In 2018, as Rob Shearer was creating promotional videos for the Village Exchange Center, a community center and multi-faith worship space in northwest Aurora that primarily caters to immigrants and refugees, the Denver-based filmmaker realized that he had stumbled onto something special.
"I think it came to be just because the story of Amanda's stepdad really fascinated me," says Shearer.
Amanda Blaurock, executive director of the Village Exchange Center, is the stepdaughter of Marcel Narucki, a Lutheran minister. A decade ago, Narucki moved to Colorado with his wife, a fellow Lutheran minister, and became the pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Aurora. The church, which was founded in 1949 and had a congregation of over 300 in its heyday, was slipping: The largely white congregation was getting older, and with Aurora growing increasingly diverse, the church wasn't replenishing its numbers each year.
As the congregation dwindled and attempts to increase membership went nowhere, Narucki started to research what could be done to ensure that the church left a lasting legacy in Aurora. In late 2016, he and Blaurock started talking about transforming the church into a community center. Less than a year later, the nonprofit Village Exchange Center emerged.
"This church died and was reborn in this," says Shearer.
Today the former Lutheran church serves as a multi-faith space for four Christian congregations, Hindu and Buddhist worshipers, and Jewish and Muslim interfaith events. Over twenty nonprofits have offices in the Village Exchange Center, which also hosts after-school programs, offers English as a Second Language and citizenship classes, and maintains a food pantry.
This transformation from a church to a multi-faith community center is captured in Shearer's "My Father's House," a short film that debuts today as part of the all-virtual 43rd Denver Film Festival.
While Shearer was filming, Narucki's congregation was still worshipping in what had become the Village Exchange Center. After about a year, however, St. Matthew shut down permanently. "It just became too impossible," says Narucki.
Shearer filmed the poignant scenes as members of the congregation voted unanimously to close the church, and he was there for the final Sunday. "Seeing people attend the service like it was a normal Sunday service, but also with the same feeling of a funeral or a wake, where they're going through the actions but they know it's the last time, was sobering to watch," recalls Shearer.
But as the movie shows, the sadness of the church shutting down was buoyed by the space's reincarnation as a center supporting and celebrating the rich diversity of Aurora, the city that has become the main place for refugee resettlement in Colorado.
The film captures that vibrancy during a Thanksgiving celebration where hundreds of people from all different backgrounds and nationalities break bread together. "That’s what churches need to do at this historical moment," says Narucki, now director of multi-faith services at the Village Exchange Center.
Currently just under seventeen minutes, the film could be extended into a feature-length documentary. "We’re still shooting it, so we’re going to be creating a new ending for it just to address what Village Exchange Center has done in the last year with the pandemic," Shearer notes.
"It feels like it keeps growing every year."
Watch "My Father's House" now through November 8 during the Denver Film Festival.