27 April 2011

Making a Difference

NB: I didn't re-edit or rewrite this. I just found it and thought it was interesting. Please forgive the weird spacing; for some reason I can't change it. Enjoy. -m.

The red brick building off of W. Colfax has wooden floors that creak with every step and smells like cooked chicken. From the outside it almost looks like a cross between a church and a community center nestled between houses with neat front lawns. A hand-sized cross ornament is hooked on a nail in the windowsill in the big meeting room, but it’s not a church, even if all the neighbors refer to the building as such.

“It’s fascinating to be strategic about collaboration,” Jude says, pausing to wave to a woman leaving the building with her kids. “Hey, great job today!” he says. “Now you can go home and make me some enchiladas, huh?” The woman grins and manages to wave back, even though she has a baby in one hand and a Ziploc of chicken drumsticks in the other. The Mothers of Preschoolers group had taken a class from a food scientist about how to make a chicken last for five meals, hours later the meeting room still smelled like a home-cooked meal.

Jude and Cindy Del Hierro began Confluence Ministries as a sort of response to a world of volunteers with bad communication skills. According to Jude, some churches and non-profits seem to view volunteering as a competition. Churches may expect the people they serve to show up to church the following Sunday, and counting numbers can be a favorite game of both groups. It becomes about which group can help more people, not about what kind of relationship the community needs to form with volunteers.

“We just asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing? And what could we do differently?” Jude says. “How do we close that gap?” It’s how they decided to be a catalyst for grassroots groups with a heart for helping.

The Colfax community in which Confluence lives doesn’t have the best reputation in Denver. It’s been compared to run-down versions of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and New York’s Greenwich Village, but a drive down the road from Golden to Denver shows marked improvement.

Before Jude and Cindy moved to their neighborhood near Colfax and the building got its renovation, volunteers trying to serve downtown kept on running into each other. “One group would come at six and hand out burritos, and half an hour later a guy with some sandwiches would show up. He’d be all like, ‘Why don’t they want my sandwiches?’” Jude says with a grin, then spreads his hands. It’s part of where Confluence began, to create a matrix of people who wanted to live in a posture of serving a community in which the average household income is $35,000 and 82% of the kids in the public schools are getting free school lunches.

Jude is dressed for meeting people. Black jeans, t-shirt, and crocs may not be his daily outfit, but they are worn at the edges and he seems ready to meet politicians and help out the Mothers of Preschoolers group. His wife, Cindy, is wearing jeans and a black tank top, and her eyes shine from behind her glasses.

Confluence is about getting everyone in the community to flow together, according to Jude, Cindy, and several Confluence volunteers. They raise all their own fundraising and have a couple of part-timers as well as a couple of full-time people.

Reaching a community such as Colfax isn’t an easy task. Perfect solutions sometimes just don’t exist. So Confluence partners with anyone and everyone who has ideas, meaning that some of the things that get planned range from passing out bagels and balloons at the AIDS Walk, to connecting local musicians with kids for music lessons.

Jude and his wife Cindy were associate pastors at Church in the City when God told them it was time to make a life change. They moved to W. Colfax, got a hold of the creaky old building, and began networking faith-based ministries and other non-profits as directors of Confluence Ministries.

It’s easy to see how it got that way. Voices play in the background like a movie soundtrack. As a ministry hub, all sorts of groups and organizations use the building. City Councilman Rick Garcia holds neighborhood meetings there, as well as Whiz Kids, and study groups for ESL learners, and GED students. It’s all part of the vision to be a good neighbor, and to build relationships with a community that needs them badly.

One day a volunteer group came in looking for something to help with, and Confluence set them up cleaning a neighborhood block, doing yard work, and otherwise making the area more beautiful. Now, the project is known as Extreme Community Makeover.

Before the red brick building was home to Confluence Ministries, it was a hideout for the homeless and for troubled youth, a place where people spent their time sniffing powders and fooling around in cobwebbed corners. In 2003, the renovations began. Windows had to be replaced, cleaned, and inspected. Floors were redone, molding was glued and nailed. It takes a lot of work to get a ministry hub into motion.

The last item on the renovation list is the kitchen. At the moment, it’s a large room made of wooden studs, nails, and some wires strung through large holes. The chicken dinner smell doesn’t reach the real kitchen yet, but soon it’ll be done and more than chicken will be made downstairs.

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