If it was 11 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. and the students were toting keg cups of Icehouse rather than buckets of cleaning solution, the scene could have been mistaken for a total rager. Two hundred college kids packed the old Sigma Pi house, everyone sweaty, spilling out on the lawn, hip-hop thumping from the sound system, doors knocked off their hinges, the carpet ripped up, couches tossed into the street, an unidentified pounding from the other side of the walls. And that smell in the basement -- what's up with that?
"Mildew," says Reza Zadeh, taking a brief break between cell-phone calls. The 27-year-old youth pastor for Timberline Church has plans to turn the former fraternity house into a Christian-oriented community center called the Lighthouse, where students can socialize in an environment free of booze and other damning temptations. Zadeh envisions outfitting the place with pool tables, a flat-screen TV, wireless Internet, and housing, study and prayer rooms. There will be worship nights in the back yard, Bible studies in the living area, and don't forget the almighty Xbox in the game room.
But first the house has to be gutted. A guy working a broom describes the stench as a combination of "every bodily fluid mixed together" and maybe a splash of rancid milk. "Yeah, it's nasty," laughs Zadeh, shrugging his thick shoulders as he supervises volunteers from between the tall white pillars that adorn the front entryway.
If it was a Saturday night a year ago, the former Colorado State University linebacker could easily have been mistaken for some meathead doorman assigned to maintain the chicks-only entry policy when freshmen showed up in search of beer and excitement. Two blocks northwest of campus, the house was known for its party-till-you-puke bashes and met all expectations for Animal House excess. Visitors entering the foyer were greeted by a chandelier festooned with more than a hundred panties and bras. A ceiling-to-floor stripper pole stood on a stage next to the bar in the basement.
For the past five months, though, the house has been officially vacant, inhabited only by squatters and miscellaneous vandals blamed for the trashed interior. And now the only thing this once stately brick building is known for is the single dark room on the second floor, the Boom Boom Room, where nineteen-year-old sophomore Samantha Spady died, intoxicated and alone, early in the school year.
Spady's death was the first in a series of alcohol poisonings that took the lives of two more Colorado college students last fall. Later that month, Lynn "Gordie" Bailey was found dead at a CU fraternity; in December, another CSU student, twenty-year-old Bennett Bertoli, succumbed to a mix of booze and painkillers. But the shroud of Spady's death, in particular, lingers in the minds of students here, largely because her girl-next-door background contrasts so sharply with the astonishing details of her liquor consumption. A coroner's report showed that the 126-pound homecoming queen from Nebraska had a blood-alcohol content of .436 when she died. That's the equivalent of thirty to forty drinks over a twelve-hour period, according to police officials, a mix of beer and hard liquor at a house party, then vanilla-flavored vodka chugged straight from the bottle in a friend's room at the Sigma Pi house.
In the basement, six members of a nearby sorority puzzle over the brown mess crusted to the filthy tile. One of them begins jabbing at it with a snow shovel without much success. As they pour bleach water from the buckets onto the floor, steam leaps into the air and they scatter out of the way, screeching and laughing. For some reason, a brunette has a brand-new mop head but no mop handle; crouching over, she slops it across the floor. Although these girls haven't done a lot of big cleaning jobs before, their efforts are sincere. Rolling up her pant legs, the brunette calls the project an "analogy." It's like taking something bad that happened and cleaning it out, "like cleaning a wound," she says.
The symbolism of this venture is unavoidable, the metaphors unrelenting. And in case Zadeh's intentions aren't clear enough, every one of the hundreds of volunteers wears the same black T-shirt made specially for the occasion. On the back is a white lighthouse projecting a beam of light through the darkness, illuminating Greek letters that represent each of the 23 frats and fifteen sororities on campus; below is a biblical passage popular with evangelical Christians that was often quoted by Ronald Reagan in foreign-policy speeches:
You're here to be light, bringing out God in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If you are light bearers, you shouldn't hide God's light under a bucket, you are going to be put on a light-stand now that Jesus has put you there on a hill top, shine! Keep open your house, be generous with your lives. -- Matthew 5:14-15
At this point, Zadeh doesn't care whether a volunteer is a Christian. He's careful to keep all his ministry projects -- from youth missions to sermons to this week's pilgrimage to Mexico, where he and two dozen young followers will minister to college students on spring break-- lighthearted and fun. He's intent on avoiding any holier-than-thou cliques. Still, with his personable approach, disarming humor and conversational ease, Zadeh is well-equipped to broach the subject of religion with the college crowd. Many young people consider Christians judgmental and preachy, he says, and they'll often put up a reflexive mind block when a holy roller comes within earshot.
Born and raised Muslim, Zadeh follows a philosophy that calls for openness to individuals' beliefs, and a dedication to serve others rather than lecture at them. At the Lighthouse, for example, he plans on serving free pancakes Friday and Saturday nights from midnight until three in the morning, so drunken party-goers can drop in and sober up. The same deal will apply after CSU football games, where a ban on beer sales at Hughes Stadium since Spady's death has simply prompted many students to get even more smashed off-campus before showing up for kickoff. On weekend nights, Zadeh and crew can often be found in fifteen-person church vans idling in Old Town Fort Collins, waiting to give boozed-up bar-goers rides home. The ride is free, but before they drop off a passenger, they'll always ask: Can we say a prayer for you?
University administrators, who've struggled to find successful strategies in the fight against binge drinking, have enthusiastically welcomed Zadeh's efforts. If two months of alcohol-awareness classes aren't enough to dissuade Johnny Freshman from guzzling his weight in Puckers, why not try the fear of God's wrath?
What would Jesus drink?
Campus ministries have grown nationwide in recent years, as more young people turn toward the church for moral certainty in a time of ambiguity and doubt. Zadeh thinks that Spady's death accelerated this process, as students realized the sheltered university world doesn't protect them from the possibility of their own mortality. Although the Lighthouse is designed as a model of moderation in a culture hell-bent on high living, Zadeh's base message is in line with most conservative Christian values. His light extends beyond the immediate evils of getting wasted every night and illuminates a top-to-bottom renovation of the college lifestyle.
Given the current reputation of fraternities as institutions of drunken hijinks and boys-will-be-boys debauchery, is it possible to imagine this former frat house as a shining hilltop example of clean, sober living?
Let us pray.
In his office on the second floor of Timberline Church, Zadeh taps at his laptop and pulls up a video file that he wants to play at tonight's service. "Oh, man, you have to see this," he chuckles. "It just cracks me up."
"Flip the Switch," his Friday-night gathering geared toward 18- to 34-year-olds, draws several hundred people every week, most of them college students and young professionals. The idea is to show them that it's possible to be Christian and be a creative and interesting individual, too. "I think people view Christians as boring," Zadeh says. "Always happy. Perfect families. Perfect lives. But I'll tell you, being a person that walks with God is someone who struggles with life just like everybody else. The only difference is that you take those problems to the Lord rather than carry those problems on your back."
When he played football at CSU, he'd encounter teammates who regarded Christians as wimps, with all that talk about loving your fellow man. "They would say, 'I've got to play football. I've got to hit people hard,'" he remembers. "And I'm sitting there going, &'And so you don't think that Reggie White hit people hard?'" He points to the shelf above his desk, and an autobiography penned by the Christian football star: Reggie White: In the Trenches.
Zadeh finally gets the video to run. Made by a hip-hop youth pastor from Virginia, it's based on the Sir Mix-a-Lot hit song from the early '90s about women's butts. "But this one's called ŒBaby Got Book,'" he says, already laughing as the video begins to play.
