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Denver: Searching for truth a mile high

By Isaac Olivarez

Affluence has defined Denver since its beginnings. The discovery of gold in 1859 fueled a gold rush in the Rocky Mountains, bringing settlers intent on getting rich. By the turn of the 20th century, Denver was a boomtown, complete with saloons, outlaws and desperados. Today, Denver’s wealth and growth continue. In 2001, 15.8 percent of adults here had incomes exceeding $100,000, making it one of the United States’ wealthiest cities.

Though Denver’s economy has flourished, its dependence on God is tepid. Colorado’s expansive menu of outdoor recreational activities, along with more than 300 sunny days per year, make church participation an afterthought for many residents. For two days in July, from three vantage points of the Mile High City, I asked teens and college students about faith, church and God. What I saw on my last night painfully reminded me of the reality of spiritual warfare.

Sun Valley
Denver is not without the impoverished. Less than five blocks from Invesco Field at Mile High — the $364 million, 76,000-seat home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos — lies the city’s poorest neighborhood, Sun Valley, where the annual household income averages $12,500 and 65 percent of children live in single-mother homes. The crime rate here is three times higher than anywhere else in the city.

On this Friday evening, my cousin Elijah Chavez and I enter the neighborhood. We approach three men sitting on plastic chairs underneath a porch to escape the setting sun. Music blaring from a stereo inside overpowers the buzz of fans working to keep the men cool. Before I can second-guess my intrusion into their world, I introduce myself to Rodney. I tell him where I’m from and why I’m here.

Rodney, who was raised in Chicago, says he believes God exists and is the Creator of all. But, he admits, the lessons he learned at church as a child have been long forgotten.

“I need to be there,” Rodney, 37, says. “I don’t give enough time to God.”

Andy, wearing baggy jean shorts and a white tank top, sits next to Rodney smoking a cigarette. He says he likes God and all, but doesn’t attend church much. The embroidered cross dangling from his neck reminds him of the two years he spent in jail for stealing cars. While there, he says, he read the Bible, which changed his life.

“I don’t mess around in the streets like I used to,” says Andy, 23, with a thin goatee outlining his mouth and chin. “I work, make my money, do what I have to do to take care of my 2-year-old son and my wife.”

John, 17, is an Army brat. Though he has lived at various U.S. Army bases around the world with his father, Denver has been his on-and-off home his entire life. His church experience came when he was a child living in Germany. Now, if he goes to church, it is with his aunt. He says it’s boring.

“What do you think about prayer?” I ask John.

“I pray when I need His help, but I’m not all into it,” he says, his answer laced with curse words. “I feel more reassured about whatever I need to do, but I don’t feel Him or anything.”

As my cousin and I walk back toward the car, I wonder if the conversation with our three new friends has somehow planted a seed in their hearts for a relationship with Jesus Christ.

On our way out of Sun Valley, we unexpectedly meet Anthony, who seems to have his faith system pretty well defined at age 16. He says his interpretation of spirituality allows him to believe several roads lead to heaven. For Anthony, God is a thing or person in everyone’s imagination.

“You seem to have your faith figured out. Where did you get it?” I ask him.

“Not my mother, because she’s really religious,” he says. “It’s just the way I felt. It was just a vibe.”

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Clement Park
Rebel Hill, a grassy hill where many students sought refuge during the infamous April 1999 Columbine shooting, separates Clement Park’s outdoor skate park from Columbine High School’s grounds. Each day several hundred teens and college students from the Littleton, Lakewood and Highlands Ranch suburbs converge on the park to skate. The sound of boards clicking on concrete and grinding on steel rails can easily be heard as teens enjoy this sunny Saturday. In the distance, the Rocky Mountains’ snowy peaks are clearly visible.

Here, Assemblies of God U.S. missionary Scott Bruegman is working to plant a youth church to share Christ’s message of love and hope with the 74,000 teens and 20-somethings who live in the area. The challenge, he says, is convincing well-off students that they need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Teens here have a lot of resources and a lot of buying power,” says Bruegman, noting the proximity of Colorado’s largest malls to our location, “so they don’t have room or a need for God in their life that they can see.” Bruegman says extreme sports such as skateboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding and the X-Games are trendsetting among Denver’s students, leaving little room for God.

“Spirituality here is huge, but the paradox is that Jesus Christ is not the way anymore for many of these teens,” Bruegman says.

One teen has been skating at Clement Park for a year. Her long, straight hair waves in the wind as she practices tricks to add to her skating repertoire. I ask her what sparked her interest in skateboarding. “The boys,” she says with a laugh. Her father is a pastor at a thriving local church. But she says she spends her time “hanging out” rather than at church.

“I don’t really like it,” she explains. “I tried it, but it’s not my thing.”

