In many ways, our journey to East Colfax is the fulfillment of a 30 year old dream. When Diane and I were in college and seminary, living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we found a home living and serving among the urban poor. We thought we would spend our life doing church in that setting, but God had other ideas. After serving a small church in Western Canada for 4 years, we came to another small church in SE Aurora. That church grew steadily for nearly 26 years. Rather than spending those 30 years serving amidst urban poverty, we spent them serving in suburbia.
In 2015, on the heels of a period of burnout and depression, it became clear that Jesus was calling us to step away from our church and our ministry in suburbia. I had a sabbatical year coming so we had some time to breathe and heal, not clear what our next chapter would be. I was 58 and though some thought I had retired, we were certain Jesus had other things for us to do.
On November 4, 2015 I took a motorcycle ride from Southlands, a large open air mall just down the road from the church I had pastored, to East Colfax. It was a ride from the wealthiest part of the City of Aurora—where both Southlands and my former church were located—to the poorest part. Riding down Colfax, seeing signs of urban blight and poverty mixed with the beautiful diversity triggered a powerful response in my heart. I had the profound sense that I had come home, that this was where Jesus was calling Diane and me to serve. After 30 years in a suburban wilderness, a chance to return to our dream.
One prayer time with Jesus stands out from those early days. He was pretty blunt to tell me that if I had any notion that I was going to bring Him—Jesus—to East Colfax, I should get it out of my head. He was already there and didn’t really need my help! But if we were willing to come humbly, He would find some place for us to serve. That prayer time helped me to come to this community humbly, looking for the places Jesus was already at work.
The first Monday of January 2016 I drove to East Colfax, found a coffee shop and began our journey here. We had no financial plan, no ministry plan and just a few contacts in the community. My strong sense was that we were not supposed to build a “church on a corner”—I was an old white guy in a community that did not look anything like me. What we were supposed to do we would only discover one small step at a time.
As we followed the promptings of the Spirit and the voice of Jesus, we were directed to love and serve those living in the motels and also down on the street. This is the very bottom edge of our city. Mental illness, addiction, brokenness, drug dealing, prostitution, extreme poverty—that defines this world. In less than a year we moved from serving one of the largest churches in Aurora, in the wealthiest part of Aurora, to serving among the most broken in the poorest part of our city.
We started out partnering with Mean Street Ministry. Their primary focus is on the motels on West Colfax but they also worked a night a week on East Colfax. Over time we branched out on our own, stepping into motels no one was working in. We came with a bit of food to hand out, but mostly came to build friendships with a population that is often just desperately lonely. We talked, built relationships and prayed. Showing up and loving people became our vision and strategy.
Diane and I were convicted of the need to live in the community, the need to be among the people we were called to love and serve. After several other doors were closed, we sensed Jesus calling us to move into one of the motels, to be present with the broken. On September 7, 2016 we moved into Room 36 at the Ranger. We continue to live there about 2/3’s of the time, still keeping our home in SE Aurora as a center for our busy family life and also a place to catch our breath. And, as a sign of how God works, the door of Room 36 is about 100 feet from the spot on Colfax where I first had that sense of coming home.
Over the past couple of years, a team of volunteers has come to join us in our work. We have become friends with many in this world, learning how to receive from them even as we give. There are many challenges in working here—change is very slow—but we see Jesus at work every day and consider it a great privilege to be here.
We have a vision of ultimately turning the Ranger (or another motel) into a low-cost housing Christian Community, a place where our friends could actually afford to live and be surrounded by people who will love and support them. In the short run we have begun to move some of our friends in to the Ranger. Our presence with them is a help in stabilizing them and we are pursuing funding to expand this part of what we do.
In what can truly be called a miraculous event, we were also able to purchase a 2 building complex on East Colfax that used to house Friend Furniture. Our dream is to turn that into a ministry center that would house 6-8 ministries with a love for Jesus and those trapped in poverty, serving them in a holistic way.
In addition, we also partner with 5 other ministries in Flourish East Colfax—FEC—which is focused on holistic, Christ-centered transformation in the broader East Colfax community. That allows us to be a part of the broader work of the community as well as Colfax itself.
Even though Diane and I lived our former life to the full, serving in the suburbs, we are deeply honored that Jesus has called us to serve out this next chapter among our broken and beautiful friends along East Colfax. We consider it a great gift and are grateful for the love and support so many have shown to allow us to do this work.
Shawn and Diane Sikkema