East of Marksheffel Road, down a thoroughfare flanked by fields, you’ll find Peoples United Methodist Church, a historic black church grappling with its future on the edge of a rapidly growing city.
The joke goes like this: “Hey, why did your church move to Kansas?”
“We’re not in Kansas,” the Rev. W. Clifford Seay replies. “We’re right by Marsksheffel.”
The punchline: “Same thing.”
The 116-year-old church was based in downtown Colorado Springs until 2006, when the congregation moved east. The church’s first home — a building at East St. Vrain and North Royer streets — appears on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now it sits on fresh ground as houses go up on the city’s eastern edge. Since the move to Tamlin Road, attracting new people has become more difficult, but many followed the church from its downtown roots.
“We are carrying on the best we can since we’re out in the boondocks,” said Sue Dennison, who’s been attending the church for about three years.
But the small, multi- cultural congregation has a commitment to community that keeps people coming back, members say.
“I enjoy this church because I feel a part of it,” said Crystal Ballard, who has been attending on and off for decades. “I feel like it’s home. When I come in the door, I say, ‘Oh, I’m home.’
“If we ever get you through the door, I think we can keep you for a while. If you walk in through the door, with our love, we can keep you.”
Ballard said it takes her about 35 minutes to drive to the church from her home on the southwest side. But the trek is worth it, she said.
Dennison, too, appreciates the church’s tight-knit community.
“The mega churches just didn’t fit for me, but the main thing is: We laugh together, we pray together, we mourn together. We really like to eat together and sing together.”
George and Vera Zeigler, who have been attending for a little more than two years, were drawn in by “the size of it and the love we felt,” Vera said. “Everybody made us feel so welcome.”
“And the preaching, too,” George added.
“We was kind of church-hopping — shopping, I should say — and when we got here, it felt like a fit, like a comfortable pair of shoes,” Vera said.
More than a century of history
A man born into slavery in Mississippi laid the groundwork for Peoples United Methodist Church before it was officially founded in 1903.
Frank J. Loper moved to Colorado Springs in 1886 along with the daughter and son-in-law of his former plantation owner, Jefferson Davis, the church says.
Loper connected with a small group of former slaves and the children of former slaves who “were dedicated to doing God’s work in Colorado Springs,” and they began to gather for regular meetings, said Phillip Williams, who’s been attending the church for about 20 years.Williams gave a presentation on the church’s history during a Sept. 29 service celebrating its 116-year anniversary.
Then the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church “caught wind of the growing African American communities in Colorado up and down the Front Range” and sent the Rev. Charles W. Holmes to the state, Williams said. Holmes would go on to establish black congregations in Denver, Pueblo and Colorado Springs.
Loper was one of 18 charter members when the Colorado Springs church — then known as Peoples Methodist Episcopal Church — was founded in February 1903, but it still lacked a building of its own.
On Oct. 26, 1903, an article appeared in The Gazette with the headline “Colored Pastor Appeals For Aid.”
The town stepped up with seed money and, in 1904, a construction loan also was granted. But the church has always had a bit of wanderlust, moving in 1968 before the big eastern trek.
Moving east seemed promising, said Seay, the church’s pastor. Developers were planning sprawling housing projects, and Colorado Springs’ expansion seemed inevitable.
“It was like getting a fresh start in a new, developing area,” Seay said.
Then came the 2008 housing crisis, which slowed the expansion, leaving Peoples United Methodist Church on an eastern island for far longer the congregation had anticipated.
“Our plans got on hold, so to speak, of building, doing,” Seay said. “There was that uncertain period.”
Now as neighborhoods grow around it, the church is hoping for new blood.
“I guess we know what’s inside, but people passing by, they have no idea,” Vera Zeigler said. “So, we just want to invite them in and let them feel the love.”
“It’s not so-called easy to get to,” George Zeigler said.
“But it’s worth the find,” his wife said, finishing his sentence.
The church has about 35 active members, Seay said. About 20 people attend service on an average Sunday. They meet for church programs throughout the week and volunteer for groups including Marian House and Family Life Services.
“We are small in numbers, but the people here have a big heart,” said Toni Sims, who’s been the church’s administrative assistant for about eight years. “As you can see, a lot of the people are seniors and retired, but they are still interested in helping and giving back.
“As small as we are in numbers, just to keep the church functioning, the lights on, is, to me, a feat. But then to have so much generosity that you’re still willing to give to the community, that’s saying a lot. I really believe in actions before words, so that really makes a difference. It really does. And the people who are here, they’re really dedicated to the cause. Perseverance is a word that comes to mind.”
Sims said that when she reflects on her church’s history, she’s struck by how much its founders did with so little.
“If they could do it — I mean, think about it, the things that (former) slaves had against them, compared to the resources we have today — if would be pretty pitiful if we lost it and (former) slaves could maintain it,” she said. “So, what is our excuse? We don’t have one.”
As Williams finished summarizing the church’s history for attendees of the anniversary service, he said there are “so many more stories, so many more individuals who contributed to the growth and success of our congregation over the years.”
But too often, he said, “the contributions that this particular church has made to the community of Colorado Springs and of Colorado still go unmentioned.”
In a letter published in the church bulletin, Seay asked his congregation to remember those who came before them.
“They were the men and women of faith and community,” he wrote. “The heritage they left us, we now have and hold.”
Bishop Karen Oliveto, who serves as leader of the the Mountain Sky Area of the United Methodist Church, gave the sermon during the church’s anniversary service.
She began by thanking the congregation “for 116 years of ministry” in Colorado Springs.
“Thank you for your faithfulness,” Oliveto said. “Thank you for the way you extended God’s hands and heart and love into the Springs. Thank you for your perseverance. And thank you for what will come, because we don’t just look backwards, do we? No, we’ve got to look forwards. We’ve got to look at what God’s calling us to do — what God needs of us today. So, I give thanks to you for your ministry — for all that has been and for all which is yet to come.”