AUMC celebrates 150th with hope, honks

Congregants say church has long been a pillar of acceptance and community

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During its many decades of operation, the congregation at the Arvada United Methodist Church has withstood everything from the Great Depression, which left it with $3.35 in the bank at one point, to recent divisions over same sex marriage.

So it should be no surprise that neither the COVID-19 pandemic nor the smoky Arvada air created by ongoing wildfires could keep the church’s congregants from celebrating their 150th anniversary with one of the drive-in services the church has adopted in recent months in response to the challenge posed by the pandemic.

It was a celebration that could be heard from blocks around as many of the nearly 100 cars joyfully honked their horns in celebration of the church’s milestone birthday.

“What I love about this celebration is that you are not celebrating a building that is 150 years old you are celebrating a community of faith that has been in this community,” said Karen Oliveto, the United Methodist Bishop of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah who led the Sept. 20 birthday service as a guest of the church.

That community traces its history back to 1859, when men riding on horseback to evangelize the new frontier would visit gold miners working Ralston Creek. The first Methodist church service was held in 1863 in the home of early settler Oliver Graves, whose descendants still attend the church today. But it was the church’s official founding in 1870, when it counted 30 members including Arvada co-founder Benjamin Wadsworth, that the birthday celebration commemorated.

Camille Parker, who has been attending Arvada UMC since 1970, said that for her the church has always meant an open community whose ethos is summarized by the church’s old tag line “a church where science, religion and life are compatible.”

“That to me sums up who the church is: it’s very openminded and progressive yet it asks a lot of tough questions and it doesn’t shirk away from the questions that the community and congregation asks,” Parker said. “I and apparently a lot of the people who go here like the fact that it is a thinking person’s church but still very spiritual.”

However, Arvada UMC has also long been guided by another saying — “there is room at the table for all.” That saying dates back to Pastor Earl Hanna, who died earlier this year and was the longest serving pastor at the church.

That saying is embodied by the role the church plays in the larger community life in Arvada by putting on such activities as its annual community August picnic.

Each week, members of the congregation also make 300 burritos that are distributed at The Rising Church, a church in Olde Town Arvada that serves residents dealing with poverty, addiction, marginalization and other issues.

Arvada UMC has also been involved in constructing and donating Habitat for Humanity homes.

“This church is constantly searching for things to do for the congregation and the community,” said Bob Stolte, who began attending Arvada UMC as a child during World War II (Stolte’s wife, Barb, is an employee of Colorado Community Media). “And I think that is the future of this church.”

That sentiment was echoed by the church’s lead Pastor Amy Gearhart.

“Most churches in our country don’t get to experience a 150th celebration, so we are richly blessed,” Gearhart said. “We also want to continue to be a blessing to our community and region through partnerships to serve the hungry, lonely, homeless, hopeless, and marginalized.”

During the birthday service, Oliveto repeatedly returned to the message that the story of the church was one of hope and extolled the congregation to see the church as a source of hope amidst the trouble and despair that have defined much of 2020.

“The forebears of your church did not turn themselves solely inward and their remained throughout the 150 years of this church a deep commitment to bring hope healing and restoration of healthy humanity for a broken world,” she said.

“They never stopped hoping and they never stopped working for a better world. And now we are being asked the same.”

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