In September 2015, just months after a shooter took the lives of nine individuals at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., two leaders from American Baptist congregations in Denver met by chance at a regional conference.
Rev. Anne Scalfaro, lead pastor of Calvary Baptist, and Rev. Dr. Eugene Downing Jr., lead pastor of New Hope Baptist, were moved by calls for unity and reconciliation following that tragic event. So following a suggestion from church leaders, the two ministers began to get to know one another personally, professionally and theologically, with the end goal of doing something to bring their communities together.
“Our conversations started by meeting for coffee and discussing current events, said Pastor Scalfaro. “We talked about what was going on in our country and in our city, as it related to race. We had a dream of a partnership, but we began by getting to know one another first.”
Both pastors valued the genuine dialogue they had over coffee with no agenda and no outcomes in mind. They recognized an alignment in both theology and community focus.
”I have really been enriched by our professional acquaintance,” said Pastor Downing. “I completed my education at historically black colleges and have led a congregation that was primarily African American. I was never completely sure how someone outside of our community viewed events like Charleston or other inequalities in the world.
“My coffees with Anne have been encouraging in these times when we hear so much about division,” he said. “We found common ground.”
After several months of casual meetings, the two pastors brought their congregations — one predominantly Caucasian and the other African American — together. The goal was to see if their congregations could benefit from open, nonjudgmental conversations around community challenges and hopes.
“We dove right in with a joint congregation dinner,” said Downing. ‘We didn’t have a formal agenda, but facilitated a discussion about what we as two church congregations could do in light of what happened in Charleston.”
Approximately 150 church members attended that 2016 dinner.
‘We realized there is so much in our city that can be done,” said Scalfaro. “But the best way to work on racial reconciliation is to build relationships and make an impact together. We didn’t want to focus exclusively on getting to know one another, but to build relationships by doing something together.”
Following the dinner, the two church leaders coordinated round-table conversations on two more narrowly focused areas: affordable housing and education. They discussed statistics related to race, affordable housing and education, as well as personal stories and experiences from congregation members.
Next, the congregations formed a joint leadership committee to draft a mission and vision.
Another pivotal moment in the partnership was a viewing of the play “Black” produced by Curious Theatre Company followed by a facilitated discussion. The play, written by Lamaria Aminah. was born of her involvement with Black Lives Matter 5280 and her desire to articulate a common problem she saw in our country — that we do not know how to talk about race.
“We invited our community into this conversation with us through the play,” said Downing.
“Conversation and connection with our neighbors is undervalued. We have more in common than we think. We have an opportunity to bring our community together and show them how to share personal experiences and perspectives in a nonjudgmental way. We have a lot of work to do around relationship building and issues of race.”
The leadership committee eventually narrowed its focus to education and hosted a third joint luncheon in October 2017 titled “Getting Educated about Education in Colorado … and working together to make a difference for Colorado kids!”
The luncheon included educators from Aurora and Denver Public Schools. as well as national experts in the field. The panel shared experiences and challenges around closing the achievement gap and ensuring all children receive a quality education in Colorado, particular\y as it relates to the hurdles and challenges that children from rural areas and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face in Colorado public schools.
“We began to discern how our two churches can make a difference around supporting students, families and educators.” shared Scalfaro. In April 2018, the churches invited Denver Public Schools (DPS) to discuss opportunities for the congregations to do something together to support the schools.
For Denver Public Schools’ Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) partnering with faith-based communities is one way to reach families in a place they feel safe.
“In the current political climate, many of our families are facing fears of deportation, retaliation and other uncertainties,” said Theresa Becker, executive director of FACE. “As a result, many of our parents are less open to participation in public events. We need to shift the way we think about building relationships with families … DPS knows many families are more comfortable meeting with teachers outside of schools, but many are not comfortable inviting outsiders into their home. Churches provide a place where students and families feel safe.
The parent/teacher “home visit” program is a vital way for teachers to build relationships with families, ultimately contributing to student success. As of the start of the 2018 school year, both New Hope and Calvary have offered their buildings to DPS for use as a safe meeting space for these essential meetings.
“We are always searching for new ways to reach families and provide support for teachers who are already doing great work for our students,” said Lesha Mitchell who runs the parent/teacher home visit program for DPS. ‘This is just one way we can provide the best resource for our educators as they work to build relationships with families … .”
In early March 2019, after numerous shared conversations, cultural and worship experiences, Calvary and New Hope have committed to work together with nearby Stedman Elementary School — staffing their POWER LUNCH literacy program, hosting Parent Teacher Home Visits, and providing volunteers for joint group projects at the school.
The POWER LUNCH program unites 30 Calvary and New Hope volunteers every other Friday to read with a classroom of third-graders. Each volunteer pair (one Calvary volunteer and one New Hope volunteer) is matched with a child, allowing a model in relationship building across generations and diversities.
And on May 5, 2019, the two churches came together formally to sign a Covenant of Action at a joint luncheon held at New Hope Baptist Church, officially becoming part of the New Baptist Covenant movement, and committing to an ongoing partnership that advances the work of racial reconciliation and justice in the Denver area.
“I am proud and humbled to serve a church who is willing to put in the time and work to cultivate relationships with another congregation to be a strong witness of relationships between people of diverse and different backgrounds,” said Pastor Scalfaro, “Every time we challenge ourselves to experience something new and to listen to another person’s story, we are growing, and so is the kingdom of God.
“At times these experiences can feel like challenges,” she continued, “but there is so much celebration waiting to be had if we take a risk, isn’t there?”
— By Sarah Hogan, a freelance writer in Denver. This article first appeared in Nonprofit Colorado, a publication of the Colorado Nonprofit Association.