Karen Hess looks out to her congregation, larger on this Sunday than it normally is, with almost 20 people in the pews of Chadbourn Community Church. Many of them are strangers, transients whose eyes were caught by the modest structure that has stood for 107 years in its place, tucked behind what is now America the Beautiful Park just west of downtown Colorado Springs.
At the start of service, Hess gives the rundown of upcoming events: a board meeting, a potluck, the continuing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
"No matter who you are or where you're at in your life journey," she says, "you are welcome here." And then she turns to her assistant pastor, Tom Buchan, who offers a prayer as the morning glow spills through the stained glass windows. "We ask, Father, that your love radiate in this room," he says, over the muffled sounds of coughs and sniffles. His eyes are closed and his head is bowed with the others, with Hess, who holds one hand up, the other on the hymn book over her heart.
They are the unlikely leaders continuing this non- denominational church's unlikely existence. They came to Chadbourn at different times and with similar stories: They were nonbelievers, drinking heavily. They found comfort at the historic church, once a haven for the poor Hispanic neighborhood that took root here off Conejos Street in the early 1900s. A few members today can point to places in America the Beautiful Park where their one-story houses formerly stood.
"It goes to show the neighborhood isn't all gone and forgotten," Al Malacara, 72, says outside the church where his parents were married. "It's still representing that old barrio."
Josephine Roybal flips through the church's hardbound photo albums to return to her 1960s childhood in the neighborhood. The black-and-white pictures are of families like hers: many siblings with hardworking fathers and mothers who stayed at home to instill caring values. "Never turn away a neighbor," went the words of Roybal's mother.
She is grateful to return home every Sunday. That the church is still here is the result of divine intervention, members say. They also credit a long line of senior pastors, like Hess.
"We wouldn't know what to do without her," Roybal says. "She talks with heart. She's for real in everything she says."
Hess came to the church in 2004, reluctantly agreeing to an invite. She was intimidated by religion at the time, a partier "with no direction," she says. She met Bob Mathis, Chadbourn's longtime leader who died last year from cancer.
It was Mathis who in 2009 got the church listed in the National Register of Historic Places - ensuring it would not fall victim to the same fate of the old neighborhood houses that were torn down. And it was Mathis who encouraged Hess to study the Bible, to consider one day becoming licensed by the church.
"Pastor Bob just welcomed me as I was," Hess says. "I'd pull up in this big tow truck, probably hadn't bathed in a couple days, you know, and he'd welcome me. Everyone welcomed me as I was."
Mathis knew what it was like to be without faith - before Chadbourn, he hadn't gone to church. And he knew what it was like to struggle.
"He came from a poor family," says Buchan, whose daughter married into the Mathis family. "I remember he said that one time the pastor of a church he went to complained about the way people dress, and his family couldn't afford nice clothes."
Mathis went on to be baptized in Buchan's backyard, in a pool during a barbecue. Buchan recalls the day fondly.
Far less fondly he recalls his days before Chadbourn - days filled with nightmare flashbacks.
"There's a tendency to use alcohol to squash memories," he says in his Vietnam combat veteran cap.
Upon his return to the Springs, he fell in love with a God-fearing woman who was raised in the Conejos neighborhood. He sobered up while attending Chadbourn with her through the 1980s. Like the church, Loretta never turned away from him. They've been married for 46 years.
"This church has always been a church of love," Buchan says.
It is that for the homeless who on some Sundays make up the majority of the congregation. One man named Lee came to the church desperate, having recently landed on the streets. He washed up as best he could, concerned he would offend someone. He was hugged.
"They didn't ask me to leave because I didn't fit in," he says, sitting one sunny day on a bench in the church's garden, where he reads books and keeps the grass green. He's considered a caretaker, tending to parts of the old church that need fixing; he's eyeing the clogged gutters on this day.
Buchan comes by wondering about the lightpost above the wooden front door. "Does that light up at night?" he asks.
Yes, Lee says with a smile. "It sure does."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332