November 11, 2021 - From the November, 2021 issue

The Transformation of a Lutheran Church into a Multicultural Center & Multi-faith Worship Space

In this TPR interview, Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Village Exchange Center, Amanda Blaurock, discusses the journey begun in 2017 to convert an existing Lutheran church in Aurora, Colorado, into a multicultural community center and multi-faith worship space to serve the region’s growing immigrant and refugee communities. (An award winning short documentary film, “My Father’s House by Rob Shearer, documents this journey). Blaurock highlights the tools successfully used in creating the nonprofit Village Exchange Center and its rapid expansion as an essential needs provider through the COVID-19 pandemic: an abundance of social enterprise, collaboration with both public and foundation partners, robust community engagement and a congregation enthusiastic for social impact.  


“The need for community centers is really high in my opinion. In the film, we talk about the Pew Report that found that 6,000 to 10,000 churches close annually in the United States. Even if it was 1,000 that could actually give the land over to nonprofits, it could be a nice structure and way to engage people in the community.”—Amanda Blaurock

Share the story behind the closing of your stepfather's church in Aurora Colorado and its transformation into a Multicultural Center?

My stepfather, Marcel Narucki, was a monk for 10 years, and then became a Lutheran minister about 15 years ago. He has had a church called St. Matthew Lutheran Church, which is an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in an Aurora, Colorado neighborhood, which happens to be where 80 percent of the refugees in the State of Colorado were relocated over the years.

His church had shrunk from being several hundred people to only about 30 people in their 80s and 90s and they no longer were able to pay for basic operational costs. My stepfather was considering doing what's called Holy Closure, where you close the space and hand over the church or the land or the asset over to the Synod or whatever the relevant larger organization is.

I was visiting about 4.5 years ago—right when Trump was elected—and we were talking about the space and him moving.  I've been a lawyer for 20 years, so I took a look at the bylaws and the constitution. It appeared that the congregation owned the land, which is four lots and the building, outright. We made a proposal to them to actually donate the four lots and the church to my stepfather and I, so that we could create a nonprofit that would bring in the actual community that's here.

Lutheranism is not a form of Christianity that is prominent amongst the refugees and immigrants in this area, so there was no opportunity to proselytize. We were looking at maybe a rebirth opportunity with the larger Denver region and doing something that would bring community members in. If they didn't rebirth, they would close the Lutheran church down, but now we would have created this nonprofit called the Village Exchange Center that has the mission of celebrating religious and cultural diversity.

Elaborate on the historic transition of the Church into a multicultural worship space and center—its conception and rebirth?

We were considering what would be an appropriate way to handle the fact that this surrounding community is made up of so many different people. At first, we thought of interfaith. When we started talking to different refugees and immigrants, they said they don't like interfaith. They want to have space for their own religions and to be honored where they sit. Most of the people that we encounter here come from countries that were divided based on religion, so we didn't want to push anyone to go in any direction. So, we changed it to being a multifaith worship space that also has programming for refugees and immigrants.

At this point, we have eight congregations that worship here. Four Christian based: one is African American, another Kachin, Bhutanese Nepali, and a Congolese congregation. We hold services for Bhutanese Nepali Buddhist and Hindu groups. We started the month before COVID a program called Bread Together that includes a Muslim and Jewish prayer service along with a dinner for Shabbat on Friday evening, which is a holy day for both Muslims and Jews.

Share your stepfather's personal journey: from giving up the pulpit to agreeing to have his church morph into a multi-worship space and community center.

He's always been a religious person. Entrepreneurism wasn't really in his blood. At first, I think he was very nervous and wasn't sure what this would look like. For years, he tried to rebirth the congregation and bring people in.

The world was very interested. We did 11 language focus groups. We did town halls with our city council members and state officials. We brought everyone in and said, “Hey, we're going to be a community center. We don't know what you guys want: tell us.” Immediately, we started an after-school youth program for junior high kids. We invited different congregations to be part of the Sunday services, so that they had their time slots. Then, as we brought in different programs, it became very easy because we had people here to serve and we opened up the space with rentals of rooms and desks.