Oh, my goodness, Becky. Will you look at the size of her Bible?, sneers a girl with teased hair. It's so big, she looks like one of those preacher guy's girlfriends. The beat begins, and a white guy in baggy clothes and black sunglasses starts rapping: I like big books and I cannot lie, you Christian brothers can't deny. Zadeh titters as the camera runs down a row of girls gyrating with oversized Bibles held near their waists. "This part's good," he says, falling quiet in anticipation.
My minister tried to console me, but that book you got makes (m-m-m-me so holy).
Howling with laughter, Zadeh pounds the arm of his chair and rocks back and forth. "Oh, my gosh, dude," he sighs. "That's classic. People get goofy, you know what I mean? Sometimes people think that church has to be boring. Flip the Switch, we're really laid-back."
Tonight's sermon is titled "Jesus, the Real Date Doctor" and will focus on a subject Zadeh knows his young flock finds relevant: relationships and dating. He plans to deconstruct the new romantic comedy Hitch, in which Will Smith gives tactical dating advice to the fat guy from King of Queens. Zadeh often uses common pop-culture reference points when he preaches: The Matrix (the unseen structure of God's will), Extreme Makeovers (God wants makeovers to occur from the inside out rather than the outside in). When speaking to a media-savvy generation, he feels it's important to use culture not just to make the subject significant, but also to enable young Christians to find a biblical narrative in movies like Finding Nemo, for example.
"I think so many times us young adults get so many mixed messages from media, and we fall into a lot of traps," he says. "And I'm not trying to be hip or anything like that. But you know, they don't need people preaching at them. We just need someone to show us how they believe in the Bible. And I believe the Bible is relevant to today in what we watch, hear and read."
Born in Iran, Zadeh moved with his family to this country when he was three years old. They eventually settled in Laguna Hills, in Southern California. Although he was raised Muslim, he didn't consider his family to be very religious. Instead, he describes growing up in a "Muslim culture" that focused more on a general following of habit than a strict devotion to the words of the Koran.
Zadeh was a popular guy in high school. He was on the football team, had lots of friends and liked to party; the after-prom get-together was at his house. After graduation, he briefly played football at a junior college before transferring to CSU and joining the Rams as a walk-on. His first year in Fort Collins, Zadeh drank -- like everyone else, since beer eased the social anxiety and made friends out of strangers. He continued to play the role of host, and held many of the football-recruiting parties at his house. Zadeh was getting laid and having fun. It was college, bro.
One night he stole some liquor bottles from behind the counter at a bar, and when the bouncers caught him, there was a brawl. The next day he woke up to a call from the Fort Collins police, and then one from the school. The drunken fight got him suspended from the football team for two months.
The Jesus train stopped for Zadeh in 1997, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, when he was living in the Ram's Village apartment complex. To his dismay, many of the units had been sublet to Campus Crusade for Christ staffers in town for the Orlando-based organization's international conference. That year, 5,000 young Christians flooded into Fort Collins, determined to "win the campus today and change the world tomorrow," as the Crusade's motto goes.
Zadeh liked talking with people; he liked having a good time. He didn't want to chill with a bunch of Christians who, he imagined, would spend their evenings in dark rooms, huddled around candles, condemning the outside world and all the sinners who inhabited it. But the Crusaders were cool. There was something special about them. After spending a night discussing the Bible and Jesus with his new friends, Zadeh decided to start attending church.
After graduating in 2000, Zadeh moved to Austin with his fiancée in 2000. He'd originally planned to get a coaching gig at the University of Texas, but that didn't pan out. His college conversion to Christianity wasn't dramatic enough to put a stop to his drinking, so Zadeh got a job as a bartender. That meant a lot of late nights and closing-time shots with fellow employees. He'd go to strip clubs and watch the Playboy Channel. He wasn't going to church. He got depressed.
So he decided to check out a service at a local church, and he realized it was time he got serious about the Bible. He began to consider a life of ministry. Zadeh's Muslim parents had always wanted their son to become a doctor or a lawyer, and they hadn't wholly approved of his conversion to Christianity. Picturing him as a professional Bible-thumper was hard; later, the subject would become more strained when his younger sister became a Christian, too. Laela, who's now 21, is a senior at CSU and regularly attends her brother's services at Timberline.
