Sunday, December 23, 2012

Faith That Moves Mountains from a Defunct Airport in Denver

Stapleton Airport is now a residential community
Last year at this time, I was in Addis Ababa to attend the induction of Ethiopian Airlines into the Star Alliance.  After the ceremony we went to the country's northwest to visit the 12th Century churches of Lalibela, carved bit by bit from the mountains.

This December, I spent a few days in Denver, Colorado, reporting for The New York Times on the transition of the former Stapleton Airport into an in-town residential community. It is a resurrection story of sorts- as an airport takes on an altogether different mission.


A few buildings from the old airport remain, the most iconic being the air traffic control tower, which sits just west of the main drag. Forest City, the developers of the community, told me they don't know yet what purpose the tower will serve - a performance art center is being discussed - but whatever it ends up being, it has value as a symbol of the area's past.


The Stapleton control tower is at the heart of the community. 
The F-27 of Ideal Cement.
Photo courtesty pbase.com
A similar sentiment motivates the Stapleton Fellowship Church. Located in 1960's era hangar where the Ideal Cement Company kept the company Fairchild F-27, today Hangar 61 is a house of worship that borrows heavily and often from all symbolism and metaphor possibilities related to aviation.


Hangar 61 during construction in 1959
photo courtesy Staplelton Fellowship Church
The banner outside Stapleton Fellowship Church
These days, the sign outside the church slash hangar says, "Helping people on their spiritual journey." Executive Pastor Jimmy Smith reminds me that while it was architects and contractors who took the dilapidated and abandoned hangar and refitted it for God's work, that task is not too different from his job. "Jesus has an amazing ability and passion to take the lost, broken, down and out and redeem their lives for the Kingdom."


Stapleton Fellowship's Pastor Jimmy Smith
My visit to Hangar 61 was a quick hit, I had a story to report after all. As a Christian and an aviation aficionado, though, I couldn't stop thinking of this intriguing church. So I sent Pastor Smith an email asking him to expand on the relevance of leading a community of faith in one of the more unusual houses of worship I'd ever seen.

It's not about the structure, he said. "The church is a who, not a when or a where." Still, the place provides an earthly framework for a divine message. "Our focus is to 'help people on their spiritual journey' and the parallels between flying and our spiritual journey seemed like a natural fit," he said in his email.

I find the fact that Hangar 61 is one of only three churches in this new neighborhood of homes, offices, restaurants and shops somewhat distressing but Pastor Smith sees it as a challenge. "We see this as an amazing opportunity to introduce Christ to people for the first time," he told me. "I'd rather be on the tip-of-the-spear when it comes to church work."



Services at Hangar 61
photo courtesy Visioneering Studios
Whether it is optimism or faith that leads Pastor Smith to be upbeat when the message of Christ - the message of Christmas seems overwhelmed by the din of secularism and violence of the world's conflicts, I can't say. But round about this point, my mind was leaping to Lalibela and an army of workers who saw mountains of granite and did not hesitate to think they could be turned into churches.

At a defunct airfield 800 years and half a world away, that vision lives on.

Merry Christmas.
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