Since 2014, Hope United Methodist Church has served as a beacon of hope and promise in the Rocky Mountain Conference’s church planting world. Collaborating with denominational and secular organizations, Hope UMC is bringing the ‘good news’ of God’s radical welcome beyond the walls of their building through the development of 9.7 acres of Conference-owned property in Aurora, Colorado into a faith based community called “The Land.” Existing as a church without walls, The Land pairs spiritual practice and agricultural ritual in a vision of gathering people together around faith, food, and farming. Hope UMC’s ongoing emotional and financial support for The Land’s part-time pastoral leadership has evolved into a model of the holy possibilities of courageous creativity embraced within the context of a loving partnership.
While developing property from ‘scratch’ can often take years if not decades, over the past twelve months, The Land has celebrated significant milestones, affirming the decision to develop a faith community committed to exploring what discipleship look like in the 21st century. This summer The Land was presented with multiple opportunities to engage people of faith in this question through onsite mission experiences. Groups of 10 to 40 gathered out on The Land to begin creating the infrastructure for the 2-acre edible labyrinth by laying rope outlining the pathways and painting prayer stones that are laid upon the rope. Groups from the Rocky Mountain United Methodist Annual Conference, Christ Church Denver, and Hope United Methodist Church worked throughout the summer resulting in the production of almost half of the labyrinth’s pathways being laid. In November, The Land will be welcoming a group from St. Andrews. Given the increasing interest in mission opportunities at The Land, it is anticipated that labyrinth’s outline will be completed by June of 2018.
In what has felt like a ‘long winter’ in the timeline of our The Land’s development, laying the labyrinth with rope and prayer stones has been a meaningful way to engage people of faith while simultaneously continuing to work through the entitlements process with the City of Aurora. While we celebrate the administrative approval of our contextual site plan late this summer, we continue to work towards completion of our technical submission before we will be able to receive the permitting to begin physical development of the property. The Land Board of Directors anticipates completing this entitlements process by March 2018 and has begun intensive planning around both the capital budgeting for development in Phase 1a and the fundraising strategies that will be necessary to support this initial capital development.
Inclusive of property grading, fencing, sign installation, water container installment, driveway and parking lot construction, and full build-out of the outdoor amphitheater and edible labyrinth, Phase 1a of The Land development is being estimated to require approximately $500,000 in capital funding. Although the capital investment required to develop the property to a point for optimal programming is daunting, it remains encouraging that a grant for $250,000 has already been awarded to The Land from the Rocky Mountain Conference Legacy Fund. In addition, expenses associated with the development of an agricultural-based faith community remain minimal compared to the development costs of a traditional denominational church. Avoiding the capital and maintenance costs of a large building, the vision of The Land invests in outdoor structures that not only have the capacity to produce capital through the formation of community supported agricultural cooperatives, but also enables the denomination to meaningfully utilize this property to engage people of faith in discipleship in spite of the fact that it lacks access to City utilities and therefore is currently unable to obtain building permits.
At the Board’s annual Fall planning retreat, the Land Board committed to focusing 2018 on casting vision and building community. Alongside continuing to host quarterly worship services, regular mission experiences will be offered centered around the spiritual practices of walking the labyrinth and painting prayer rocks and agricultural rituals that enrich the soil and encourage good spiritual stewardship of our ecological resources. Whether gathering to work or worship, at the heart of all we do is a vision to facilitate a sacred space that connects the food we grow and eat with the faith we practice.
Volunteer opportunities in 2018 at The Land include persons able to help set up and clean up tents, tables, and chairs at worship services. For these quarterly worship services, we also welcome persons interested in reading scripture and serving communion. Additionally, The Land Board of Directors is seeking a book keeper and persons with fundraising expertise or grant writing experience who have time to volunteer to the continued administrative responsibilities involved in forming a new non-profit. Mission work days for groups of 4-12 people will begin in late Spring for persons interested in continuing the physical labor of laying the labyrinth. To stay in touch with progress and programming out at The Land you can follow us on Facebook or sign up for our quarterly email newsletter.
Rev. Stephanie Price, Pastor of Development at The Land UMC
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Some of my favorite memories involve growing, cooking and sharing food. So when the idea to start The Land project began, I knew it was a cause I could get behind.
