Rev. Shawn Sikkema joked that a good attention-grabbing headline for this story could be “Former megachurch pastor and wife now live among homeless.” A bit dramatic, but true.
Sikkema and his wife, Diane, spent the past 26 years ministering at Eastern Hills Community Church in Aurora, Colo., a Christian Reformed congregation that grew from 100 members worshiping in a school gym to 2,400 members worshiping in a 70,000 square foot ministry center located in the wealthiest part of Aurora.
Now they call home a room at the Ranger Motel on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. Their “parish” is a four-mile strip of 26 squalid and cheap motels. The “office” is a table at the local McDonald’s or Cafe Canaan a few blocks away. The ministry is Jesus on Colfax Ministries.
Sikkema is quick to say that he loves both worlds—the megachurch and this motel ministry—but last year he experienced a clear call from God to minister among people who are poor and dealing with broken lives here. They moved into the motel in September to better practice a “ministry of presence” in the area.
I’ve come to find out what Jesus on Colfax Ministries is about, and I’m about to “walk the streets” with the Sikkemas as they knock on motel doors, offer food, listen to difficult stories, and, through prayer, invite the presence of Jesus into troubled situations.
The Ranger is slightly more stable than most of the other motels, but it is still grim to behold. Sikkema had recommended that I not book a motel in the area, and, to underscore the reality of the situation, described a shooting that had happened earlier in the week at one they regularly visit. He’d requested I phone him from the parking lot when I arrive so he could come down and escort me to their motel room. It’s a dark and cold December night. I don’t want to admit I’m frightened. But I’m excited too.
Colfax Avenue is just over 26 miles long and runs through the poorest part of Aurora. In its motels, especially on East Colfax, live the working poor as well as those who have scraped together enough money to get off the street for a night or two. It is an interracial demographic with a growing number of refugee groups. Domestic violence, family brokenness, addiction, drug-dealing, prostitution, mental illness, and gangs are a part of daily life on Colfax. Community reentry is a significant issue for individuals just out of prison. For many, said Sikkema, there is a thin margin between life and death.
After a quick crockpot meal in the Sikkemas’ motel room, we meet up with a group from an organization called Mean Street Ministries and some other volunteers, several from Eastern Hills. In pairs, we begin visiting a half-dozen motels on the strip, offering burritos, day-old baked goods from Starbucks, and prayer. Most individuals are friendly but only open their door part-way. It is freezing outside and they don’t want to let the cold air into their rooms. I am appalled at the filthy conditions I see through the half-opened doors, and my heart breaks to see a couple of small children living in these conditions. A bed-bug infested mattress is leaning outside one room awaiting disposal.
Our visits are brief. Many want to pray. Sikkema, I notice, always asks the person his or her name. To him, these individuals are not just a motel room number and certainly not insignificant. Each person matters and has a name that God knows and loves. Later, if and when he meets them again, Sikkema will try to remember their names. He makes notes along the way of issues and needs to be dealt with tomorrow. When the group returns to the parking lot and we stand in a circle to share and pray, my whole body is shaking from the cold. I wonder how the homeless who have to sleep outside tonight will survive.
The next evening, there are six of us—just a a small Jesus on Colfax Ministries group. Like every Tuesday, we’ll only visit two motels. The consistency of visiting these two motels has enabled the creation of meaningful relationships. People appear to be expecting our visit. We offer deli sandwiches, bananas, and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. We are invited into just about every motel room where, after unhurried conversation, we join hands, form a small circle, and prayerfully invite Jesus into that space.
“I know that Jesus shows up in those moments, huddled together in a seedy motel room on East Colfax,” Sikkema wrote in a recent online post. “I believe that the simplest definition of church is when Jesus says, ‘where two or three gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you.’ We stand in a circle and call on the name of Jesus. He shows up. No matter how worn or broken the group, no matter the sin present. We regularly pray with people who have not yet surrendered their lives to Jesus. We do church with prostitutes, sex offenders, families, the mentally ill, drunks, you name it. We get asked periodically where our church is. I usually say, ‘Right here. This is church.’”
Later, we sit in the Sikkemas’ motel room and debrief. I ask the others why they volunteer in this motel ministry and what it means to them. One of them is Rev. Tim Spykstra, a CRC pastor for more than 20 years. Tonight he talks about being with a man named Ivan. “We had church tonight. We experienced an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we go away so fed,” Spykstra explained.
Christine Miskie described how life-giving the ministry is for her. She was touched this evening by a woman at The Radiant Motel who asked her to pray for strength. “I need strength,” the woman said. “I’m going to quit alcohol and drugs. I was just at my parole officer and told him I was going to get back on track. Thank you for showing up. You are just what I needed.”
This ministry has strong ties to the CRC. Family in Christ Community Church, a CRC in Westminster, Colo., is Sikkema’s calling church. Jesus on Colfax Ministries received a grant from Christian Reformed Home Missions as well as from Classis Rocky Mountain (the regional group of churches). There are also supporting congregations from other denominations and private donors.
It was a humbling experience to walk the streets with the Sikkemas and one I will not soon forget. Initially, I was shocked and frightened by what I saw around me, but I was quickly helped to see past that to the heart and soul of the ministry. I met many amazing people living in and around those motels. Much work needs to be done here on East Colfax apart from the motel ministry.
Meanwhile, “We consider it a privilege to be where Jesus has led us, here in the Ranger Motel on East Colfax,” concluded Sikkema. “We consider it a gift that we get to love and serve in the midst of our new friends. We experience the presence and the beauty of Jesus in this place and in these relationships. Being here is not a hardship, it is a joy!”