Zadeh and his fiancée decided to return to Fort Collins, where he got a job as a graduate assistant coach for the Rams. He became involved with Athletes in Action, a Christian student organization, and started attending Timberline Church. "I think that's when I realized that I really cared for students. When you're in college, you're making so many big decisions," he says, then recounts a statistic he found somewhere that 70 percent of all major life decisions are made between the ages of 18 and 25. "And I just thought how great it would be to have an influence in these people's lives."
But Zadeh's growing commitment to Christ was at variance with the ideology of his fiancée, an atheist. They realized that the weight of their conflicting beliefs was pulling their lives in different directions, and they split up.
In 2003, Zadeh was hired as youth minister by Timberline Church, a Pentecostal affiliate that occupies a large complex in Fort Collins.
This past October, Zadeh returned to Austin to speak at a retreat. It was barely a month after Spady's death, and he'd begun counseling a number of students on the loss, including Molly Bostwick, one of Spady's best friends since they'd pledged at Chi Omega sorority the year before. Zadeh visited a Christian student center that a church had set up near the UT campus, a place where students could hang out between classes. On his way back to Colorado, he carried the mental image of a male student lounging in a sun-filled window nook, checking his e-mail on a laptop -- a rather down-to-earth vision, but a powerful one.
In a journal entry recounting his flight home, Zadeh wrote how his growing passion for doing the Lord's work made him feel like William Wallace in Braveheart, like the Last Samurai, like the rider on the pale horse in the Book of Revelation, fighting for honor, dignity and virtue, returning victorious. "I saw my life as a journey, a walk, a road that the Lord has put me on, and this house is right in the middle of it," he wrote. "I see that God has put a vision in me for something great and for something terrific."
That vision was the Lighthouse.
"We had to pick up whatever we wanted to keep and get out pretty quick," says former Sigma Pi president Darren Pettapiece, staring from beneath his baseball cap at the mound of garbage that continues to rise steadily by the tow-away dumpster parked by the ex-frat house at 709 Wagner Drive. The university disbanded the CSU Sigma Pi chapter four days after Spady's death, and residents of the house had three weeks to find a new place. Now, hundreds of students -- many of them members of fraternities and sororities, eager to do something constructive -- have managed to clear out an entire floor in just a few hours. Old desk lamps, crumpled posters, clothing and couch cushions fall into controlled piles on the street, and the Sigma Pi brothers who turned out to clean are glad to see it all go.
"It was hard because it was my house," Pettapiece says with a pinched expression. "I felt safe there. I felt protected there."
This is the second time Pettapiece has had a role in overhauling the house. The first was in 2001, when Sigma Pi leased the building from Lambda Chi Alpha, which had been given the boot by CSU after repeated alcohol violations. "It was actually in worse condition then than it is now," he says. The Lambda Chi alumni corporation that still owns the building is leasing it to Timberline. Pettapiece calls the resurrection "an amazing feat" and a "great addition to the university."
Lamba Chi and Sigma Pi were not the first fraternities to be kicked out of CSU. In 1998, the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority were officially disbanded after members wrote "I am gay" on a scarecrow and put it on their homecoming float -- a reference to Matthew Shepard, a homosexual University of Wyoming student who'd been beaten to death just days before. That same year, CSU yanked the charter of Beta Theta Pi after numerous alcohol violations. The same fate befell Sigma Nu in 2000, for repeated booze busts as well as hazing.
After kicking out Lambda Chi, CSU enacted a series of rules that prohibited parties at all fraternity and sorority houses but still allowed alcohol in five. Sigma Pi was not one of them, however, and the fraternity was sanctioned for serving alcohol at a party in March 2004. Following Spady's death, all fraternity and sorority houses quickly went dry -- officially, at least -- and some Greek groups started outsourcing their events to rented rooms at restaurants, bars or hotels. CU fraternities have resorted to the same tactics; partyers have returned from these outings with tales of charter buses, booze and blurriness.