Gathering people around food, faith and farming is a wonderful way to celebrate life. It allows people to connect with nature on a spiritual level. Some will glean wisdom, some will be inspired and some will be entertained. Some will find sanctitude, some will find community and some will find God. This connection to nature might feel different to each person, but everyone will find a special part of themselves that they didn’t know existed.
My unwavering belief in The Land’s promise stems from a spiritual experience, something that happened to me in second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Janson, asked us to save three pieces of trash from our lunch that day. I choose a banana peel, plastic straw and a cardboard milk container. After lunch, Mrs. Janson took us outside to bury our items in the school yard and mark them with popsicle sticks. Then we waited three months. When the day came to unearth our trash, we were excited. First I tried to dig up the milk container, but it had broken down into a clump of soil. I was blown away. Then I dug up the straw and it was entirely the same as when I buried it—in tact with a red and yellow stripe down the side. What a letdown. Then I tried to dig up my banana peel, but it was completely gone. I thought it was magic. Mrs. Janson had talked up decomposition and critters in the soil that could break down organic matter, but it really didn’t mean much to me until I unearthed my little plot of trash to witness nature’s magical abilities first hand.
This life lesson taught me that it is important to connect with the land that surrounds you. This means tending to it in ways that mimic nature. This means building soil with mulch and compost; not synthetic fertilizers. This means sculpting it in ways that can capture rainwater and store it in the soil. I see great promise for The Land and I am excited to be part of something so special. I look forward to being part of a community that believes we should grow food in ways that work with Mother Nature; not against her.
I hope you will join us!
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I am Renee Tahja, I have been a Methodist my entire life, I grew up in Wyoming and I graduated from the University of Wyoming, College of Agriculture. I have worked both as Petroleum Engineer and Chemist. I am currently a K-12 substitute teacher in CCSD. I am a wife and mother to two amazing boys ages 5 and 8.
It was in March that I felt a connection and a passion for “The Land” and the ministry it offers. For years I felt comfortable with my relationship and with Christ. I came to church, I followed “the rules” of a good Methodist, supported ministries of the church, gave my offering, and l loved others. In the spring of 2016 I felt an almost uneasy calling for something more, a deeper relationship, or call for a greater being or service. At this time I was in a Path group and also reading Last Call: From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus by Rev Jerry Herships. It was both The Path and the book that helped me realize a direction/action for this call. I realized that I had neighbors that feel that because of past mistakes, or lifestyle choice or simply because of who they love, feel judged, or unwelcome, or undeserving to come to church. “The Land” is taking the Love of Christ beyond the walls of the Church to all People.
The truth is none of us deserve the Grace of God and Unconditional love of Christ. The Good news is that Grace and Love do not have to be earned, they are gifts. Gifts given to us over and over despite our choices, mistakes, judgement of others, or our circumstances. I see “The Land” as a place where people can worship and through agricultural practice come to know this truth. How amazing! A place where you can grow spiritually while growing healthy nutritional food for our neighbors. A place to be loved and to serve. I am excited for the edible labyrinth. A seed holds so much promise, the promise of new life, growth, and eventually fruit. I look forward to walking the labyrinth, growing my spiritual “seed”, while observing the promise and growth of every seed into a plant. In addition, many people find and feel closest to God not in a church building built by man, but in nature, the world, on the land He created for us.
I see “The Land” providing an all welcoming, all loving place where everyone from any walk of life or any lifestyle can gather to worship, to find or deepen their relationship with Christ, receive and share the love of Christ, and provide a venue for community education, and serve God through agricultural practices.
On Friday while serving friends without homes in Civic Center Park, a woman asked me “Why? Why do you do this?” (meaning why do you take time to bring her and other homeless lunch). My answer is simple because there is always room in this world for more love. Love is the greater than all of the pain in the world. To me “The Land” is a place of Love.