God may be her “thing,” she says, but she isn’t sure. “I mean, I know He’s there,” she explains, “but it’s not a real big factor.”

Her views seem to be shared by most skaters at Clement Park. Chris, 21, is a self-proclaimed atheist and says being forced to attend church as a child with his mother pushed him away from religion altogether. Only if his life got real bad, he says, and he had nothing else, would he go back to church. The tattoo on his right arm bears the logo of a now-defunct skateboard company. It wouldn’t surprise him, Chris says, if seven or eight out of 10 teens and college students in Denver drink or do drugs.

Bruegman asks Chris where he wants to go when he dies. “A good place, I don’t know,” he says, shrugging his shoulders, curls of brown hair sprawling from underneath his black baseball cap. “Heaven, I guess, if there is one.”

16th Street Mall
Thousands of fans stream toward Coors Field for a Colorado Rockies baseball game on this Saturday night in downtown Denver. I make my way through the crowd to the corner of 16th Street Mall (a mile-long pedestrian walkway with shops and cafés) and Arapahoe Street, four blocks from Coors Field, where most visitors would love to spend an evening enjoying Italian cuisine or sipping coffee.

Less than 50 yards away are nearly 50 street kids who hang out here. Some on skateboards attempt tricks on various steps, handrails and curbs. Nearly all of the youth know each other, but pockets of closer friendships exist within the group.

They all know Doyle Robinson, an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary, and seem to have let him into their world. Several youth give Robinson a hug as we arrive downtown. Nearly five years ago, Robinson began ministering to these Denver teens and college-age adults by giving out socks, drinks or whatever snacks he had from his minivan.

“I picked up the street name ‘Sox,’ and the Lord began opening up doors through relationships,” Robinson recalls. Trust is crucial to those friendships, he says. More than 50 Wiccans and self-proclaimed witches and vampires come through Robinson’s Sox Place (Denver’s only drop-in center) daily. Here, they can receive a free hot meal and play games in a safe environment. Simply put, “They talk to us because they trust us,” Robinson says. Some grew up in church. Most, Robinson says, went to a church at least once when they were children.

Robinson introduces me to one teen, who goes by the nickname Daisy.

Daisy, 19, says she was tired of living in hotels with her parents, who are mired in alcohol and drugs, so she ran away. But the life of freedom she sought from the streets has eluded her. Daisy professes to believe in the Lord, although she says many roads lead to eternal life.

“I see religion and the Lord and everything as a mountain,” she says. “All around the mountain is a bunch of religions. It all leads to the top, to the Lord Jesus Christ.” On the streets since she was 12, Daisy is somewhat of a veteran. She says she stays because downtown is like a drug. But she feels betrayed by the streets she thought would bring her happiness.

“There’s no real friends down here,” she says. “These people pass you a beer and hand you a joint. They don’t tell you, ‘Go home.’ They don’t tell you, ‘Go to school.’ They don’t tell you, ‘Get a job.’ They tell you to stay downtown. That’s not a true friend.”

Mario, 26, is also a veteran of these streets. And the life he learned to live under the care of his former foster parents prepared him well. They taught him how to tote guns and sell drugs, and that women are nothing but objects, Mario says. Smoking marijuana was accepted at home, he adds matter-of-factly.

In a deeper, darker past, Mario says, he was involved in cultic things.

“Some of what I saw allowed me to believe in spiritual things,” he says, his backpack strapped across one shoulder as he holds his skateboard. “I’ve never seen a physical God, but I’ve seen demons.” During a stint in jail in 1991, Mario says he accepted Christ as Savior because he knew he’d need help in life. But the lack of good influences led him to abandon his faith. Mario’s terminology throughout our conversation reveals his knowledge of God and the Bible. While Jesus Christ is an afterthought for many street youth who gather downtown, Mario seems to know whom he will serve, but only when he’s ready.

“The God I worship is Jesus Christ,” Mario says. “He was a Nazarene that went around teaching people all these great things, and how submission to God can give you great power. I haven’t given that submission in a while. I know I have to do it before I pass on.”

But no one knows when they will die.

Throughout the night as I interview and meet new people, two men argue with each other, but it seems nothing more than a scuffle. By the end of the night, the argument escalates and one man is stabbed. He had greeted me with a handshake and a couple of jokes just hours earlier. Now he is dead on the corner of 16th Street Mall and Arapahoe Street. He was 21.

Like most of Denver’s street kids, Robinson knew him well. He met him here three years ago, and had been reaching out to him ever since.

“I hope you got all this,” Mario tells me above the drone of police and ambulance sirens, “because this is the way it is.”

Yes, Mario, that’s true, I think. But it doesn’t have to be.

Isaac Olivarez is a staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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