At Park Hill Congregational United Church of Christ, Social Change Is A Relay
“I had people who wandered off the street who sat and just cried about what was going on,” recalled Rev. David Bahr about the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Bahr recalls one woman in particular who came to him seeking pastoral care. She was not a congregant, but a neighbor. “She had been in the building, knew what we stood for, and knew she could just wander in off the street and say, ‘I need to talk.’”
The Sunday after the election, attendance swelled at Park Hill Congregational United Church of Christ. The church is a haven for progressive views at the corner of 26th Avenue at Leyden Street. Bahr believes more people showed up for worship that day because they needed a place to mourn, and a place to mobilize and take action.
Bold acts of compassion and justice
Park Hill Congregational first opened its doors in 1950. What began as a smaller structure with a place for worship now includes an additional classroom wing, a sanctuary with a 400-person capacity and office spaces. Recently the building has been a meeting place for groups like Rename Stapleton, Indivisible Denver and Black Lives Matter 5280, as well as for Montessori Children’s House of Denver, the Women’s Homeless Initiative, Knitting4Peace, and an annual fair trade gift market.
“We use our building to serve our social justice mission,” Bahr said.
Their mission? “We are compelled to bold acts of compassion and justice.”
For Bahr, the call to social justice is not just professional, but a personal one as well. “Social justice is a natural outgrowth of coming out as a gay man,” he said. “I can’t just come out and seek my own freedom. My freedom and liberation is tied up in the freedom and liberation of everyone, right? That’s obvious to me.”
In addition to LGBTQ acceptance, Park Hill Congregational also focuses on racial justice and helping people experiencing homelessness. The congregation donates the money they gather from passing the plate to charities and programs that match up with their mission. Last year they donated more than $27,000.
Marching with Pride
In 1991, Park Hill Congregational became one of the first in the nation to declare their church open and affirming to LGBTQ people. Shortly thereafter, and every year since, church members have marched in the Denver PrideFest parade, one of the first congregations to march with Pride.
This summer, the church celebrated a name changing ceremony for a transgender member. Earlier in her transition, she had been asked to leave another church. At Park Hill Congregational, she was welcomed with open arms and a tearful gathering of congregants.
The congregation’s response to the ceremony was overwhelmingly positive. “We have an explicit vision of our world,” said Bahr. “We say it over and over. That’s what we believe Jesus talked about. The kingdom of God is one that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate.”
LGBTQ acceptance is intrinsic to the fabric of the church. So is a commitment to racial justice and to tackling the issue of homelessness “Intersectionality demands paying attention to everything,” Bahr said.
For several years, the church has participated in the Women’s Homeless Initiative, a program that places about 20 women who are experiencing homelessness at Denver-area churches. Once a week every other month, volunteers work with women who come to the church for a meal, and then sleep overnight.
Working to change the world
“For a while it was challenging to fill every single one of those [volunteer] jobs,” said Bahr. Since the November, 2016 election, that has not been the case. Even area neighbors who do not attend worship services at the church have gotten involved. Last year, 94 people volunteered in various capacities – some one time, others many.
Park Hill Congregational sees the Women’s Homelessness Initiative as part of its mission.
Another focus is working to change policies locally and nationally. To that end congregants participate in Colorado Faith Communities United Against Gun Violence, which helps align faith communities around legislative action, and encourages people to become knowledgeable about the many issues facing our city, state, country, and world.
Anti-racism work is another priority for Park Hill Congregational. Bahr and the congregation recently participated in a six-month series on white privilege and anti-racism. It was an opportunity to deepen a commitment to racial justice, and to encourage congregants to individually examine and question their own white privilege and implicit bias.
“We have to figure out how to not just be an ally, but how to be an accomplice,” said Bahr. The question to ask, Bahr says, is, “How are we actively overturning the systems of oppression?”
Deeper than crying
Beyond the work that the congregation engages in physically, spiritually, and interpersonally, Bahr believes Park Hill Congregational must be a place for the religious left to come together, be supported and spiritually nourished.
“We need to create community in a time where we feel like we’re losing our place in the world,” he said. “We can’t just be angry.”
In a recent sermon, Bahr discussed the detention of children and infants under the federal zero tolerance border separation policy instituted by the current administration. At the end, he didn’t offer a solution, but rather created space for those in attendance to process.
“It’s okay for a while to simply lament,” said Bahr, noting that lamentation is a biblical term. “Prophets cried out in lamentation. It’s deeper than simply crying.”
When asked how congregants avoid burnout, Bahr smiled. “It’s a relay marathon … You step in for a while and I’ll wait. Then I’ll step in. We have to pace ourselves. There’s so much happening that we don’t even know what to pay attention to.”
Sierra Fleenor is executive director of GPHC, Inc. She received a masters in theological studies from Harvard University.