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The Land envisions a faith community that nourishes sacred relationships between the Creator and all of Creation. Our mission is to integrate agricultural practice and spiritual disciplines to facilitate individual and communal transformation. Through worship, small group engagement, and missional activities, “The Land” exists to collectively answer the question, “What does Holy Living look like in the 21st century?” Just as John Wesley sought to inspire people toward a practical theology, “The Land” invites people to experience discipleship as they care for the earth, harvest God’s gifts, and fill the souls and stomachs of their neighbors. Each item located on The Land is created to be a manifestation of this vision, co-opting spiritual ritual and agricultural practice:
- Community Garden: A handicap-accessible ‘Edible Labyrinth’ located at the northeast edge of the site designed for the integration of 0.8 acres of cultivated beds and 1.2 miles of 5’wide crushed granite path wrapped at a 120’ walkway leading to the center.
- ‘Green’ Gathering Space: An Outdoor Amphitheater with a capacity of 176 based on the construction of 44 parking spaces (5 handicap accessible) to be located centrally on the south end of the site as it utilizes the natural topography of the site and will be fully accessible via an ADA-approved crushed granite path wrapping from the Edible Labyrinth to the Outdoor Amphitheater.
- Cathedral Greenhouse: A 4,000-9,500 SF/multi-functional space for worship services and year round growing of produce; a sanctuary for neighbors in need and a meeting place for organizations with like-minded purposes of caring for creation and one another.
- Barn/Bunk House: A 6,000-8,000 SF/2-story bldg. w/ commercial kitchen and seating for 250 with tables/accommodations for groups of up to 20 people to stay overnight.
At it’s full development, The Land will function as a Laboratory for spiritual growth in the Community, telling the unfolding story of a God has not only created but who continues to create.
After spending the past three years just beneath the surface of an undeveloped property in Aurora, Colorado, The Land Faith Community is steadily breaking ground, reaching new milestones and forming new partnerships. This July, The Land was officially incorporated as a non-profit and celebrated the award of a $2,500 In Kind Marketing Grant from ReThink Church.
In addition, Regis University has taken The Land on as its ‘Scope of Work’ MBA Class Project which dedicates the attention of 6 MBA students over the course of 8-weeks to continue development on financial management processes and fundraising implementation. Regis University responded to the concept of The Land with enthusiasm, stating that “calling this a Church just doesn’t quite do it justice.” Yet, that is just the intent of The Land. To challenge the perception of the institutional church by redefining what discipleship means in the 21stcentury. Gathering people together through food, faith, and farming, The Land is an expression of Church in the 21st century—the transformative power of a community seeking to align their everyday actions with their core beliefs.
There is no linear story to tell for The Land’s development; no steps to follow per se. Even if you wanted to get where I am, I couldn’t offer you much advice because most days I am not sure where that place I am even is.
I can share with you that in the 1980s the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church began purchasing parcels of land throughout the Denver-Metro area for the future development of faith communities and that the final remaining property to be developed is 9.5 acres located on Powhaton Rd and what will one day be Exposition Avenue. I can share that in September of 2013 our team requested a $5,000 grant from the New Church Development Committee of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church to explore the feasibility for a new faith community on this property.
And I can tell you that on April 2, 2014, the team presented the findings of the feasibility study to the New Church Development Team reporting that while an agriculturally-based faith community was a viable model for this particular property in Southeast Aurora, our dependency on the developer for utilities combined with the stagnation of the surrounding neighborhood development determined that our would be most effectively launched in 3-5 years. For various practical reasons, we imagined that the planting of this church was 7-10 years into the future. I was considering what my pastoral ‘next steps’ would be as we waited.
Then in October of 2014 I was approached by Amy Behres from the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union about the possibility of a group of Somali-Bantu Refugees farming on the property while the project waited for the neighborhood development to begin. To further investigate this possibility, a phone conference with Libby Tart Schoenfelder, a Senior Planner with the City of Aurora, was scheduled to discuss alternative sources of water to irrigate the property. It was during this phone conference that we learned that the new concept for Melcor’s surrounding development was Community Gardens and Orchards and that their property development timeline was being moved up to the Spring of 2015. Soon after this phone conference The Land team gave a preliminary presentation to the City of Aurora Planning Team.
The City became an enthusiastic advocate for the vision, allowing us to propose a temporary water solution to begin development prior to the accessibility to utilities and combining our development with the larger Framework Development Plan of the Harmony development. With the momentum the City of Aurora provided, the Conference responded by granting the team a request for 250k from the Legacy Fund in May of 2015. This financial support from the Conference provided the confidence to the church where I currently serve to continue supporting my full time salary while adjusting my job description to include serving as a missionary to The Land beginning in July 2016.