But it would be unfair to blame today's Greeks as the sole perpetrators of college binge-drinking, which experts called an "epidemic" as early as 1993. Since 1997, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the proportion of bingers has actually dropped almost 10 percent among college students. Still, one recent study estimates that each year, alcohol contributes to an estimated 1,400 deaths (most of which are auto-related), 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault among college students.
At an alcohol-awareness presentation at CU last week (see story below), many fraternity and sorority members said they were tired of having the university and the media point fingers at them. "It's really frustrating, because [alcohol-related incidents] happen to all college students everywhere," one sorority member in the audience said. "Why do you think the media targets us?" A speaker who's an alcohol educator at Phi Gamma Delta's national office offered this answer: Greeks are members of organizations that are easily identifiable, and unlike the basketball team or the school band, sororities and fraternities have an official values system -- so when members don't live up to it, they look like hypocrites.
Here's Sigma Pi's creed:
I believe in Sigma Pi, a fellowship of kindred minds, united in brotherhood to advance truth and justice, to promote scholarship, to encourage chivalry, to diffuse culture, to develop character, in the service of God and man; and I will strive to make real the fraternity's ideals in my own daily life.
As creeds go, that's pretty heavy. What is this, a church or something?
Sara and Darcy are here to greet. That's what the tags around their necks say, anyway. Both women are young, pretty and sociable, so the task comes naturally. They mingle with the crowd of 18- to 30-year-olds gathered in front of the information desk at Timberline Church and welcome any new faces. Every week, Darcy says, dozens of first-time attendees walk through the door. The place is so big that directories are posted on the walls so people don't get lost on their way to the cafe, children's ministries, classrooms or offices. As many as 6,500 people attend Sunday services here.
One weekend in mid-February, Samantha Spady's parents came from Nebraska to speak at five of Timberline's services. Hundreds of fraternity and sorority members were there, and since then, many have started attending Zadeh's Friday-evening event, too.
Sara, who's nineteen, attended CSU for a semester, but the social pressures and mean-spirited competition in her apparel-design courses made it hard for her to fit in, so she dropped out. If the Lighthouse had been there a year ago, she thinks things might have been different. "I would have been there every day," she says.
The lead singer of the "worship band" FlipSyde, wearing a tight black shirt and a head of moppy black hair, heads into the auditorium and up to a stage that's bordered by tall wooden crosses and huge projection screens. He leads the room in a prayer, then jumps into a catchy rock tune titled "One-Way Jesus." The lights are dimmed. The crowd of young adults and students who come from CSU and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley are outfitted in typical college wear of sweatshirts, bare midriffs, goatees and puffy jackets; they look like they could be at a concert at the Aggie Theatre. Except here, at seven on a Friday evening, no one is moving to the music.
Then Zadeh hops on stage. He speaks easily into the microphone, as if this 1,400-occupancy auditorium were his living room. He begins with some announcements, then introduces a game where a guy and a girl see who can stuff more marshmallows in their mouths. He talks about dating and Will Smith. How the date doctor could teach everyone else how to be suave, but when it came to his own love life he was closed-in, inept. "Jesus is the ultimate date doctor," Zadeh says. "He gives us game we didn't even know we had. Like no other person in the world, Jesus can teach us how to live." As Zadeh crosses the stage, he reads notes off a palm pilot cupped in his left hand, but his sermon comes off as conversational, with small disclaimers like "This is just my opinion" thrown in.
People in the audience look at their own Bibles as he speaks; they use the pens provided by the church to take notes on their programs. While Zadeh's openness to outside opinion sounds like the message of lifestyle tolerance they might hear in a college classroom, he always brings them back to traditional church teachings. "A friend of mine took this guy out on a date -- a guy, whoa -- he took a girl on a date," Zadeh says, as the audience laughs at his slip-up. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, but...well, there is, but never mind."
(Although it's not a subject he brings up regularly, in past sermons Zadeh has discussed how the Bible is very clear on God's view of homosexuality. Once, on the CSU campus, a lesbian asked if she was going to hell. Zadeh looked her in the eyes and said yes. "But you're not going to hell any faster then me, because I used to drink, do drugs -- all of that stuff," he added. "Now that I have Christ in my life, I know I'm going to be free of all of that.")
At the end of the service, the lights dim, and the moppy-haired singer leads the slow chorus: "It's just you and me here now." The congregation sings along, swaying slowly in the aisles. Zadeh reads a final scripture about forming a relationship with the Lord. Some people lift their hands in the air; one girl in a red hooded sweatshirt starts to cry. Zadeh closes his eyes and leads his followers in a prayer.
There's not much left of the Boom Boom Room. "Boom Boom" is still spray-painted in gold cursive across the bright red walls, but that's about it. The thick drapes that covered the window are gone, and the couches and pillows, too. The carpet where Spady was found, curled in the fetal position, by a Sigma Pi brother giving his mother a tour of the house, has been ripped out.
Molly Bostwick and Megan Hamilton belong to Chi Omega, the sorority that sits less than a hundred yards from the former Sigma Pi house. Spady had pledged the sorority freshman year, too, then dropped out. During the Lighthouse-organized cleanup, her friends and former sorority sisters for the first time enter the room where their best friend died. Bostwick, Hamilton, Spady and another sorority sister had named their little friendship circle "Quatro." "Because we were always together," Bostwick and Hamilton say in unison, and laugh.
It's not easy being back in the room. The memories are free-floating and come to mind without warning. Using a thick black marker, Hamilton writes "Quatro for life" on the wall as a memorial to their alliance, but it doesn't seem quite right. After a moment of consideration, she adds the words "AND AFTER" below it.
Bostwick, who now attends Timberline regularly, would have described herself as religious before, she says, but Spady's death "changed my outlook completely. I was forced to look at the only thing that I can count on all the time -- my faith. Because losing Sam made me hit rock bottom, and it was like the saddest time of my life. Through all of it, I could always continuously count on my faith. And since the time we lost Sam, you know, like now, months later, there's all this amazing work coming from it. And I feel like anybody could have rented or bought this house. Like it could have sat here for years."
"Or it could've become another fraternity," Hamilton counters.
The room is now slated to become a prayer alcove and will include a memorial wall devoted to photographs of Spady, as well as some of her drawings and paintings. A shrine to Sam Spady, now elevated to Patron Saint of Responsible Drinking.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Outside, students are mingling around a tent that contains food and water, including donated Chipotle burritos. Zadeh looks at the house and the people gathered there, and thinks about tragedy, metaphor and redemption. The great narratives of God -- they all can be found everywhere.
"This is just another representation," Zadeh says. "If you look around the world, like with the tsunami: Horrible, horrible thing that happened, but look at the wonderful things that have come out of it. People just pouring their money into there, and help. This is the exact same thing, the exact same analogy of taking something right now -- right now when it represents death and tragedy, and turning that into something that now represents life. That's what I believe the Bible is, and that's why this is a direct representation of what we believe.
He points at the students. "But it just shows right here whether they're Christians or not. They want to help out in the community," he says. "I think that's what this shows."
Between the dumpster and the house, a guy wearing blue oversized Dickies is talking to a bunch of girls wearing jeans and glittery lip gloss. They're all eating burritos, careful not to spill the sauce on their Lighthouse T-shirts. One of his friends just got initiated, and his frat brothers are hard drinkers. "I was blasted last night, dude," the guy says through a mouthful of rice and beans. "But I was all good till I took those last shots."