Before COVID, we had 21 organizations that were what we call resident partners. Those organizations were everything from the Ethiopian community of Colorado, the Oromo community of Colorado, South Sudanese, Bhutanese Nepali, and multiple other groups that could utilize the space and hold their celebrations of their religious and cultural diversity. I think for Marcel, originally, he couldn't quite see it. He really did try for that first year to still stay open and still have the services, but he found that it was hard to do both and that he was finding a lot of fulfillment and pleasure in working with these new communities who really loved our mission.

What is the governance structure that was created to support The Village Exchange Center and the many activities that you have just described? What supports this effort?

We have a board of directors. Marcel and I are both founding board members. Part of what we did is we created this nonprofit Village Exchange Center, Inc. Then, we got Colorado nonprofit status and federal status. Part of that is Marcel and I, in our articles of incorporation have committed that if the Village Exchange Center ceased to exist, we would have to donate the church to another nonprofit serving the same demographics of refugees and immigrants and community members here.

We did have a lot of struggles initially with the bishop and his attorneys who came in and said, “Is there any type of private ownership or is this being donated to the lawyer and this pastor?” His legal team met with the congregation to see whether or not we pushed them to do this. It was a little contentious in the beginning because he was confused at why they did not donate the space back to the to the Rocky Mountain Synod. It turned out that the congregation really loved the idea of this type of ministry and service.

What's the Village Exchange Center’s current budget? What sustains the mission?

The budget is an interesting conversation. The budget started at obviously zero and then 2019, was $550,000. We were at like $750,000 at the end of the year in our 990s. For 2020, the budget was $1.2 million and then we rapidly got to $13.6 million. This year, the budget is at $2.1 million from the beginning of the year, and we're at about $4.5 million already.

How did the budget grow so fast?

During COVID, because we are in the middle of a community that's the most underserved, we made the decision to stay open and to become an essential needs location. We took our food pantry from serving about 50 families to a total individual served of 6,000 people last year. Between 3,000 and 5,000 weekly come and get food. We also created a social enterprise at a local marketplace called Village Farm at Stanley, where we built out 24 50-foot farm beds. We have a state-certified earn-as-you-learn immersion program. They harvested 1,600 pounds of food that were distributed into our food pantries—locally grown by community members and distributed to community members. Our food pantry scaled because of the fact that we do culturally appropriate food. We shop for our community members and want to dignify them with actual foods that they eat and love.

We also started five funds. We became the payment partner on the Left Behind Workers Fund, which scaled across Colorado. In that process, we gave $1,000 grants to undocumented immigrants that lost their job due to COVID but were ineligible to receive unemployment insurance or CARES Act money. We also did grants for those same individuals to receive up to $7,500 in rental assistance.

How has the idea of social impact investing inculcated itself in the work that you're doing with the Village Exchange Center? 

Social impact investing is a very confusing term for a lot of people. It could mean lots of different things. When I think of social impact investing, I think of a financial plus a social return on investment. It could be more or less in either direction on a spectrum. We could have a little bit of a financial return or just a totally social investment where you have actual metrics where you're showing the social return that your money actually created. When you give in philanthropy, you have to report on your metrics, your impacts, your outputs, and your outcomes.

Advertisement

How is social impact investment different? Oftentimes, in the world of social impact investing, you have social enterprises. Social enterprises are what I thought from the beginning could be very helpful. When you create social enterprises, you're creating jobs. You're doing workforce development and could potentially make money for your nonprofit. My idea is around having a space that you can consider the entire community center a social enterprise, and an investor when we really get it to where it needs to be and the building is completely done.

We received $1.7 million as an allocation from Congressman Crow to build out one half of our community center that would be a commissary and two restaurant storefronts. That commissary and two restaurant storefronts can help community members learn, with training and in workforce development, so that they can do the work that the community has asked us for. Then, when we do events here, they could be the caterers and provide all of the things that would be necessary to do events.

We are thinking of it as "how do we empower community members by giving them upskilling jobs that are meaningful and training them in ways that they can actually utilize the certifications to do wonderful things afterwards?"


It appears grants and contributions have been the fuel for the enterprise’s rapid growth. Have banks and financial institutions been supportive?

When we decide to complete the total construction planned, we'll do a bridge loan. Because I'm a fiduciary and this is a nonprofit, we didn't necessarily have to encumber the space with any type of loan. We stayed lean for the first couple years. Because we do not have a mortgage and own the land outright, that made it very easy. Immediately, my vision was to have earned income, which is from the rentals, the events, and all the things that we do, be at 50 percent. In the first year because we had so many rentals, we were at around 30 percent.