In a snapshot this is how we have gotten to where we are yet none of these surface dates and serendipitous stories even begin to reflect the reality of how The Land has gotten to where it is today.
Shekinah is a Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light disseminating presence, bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be-a place. It’s not a public spectacle but more like a selective showing at God’s direction to encourage or affirm, to reveal a reality of something that we do not yet have eyes to see.
People like you and me need that Shekinah story. Our congregations need it. Most of what we do in getting our congregations going doesn’t look anything like what people expect it to.
The story of Shekinah is set in Jerusalem at a time when Jews were returning from their Babylonian captivity. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and its magnificent Solomonic temple. Meanwhile the Persian king, Cyrus, had conquered Babylon and gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland. He also generously made provision for them to rebuild the destroyed temple. Hope was at high tide. The devastation and heartache of those long years of living in a pagan culture among foreign gods was over –they would be able to worship God again on their native soil, reenter the splendid sacred precincts, and begin again to serve God in the place redolent with storied memories.
And this is the story as we know it.
Except there is more, the story according to mystical Judaism of the Middle Ages continues sharing that when the people arrived they took one look at the restored temple and wept at what they saw. The Solomonic temple of that for five hundred years had provided a glorious centering for their life as a people of God had been replaced by what looked to them like a tarpaper shack. The squalid replacement broke their hearts, and they wept. As they wept, a dazzling, light-resplendent presence descended, the Shekinah-God’s personal presence-and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory. They lifted their arms in praise. They were truly home. God was truly present. The Shekinah faded out. The glory stayed.
I can’t give you a play by play of how you should start a successful new faith community or even why one would embrace such a task. Probably because in my experience it isn’t something you do but something that happens around you, slowly but surely, rising up from the ground at the same time things seem to be crumbling around us. It takes faith to believe in the building up of the invisible; in the manifestation of Shekinah. We dare to design a church that expresses the way we intend to live in this place and worship in this place and these places, these temples, will rarely look like Church as our institutions define them.
It takes vigilance to witness and tell the stories of these births in terms of the only common thread visible throughout these mixed up journey through ruins and rainbows. The common thread of God’s presence, Shekinah, showing up each time I reach the place I thought I was supposed to be only to discover there was so much more work to be done. Each time I reach the end of the rope only to discover there are 500 more yards buried just beneath the surface. Each time I cry, or laugh, or grow impatient or ambiguous, God shows up. And I learn over and over to fall in love with the process not the product. To fall in love with a people not a place. A dream not a destination.
The Land is a church that does not look like a church with a pastor who does not look like a pastor. What better place for a modern day Shekinah to remind a lonely world they are never alone.
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I am Mary Jane Harmony, recently retired after spending 40 years with a Haliburton company, Hewlett Packard, and most recently a Small Business Administration lender. I was raised in the same Methodist church in Wichita Falls, Texas that my mother and grandparents attended, but left the church and church life for a significant part of my adult life. I returned in 2000 when I found a home at Hope UMC in Greenwood Village. I have been on a spiritual path literally and figuratively since then.
I was introduced to the concept of The Land several years ago when it was first being presented at Hope. From the very beginning I was excited about the possibilities that this new concept of a faith community provided, and I am still excited about it. My spirit thrives out of doors. When I am walking in the woods or along a stream, I feel a connection to the Holy One more deeply than anywhere else. I believe this is true of many others. Trees and birds and animals have a direct connection to nature and to God that I lose touch with in a busy life. That is why The Land is so appealing to me – because of the direct connection to nature and to God.
There are many individuals in our community who were not raised in the church as I was and who would never consider attending a worship service. The idea of changing the location and method of worship from being surrounded by hymns and a beautiful building to being sung to by meadow larks and gold finches is delightful to me, and I believe it would be welcoming to many who would not enter a formal church.
Looking across the raw land as it is today, it is easy to visualize the future. I can see the labyrinth, the orchard, the walkways and the outdoor amphitheater. I can imagine myself walking and praying there. I can imagine the people I will be learning to love there, and it is a rich image.
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