a pointless endeavor, says Foothills' Oudemolen. But he is willing to work with non-evangelicals on community issues. "In terms of making schools safer and opening our facility to people who need it, we can work together, but if we're invited to unite around spiritual issues, that's a problem, because we'll be perceived as beating people over the head with Jesus," he explains.

When a Methodist preacher needed a larger church in which to hold the funeral of slain Columbine student Lauren Townsend, Oudemolen lent him the use of his church. And when a group of counselors invited local clergy to gather to discuss their feelings about ministering in the midst of such tragedy, Oudemolen gladly accepted. A minister from Light of the World Catholic Church also came to the counseling session. Afterward, Oudemolen introduced himself to her. She told him she's a hugger, and the two ministers embraced. "I liked that moment," Oudemolen says. "It was a pure moment about loving someone no matter what they believe. It is possible to be civil and kind. I may take exception to what other clergy say, but the message I want to give is that we can still love one another."

 

Oudemolen says he hasn't yet participated in meetings and community projects with non-evangelicals because he feels he doesn't even have enough time to dedicate to his own ministry--pastors need to tend to their own flocks before they can get involved in things outside their churches. "We, as shepherds, need to be taking care of the sheep, not getting together with other shepherds," he says. "I hope all the mainline ministers criticizing us now will take care of their sheep and let us take care of ours."

But that attitude--you take care of your sheep and we'll take care of ours--is precisely what bothers some other ministers.

"There is a profound sense of loneliness and isolation here, and I see it in my ministry all the time. Churches inadvertently add to that sense of isolation," says Poos-Benson. "A lot of people move out to the suburbs for jobs, and they leave their extended families behind. They find their extended family in their church, but they don't take it to the next level and find it in their own neighborhoods, on their own blocks--and that's what's missing. It takes an extra effort to cross denominational lines.

"Out here in the suburbs, people drive home, hit their garage-door openers, go into their houses and never go out in their front yards again. That is not how you create community," he adds.

Just after the Columbine shootings, Joel Miller felt even more alienated, and he started examining how he had contributed to the suburban ghetto that had formed around him. "I only have contact with about six ministers on a continuing basis," he says. "I've never had a conversation with a conservative evangelical minister. I'm afraid that if I try to bridge the gap, conservative Christians won't want to talk to me." But, he wonders, "how can we be neighbors if we can't even talk?"

Miller's soul-searching led to a plan of action. "I need to start calling other clergy," he says. "I should have been doing it a long time ago. I believe we have more in common than not. If only we could work together to talk about what our community is lacking and what it needs, what our teens need."

Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church is taking on a project Miller hopes will involve everyone. His church is planning to construct a stone labyrinth on property it owns near a new park that's being built across from West Bowles Community Church, the other of the big three evangelical congregations in the area.

Since the Middle Ages, walking through labyrinths has been a way for people to meditate or pray. Curved lines leading to a center have been found carved into the floors of old cathedrals in western Europe; since the 1980s, labyrinths have appeared all over the United States. They serve as metaphors for the journey of life, with the walk from its outer circles to the center symbolizing the retreat into an individual's own center.

At the moment, the labyrinth's new home is a 3.8-acre field of overgrown weeds. The center of the property is up a slight incline from Bowles Avenue. It's a serene setting, with wildflowers swaying in the breeze; the only disturbance is the swoosh of cars as they pass on the busy avenue. Dakota Ridge High School is the solitary structure against the mountain backdrop.

Members of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church hope to model the labyrinth after one at Chartres Cathedral in France. Depending on the amount of money they raise, it could be up to forty feet in diameter, with two different colors of brick or stone denoting the path. The church members have already selected its name--Columbine Peace Labyrinth--and hope to have it completed by October 20, the six-month anniversary of the high school shootings.

Miller is going to invite every church in his part of town to participate in helping to create the labyrinth. He intends it to be a place where people of all faiths can come to pray.

"My dream is that all 48 churches in the area could work on this together. I'd also like to see us all meet once a year," Miller says. "We don't have to worship together, but to not meet sets a bad example. Here we are, worried about our children; it seems like the least we could do is get together despite the fact that we have profound religious differences."

Five young children stand before the congregation, fidgeting and giggling in spite of themselves. Not quite in unison, they chant the church's affirmation, their lilting voices stressing each syllable.

 

"Welcome to the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church.
"We are Unitarian Universalists.
"This is the church of the open mind that calls us to fight injustice.
"This is the church of the flaming chalice that lights our search for truth.

"This is the church of the loving heart that helps us share our joys and sorrows together."

The Reverend Miller steps aside from the podium after making announcements and reading blue index cards on which people have written joys or sorrows they want to share with the congregation. All eyes are on a group of preschoolers who clap their tiny hands and circle their arms above their heads while singing "We've Got the Whole World."

The sanctuary could be mistaken for a kindergarten classroom: Kids' scribblings plaster the walls like the haphazard placement of drawings on a proud parent's refrigerator. Origami cranes hang everywhere--a gift from kids in an Oklahoma City Unitarian Universalist Church, who passed along the Japanese folk story "Sadako and the Thousand Cranes." It's the tale of a sick girl in Hiroshima who writes down her dearest wish and seals it in an envelope; she won't open it until she has folded a thousand paper cranes.

As the legend goes, Sadako dies from leukemia before completing the cranes. Her friends finish the task, thinking she had wished to get better; instead, her greatest hope was that no one else would die from harm inflicted by others, like the atom bomb that had once desecrated her homeland. The birds, crafted in primary yellow, blue and green paper, were sent by Japanese children to Oklahoma City after the federal building was bombed. After the Columbine shootings, the kids in Oklahoma mailed them to the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church, who will keep the cranes until human tragedy strikes again. When it does, they will send the paper birds to another church, in another city, as their small way of reaching out to someone else.

Perhaps they should send them to the nearby evangelicals.


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