Over the past five weeks I’ve been to a lot of really cool places and met many great people doing a bunch of inspiring things. It is really hard to pick favorites, but I have to say that I’m especially inspired by the adventures of the refuge in Broomfield, Colorado. This is a group mostly made up of “exiles” from evangelical churches in the northwestern suburbs of Denver. They are taking the whole resource-sharing bit that Jesus taught seriously. Not planning to move in with each other just yet, but there is a strong sense of common purpose to make sure that each others’ needs are met. I’m always intrigued by this model because I think it is easier to swallow than the all-or-nothing communalism that most people write off as too idealistic to work.
But what really has me all riled up about this crowd is where they meet. And yes, I know that community is much more than a building, and churches put way too much emphasis on building fancy new buildings (often out in the middle of nowhere, separate from any houses in which community actually might occur). This congregation has its main meeting in a century-old Grange hall that its members brought back from near death. There is a certain beauty to the way that things have looped around.
I should begin by explaining The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. This is a fraternal order that has sought to build a stronger and more moral rural America since just after the Civil War. It has been involved in bringing people together across congregational lines, so that they might more effectively work together on their common issues as rural people. The Grange has been involved in a number of cooperative farm supply stores like this one in southern Oregon, and still maintains a mutual insurance company in six western states.
Not surprisingly, the Grange movement is shrinking along with our agricultural sector. This is especially true in the outskirts of cities, where farms have swallowed up by suburbs of cities like Denver. This brings us to Broomfield.
The Crescent Grange (#136) sits on a forgotten stretch of 120th St, which was cut off by a realignment of the main thoroughfare when the US-36 turnpike to Boulder was built back in the day. It is a short walk from two grain elevators, one of which was built by Adolph Coors to supply his brewing company with barley. One of these has been refashioned into an auto shop with silos sticking out of its top, but the other is still relatively unchanged. Both are bedecked with cellular phone transmitters. There are several other old buildings on this little strip of small-town neglect, and several streets look like typical suburbia except for the lack of paving. Habitat for Humanity has a recent development in the area. All this is surrounded by an almost complete blanket of development that first arrived back in the 1950s thanks to visionary rich white guys whose valiant exploits are described in this newsreel. There are nine golf courses within a five mile radius. Nine!
The latest development plan calls for a new light rail line along the rails that explain why there would be two grain elevators in this spot. They also plan to build a bypass around the old bypass, which will further isolate this little eddy from the flow of progress. It should be no surprise that the Crescent Grange was not doing very well last year. The membership had dwindled to about three old-timers, who apparently were ready to throw in the towel when some strange Christians approached them about renting the hall. When the Grangers rebuffed the request, members of the refuge began to join the Crescent Grange. Before long, they were joined by a Mexican folk dancing group that was looking for a rehearsal space.
The state Grange is happy that one of their halls is coming back to life, as shown in these pictures of the inside from the moving-in party back in November. The Crescent Grange remains a separate organization, which is still required to have its meetings, run its business, and conduct its traditional rituals incorporating Christian and agrarian symbolism. There is a great old basement dining hall, and several trophy cases lining the walls. The place smells really really old, kind of like a library.
They have nearly an acre of land, and so they are planning to put in a community garden. This might be a starting point for a small farmstand on the cement pad between the porch and a barely-discernible stretch of sidewalk that is only as wide as the building itself.
They are also viewing this building as a starting point for an ongoing presence in this area. There is talk about people moving into the strange little neighborhood, or into other areas nearby that are growing pockets of suburban poverty. At the moment, the “inner city” is often seen as where people need the most help, but it is these teetering suburbs that are rapidly becoming outdated by newer projects, where folks like some of the refugees have sensed that there is a huge difference to be made. We must keep in mind that the places like where Wally and the Beaver once played are now Compton and East LA and Watts. Suburbs lack the accessibility and charm of older neighborhoods, and if we let them go, they will be much harder to get back. Tough urban neighborhoods cannot be easily ignored in the same way that tough suburban cul-de-sacs might.
So bravo to the refuge. I don’t know what y’all are up to out there, and I know that you are figuring it out yourselves. But I think it is really important on a whole bunch of levels: stewardship of resources, caring for the needy, and resurrecting a key part of US rural history, all rolled up in a ball. It was a really nice end to my big tour.
So this about wraps it up. Denver is one of the most intensely transitional cities I know. To the east lies the great plains, and to the west lies the great mountains. There is a very abrupt transition between two very different places, and it is this sudden shift to the mountains that has always seemed like the first homecoming whenever I have traveled back from the east. It was really great to linger on this boundary for a few days, having spent nearly a month since I left the real West. Tomorrow morning I get back on the train for the spectacular ride across the Colorado Rockies and the Utah Desert, and then Saturday I’ll wake up somewhere in Nevada for that last homestretch over my own mountain range, the Sierra Nevada.
Then I’ll be home and ready to start blogging about the news again. Gosh, I hope there is something in the news for me to blog about…