Park Hill Congregational Church was organized in 1949 during the post-World War II building boom. The United Church of Christ (UCC) was formed in 1957 as the union of Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Our church voted to join the UCC in 1961 and has since been known as Park Hill Congregational United Church of Christ or Park Hill UCC (confusing, we know!).
Reverend David Colwell was our first permanent minister. He had a relatively orthodox, formal style and wore a clerical collar. Under his leadership, the new church grew rapidly as new families established themselves in Park Hill and adjoining neighborhoods. By 1960, the membership was nearly 700.
The initial church building was built in 1950. We hosted Temple Micah in that space for 37 years. It now houses Montessori classrooms. A classroom wing was added in 1953 and in 1956 the present sanctuary was dedicated along with a second floor suite of classrooms and music offices.
In the early 1960s, members living in Aurora wished to form a new congregation there. About 100 members left in a friendly move to form Parkview UCC. At the same time, United Airlines moved to Chicago, and the corporate move affected the many members who lived close to Denver's airport (formerly located in today's Central Park neighborhood east of Park Hill). During the pastorate of Rev. Richard Kozelka, the neighborhood began to experience other very rapid and substantial demographic changes.
Because of racist red lining policies, African Americans had been prohibited from moving across Colorado Boulevard toward Park Hill from Five Points. In the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, many began moving into Park Hill. Unscrupulous realtors sowed the seeds of fear with calls in the night about Black families moving onto the block. White flight ensued. During this period, our church joined with other congregations and many of the citizens of Park Hill to welcome neighborhood integration. Many socially committed white people chose to move to Park Hill, despite efforts by real estate agents to point them elsewhere. Through all these efforts, the area became both a desirable place to live and provided an example that racial integration works. Current gentrification is reversing many of those gains.
The turbulence didn't end, however. Rev. Roy Smith became the pastor in 1970, formerly a campus minister in Boulder. Though necessary for achieving integration, court-mandated busing in the early 70s fed further white flight. As a church we gained African American members and others who moved to Park Hill specifically because it was a diverse neighborhood, but overall membership decreased significantly.
In the 1980s, the Rocky Mountain Conference of the UCC desired a majority African American congregation—formed, not surprisingly, with the Black members of existing UCC churches. Park Hill by far had the largest number and suffered the greatest loss of the unique makeup of a diverse liberal church. That church lasted 15 years and some former members came back.
After several shorter pastorates, Park Hill called Rev. Phil Campbell in 1989. The church flourished and voted to become Open and Affirming in 1991. In 1992, at Phil's initiation, the congregation attempted to broaden its membership and entered into a co-pastorate with an African American minister. The national UCC and the Rocky Mountain Conference provided funds to assist. Though painful to admit, a year into this co-pastorate, the new minister engaged in sexual misconduct with two parishioners. This was terribly sad for many reasons, one of which was because our congregation was really pleased with the new direction of the church. The termination of the minister was handled with the help of the Rocky Mountain Conference.
The congregation stabilized around 200 members and lived into its identity as a progressive Christian community. Phil was very active in neighborhood affairs. He helped lead a state-wide effort to support same-gender marriage. And led the congregation to become "A Just Peace Church."
After 15 years of excellent leadership, Phil departed in 2005 to teach at Iliff School of Theology. We had an extended interim period that included two ministers, Rev. Andrea Anastos, then Rev. Jack Wieczorek - a time marked with conflict. Membership decreased, but during this time, the congregation discovered the strength and value of lay leadership.
Rev. David Bahr came at Thanksgiving 2007 from Cleveland, Ohio, where he had served an inner-city congregation for 15 years. David had helped turn a dying all-white church into a dynamic multiracial, open and affirming community known for inventive ministry around the city. In fact, David was named one of Cleveland's "50 Most Interesting People" for his annual stint as a "hostage" in the steeple to raise food donations—and for being the first openly gay pastor in Ohio (among just a few throughout the U.S. at the time.)
Under David's leadership, Park Hill UCC adopted a long-range plan in 2010 which, among other things, notably asked the congregation to discern whether it would be better stewardship to sell the building and share a facility with another congregation or stay and invest in a capital campaign. The building needed extensive maintenance as well as safety upgrades. It also simply appeared shabby and unwelcoming. The decision in 2012 to "move or stay" was very contentious. A narrow majority (47-53) voted to stay and invest in the building. Though a painful time, very few people ultimately left because of the vote and the congregation got to work restoring relationships and preparing for a new era.
We received over $500,000 from 52 pledges and many more gifts to bring light and vitality into the narthex (lobby), create a welcoming kitchen/dining area, tear down walls to create space for hospitality, and much more. One of the most dramatic changes was to the look of the sanctuary. In 2015, long rigid rows of pews were replaced with movable chairs to create flexibility and intimacy. The pulpit, seven steps above the congregation, was removed. While the pulpit fit with the neo-orthodox theology of the 1950s, it became an impediment to progressive Christianity in 2015.
As a result of the more open and flexible Sanctuary layout, worship attendance immediately grew by 20% and kept going - especially when Donald Trump was elected president. We took a very clear stand that our faith led us to create a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. We offered a sharp prophetic voice. As a result, growth included many more families with children. At the same time, many non-profit and community groups began to use our church facilities - including Black Lives Matter 5280. Any group whose mission is racial justice may use the building free. Other social justice groups are simply asked to "pass the hat."
That led to further facility investments: solar panels, energy efficiency measures (through a $100,000 grant from Energy Outreach Colorado), xeric landscaping to reduce water use, and a labyrinth. In the end, nearly $1,000,000 was raised and spent to make the building safe, hospitable, and energy efficient.
Meanwhile, more than 60 adults and youth have gone on one our annual work trips to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In 2016, 30 people engaged in white privilege education for six months, the start of our racial justice ministry. We hosted a refugee family from Nepal, our third, and welcomed a group of asylum seeking Nicaraguan youth. And we engaged in a "relational campaign" that gave us skills and encouragement for building relationships across the many divides in our world.
Around the same time as the capital campaign was underway, we began hosting the Women's Homelessness Initiative, welcoming 20 unhoused women every Tuesday night, 26 nights per year. It is a massive volunteer effort. And one of the best things we've ever done as a congregation. The program was interrupted, like everything else, during the pandemic. Our participation in that program, as well as other initiatives among people without homes, has shifted to providing food and water.
During the pandemic we moved our worship services, small groups, and classes online. We discovered, or were discovered by a whole new congregation of isolated progressive Christians. Our church life has vastly expanded. We anxiously await a time when we can return to worship in person. But with investments in a vision we call Park Hill 2.0, we will also remain a digital congregation, including participants from around the country. We are excited by all the possibilities.
Park Hill UCC is living into the future by asking not what is the future of the church, but what is the church of the future. You are invited to participate in this vision.