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O Scum all ye faithful: Christianity gets the punk-rock treatment at this Denver church

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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."

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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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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse