There we stood, spies on the banks of our own Jordan River, looking into the Promised Land. Our river was a sidewalk on Pikes Peak Ave. in downtown Colorado Springs. It was a Friday afternoon in April, 2011. We had been through quite a bit in the past few years. In 2007 we had left the Episcopal Church over issues of theology (that is another story for another time), and after losing a two year legal battle over the $17 million historic property we found ourselves homeless. We quickly secured a lease on a building that had once been a private school that had gone bankrupt soon after moving in. It was not an ideal building. It had been designed to be a school for young children and not a church, so we had to be a bit creative with how we used the space. It looked nice but had been cheaply built. Nevertheless, it had provided us a with place of retreat as we licked our wounds and regrouped.
We were very intentional in framing the time in this building as our Wilderness Period. The setting was certainly appropriate. The building was nestled into the edge of the foothills and hidden behind a neighborhood. It was literally a wild west “hole in the wall” where bandits would come to hide out from the law. We were thankful to have a place to go, but we knew it was only going to be temporary. We told the congregation we would be there for two years, the same amount of time the Israelites were supposed to be in their wilderness period. For Israel, the extra 38 years were added on because of fear and unfaithfulness. We were determined not to repeat the same mistake. Thus our reason for standing on this sidewalk.
We had been looking for a new building for the past couple of months, and the prospects were not good. Everything was either too expensive, too small, or not in a good location. Privately the leadership was starting to get a little worried. And then one day the senior warden called the Rector and me to his office. He was a local realtor and had been searching for a building that would work for us. As we sat down, Jack was almost giddy with excitement. He said, “I’ve found the perfect building for us!” Our own excitement quickly faded when we saw the listing on his computer. It was for the Syn nightclub. This, we thought, was not a good idea.
The building we were looking at had not always been the Syn nightclub. In the 1870s, when General William Palmer founded Colorado Springs, he was determined that it would not be a typical wild west town with a saloon on every corner. So, he donated land in the center of his new city to all of the major Christian denominations. In 1874, Grace Episcopal Church was built on Pikes Peak Ave., two blocks away from the center of town. It was the first stone building in Colorado Springs. Over the next 20 years the congregation grew and they added on to the building. In the 1890s a debate over churchmanship split the parish. A group of parishioners left and went a mile down the street to form St. Stephen’s Parish. The two churches coexisted for the next 20-30 years. By the 1920s both congregations had outgrown their space. It was decided that the congregations would come back together and reform as one parish. With their pooled resources they were able to build a beautiful new gothic church on the St. Stephen’s property, so in 1925 Grace Church shuttered her doors as the congregation moved down the street to form the new Grace Church & St. Stephen’s Parish.
The old building served as a storehouse for a couple of years before being converted into a restaurant. It was called “The Chapel Inn” for a few years, and then “The Village Inn.” Despite the name, this establishment had nothing to do with the pancake restaurant we all know today. It was the kind of place that people would go for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. At some point the majority of the old nave and sanctuary were torn down and replaced with a Greyhound Bus terminal, but it was still easy to recognize the building as a former church. After many years as a community landmark the Village Inn went out of business. I’m not sure what happened after that, but when I moved to Colorado Springs in 2003 this venerable property had been turned into a nightclub called Eden. The owners had played on the “church” theme of the building, and each room had been designated as either a “heaven” room or a “hell” room. The plumbing and electrical work were completely redone and the basement was excavated to double the size. But despite the work and money they put into the building, bad things kept happening there. They were caught selling booze to minors and fined. They figured a name change would help restore their fortunes, so they rebranded as “13 Pure.” Then they got in trouble for allowing a film crew from the “Girls Gone Wild” video series into the building, which violated their liquor license. With the probation came another name change to “Syn.” Before the probation was over there was a huge gang battle on the premises. Every on duty police officer in the city had to be called out to break things up. The city finally got wise and revoked their liquor license. Apparently the owner was out of new names, so he put the building up for sale.
And so there we stood, looking at it from the street. When we called the listing agent to request a showing, her first response was, “You don’t want that building.” We assured her that we wanted to at least look at it, but she was skeptical to say the least. It took some convincing on our part, but she finally agreed to show us the property. When the agent arrived on that April afternoon she unlocked the door but refused to go into the building herself. And thus we crossed that Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. It was pitch black inside, all of the windows having been blacked out for that “nightclub” feel. The air was stale and musty. The smell of old rotting wood and booze hung heavy in the air. We could feel the evil all around us.
With no idea where to find a light switch, we resorted to our cell phone flashlights to look around. The first room was fairly large. An abandoned bar occupied the wall to the right. Half full bottles of liquor sat open on the tables. At some point pipes in the floor had broken, so the hardwood was torn up and warped. We continued through a small hallway and found ourselves in what had once been the narthex of the original church. The walls were covered in dirty purple velvet. What remained of the original nave had been turned into a dance floor with a D.J. stand at one end and dance lights suspended from the ceiling. Someone finally found a breaker box and the lights suddenly went on, but the scene did not improve. Next to the nave was another large room with another bar. At each end of the bar were dancing poles. Church legend says that there is video evidence of me swinging on one of those poles, but I have never seen proof of it. The floor beneath our feet was hardwood, but it was tough to tell because it was covered with year of discarded gum.
We headed back through the little hallway to the first room and found the restrooms at the far end. The ladies’ room was a sight to behold. For starters it was huge, way bigger than any restroom needs to be. It was also very, very pink. But the most amazing part was the lighting. Three enormous crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The term “garish” did not do this room justice. I kept thinking, “This is what the restroom of a bordello must look like.” The next room over was another bar, and it was blue. And when I say blue, I mean ALL blue. There was so much blue in that room that it was disorienting. From the blue room a set of stairs descended into the basement. Once down there our cell phone flashlights came back out. It looked like a scene out of a horror movie. Most of the ceiling had been torn out and electric wires and lighting cans hung down at random intervals. An entire wall was occupied by large beds, each with its own TV monitor on the wall. Another large bar occupied the center section of the basement and metal sheeting had been used to decorate the walls. A dark stone hallway led to a VIP room complete with white couches and glittery stone walls.
With our tour complete we gathered together back in the main room. This was certainly not a turn key project. The entire building would need to be gutted and redone. But there was something special about this building. You see, we had come out of Grace Church & St. Stephen’s Parish, so this was our church. We had people in our congregation who had family members who had attended church in this very building. It was ugly, it was dirty, and it was broken. Nobody wanted it. It was the woman caught in adultery, beaten and discarded, steeped in her own sin. And yet, we loved her. We longed to make her ours again. We saw her not for what she was, but for what she had been created to be and what she could be once again. We decided then and there that this would be our new home.
Not everyone was on board. Members of the parish and the Vestry had serious concerns. This was a lot of money and a huge risk. Many of them said, “You’ll never turn that building back into a church.” Several people, including a vestry member, left the church as a result. But unlike the Israelite spies, we weren’t going to let fear get the better of us. We made the owners a lowball offer and they accepted it. We came up with some creative ways to raise $650,000 for the downpayment and renovation, and on a sunny day in July we signed the papers. After 86 years, 217 E. Pikes Peak Ave. was once again a church.
This is our story. Like each one of us, this building was created to be a thing of beauty, a beacon to God’s love and mercy to the world. But despite the intention of our creator, we like this building find ourselves in sin. We are beaten, broken and battered. We are despised and rejected. And still, God comes to us and extends his hand of grace. He has signed the papers with the blood of Christ and bought back what was originally his. That is the definition of redemption. It is only after we have been redeemed that we can once again start living the life that was originally purposed for us.
The owners of the Syn nightclub had built a large wall in front of the building, effectively obscuring it from the street. Moments after signing the papers we tore those walls down. We removed the blackouts from the windows. Light burst forth where it had been absent for so long. There was still an incredible amount of work to do, but the redemption was now complete and we were able to begin the long, hard work of sanctifying our new home. We had once again crossed the Jordan, this time to take possession of the Promised Land. Just as Israel had many years of work ahead of them before they could find rest in Canaan, so too did we have a grand task ahead of us. But that is a story for another time.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.