There are a lot of nonprofits that 100 percent rely on philanthropic dollars with individuals, corporations, or big foundations. We looked at how can we do it ourselves because that's a sustainability plan. That's how the community gets to keep this place and not keep asking for money. I wanted to get the building up and running so that we could do that. The farm is the same thing. I think it's 50/50. In addition to the poundage of food that we distribute with our community members, we also sell at farmer's market. We are giving and selling our products to some of the restaurants at Stanley Marketplace, so they can have farm to table.

Of course, when you get donations, that makes it a lot easier. Our land at Stanley Marketplace is probably worth $2 million, but we pay $1 a year and have a lease for 20 years.

When people are thinking of taking the church and doing something wonderful with it, hopefully they don't have to have a mortgage, but if they have to buy it and then work through social enterprises, that's one way. Workforce development and the creation of different things that the community wants could pay that mortgage.

Is housing part of your vision for the Village Exchange Center?

For last year and a half, I've been on four different Adams County focus group committees that they've created, and one of them is housing stability. One of the things that I think very strongly about is that home ownership actually does change people's lives. How could we be engaged and involved in working public-private partnership to get land and incentives to bring developers in so that we can help with land and homeownership for our refugee and immigrant population? That's on my mind all the time, but in terms of our space, we could not do it here. 

It is reported that scores of other churches and religious organizations and community groups have thought about replicating a like mission. Have any spoken to the Village Exchange Center?

We occasionally have conversations about it. People are interested and they ask questions, but I think it's something that you need a leader to do. I’ve thought about this the last 4 years; how do you even consult with them where you can help them and guide them through the process because it's not easy. There are different structures and different ways that people have ownership over land. There are also ways where it may not be a transfer of ownership of the deed, but maybe a transfer of a usage of the space. It does take people who are motivated to do it.

When we show the film that always becomes a very large interest of people. How do we keep that moving? How do we keep doing screenings where we can actually talk to different groups and have them be interested in this different way of ministry? Our demographics here are refugees and immigrants, but we could do a Village Exchange Center anywhere to create community anywhere because community is being lost generally right now. Community is different than it used to be. You could sit in a church or at any type of congregation and the person next to you could be a Democrat and the other one a Republican and Libertarian, and no one really cared. Now the divisiveness is so strong.

The need for community centers is really high in my opinion. In the film, we talk about that the Pew Report found that 6,000 to 10,000 churches close annually in United States. Even if it was 1,000 that could actually give the land over to nonprofits, it could be a nice structure and way to engage people in the community.

Your website notes that there is a documentary film My Father's House which captures the transformation of your father’s church into the Village Exchange Center.  Where can someone interested watch the entire film?

We started filming the movie all the way back in 2017 and 2018. I met filmmaker Rob Shearer at the Cannes Film Festival. He was very interested in our story, and I thought it was a perfect time to start filming. The film started as a documentary, and we were going to do a full feature. Ultimately, David Holbrook came in, helped advise, and was an editor, and suggested  doing a short. So, we decided to do that and it was about the inception and the transition of Village Exchange Center from being a church to what happened during COVID.

We were at the Denver Film Festival last year. We recently were at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Award for the emerging filmmaker for the American Pavilion, which is a real honor. We're still trying to get in festivals. We just applied to Sundance, and I think we have multiple other festivals we're waiting to get into.

We want to look at really rolling out screenings, conversations, and Q&A's to spur this type of conversation we're having now. David Holbrook has taken us to different locations where we’ve screened. Those are very curated and wonderful places to do this.

Finally, If readers of this interview are curious and wish to contemplate partnership, how should they connect with you?

Reach out to me directly. My email is amanda@villageexchangecenter.org. Our website is villageexchangecenter.org. We are always interested in partnerships and ways that we can scale. I truly believe that the ability to be where we're at is through collaborations and partnerships. It's not just the financial contributions, it’s also the inkind people who come in. We scaled our food pantry because we had a CEO of a tech company help us create the software that DoorDash is made from. People who didn't have COVID could bring food to people with COVID and have the technology and text messaging to do it. We do capacity building. The partnerships allow us to have 180 volunteers in the food pantry. We believe strongly in both the financial and the in-kind contributions.

<

Advertisement

© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.