“We get a lot of questions about doing religion differently,” Amanda Blaurock explained from her office at the Village Exchange Center in Aurora, Colo., “If religion is really about ministry, then what is ministry? It’s engagement; it’s providing food, it’s providing for emotional health and well-being, it’s providing whatever the needs of any specific community are.”
As executive director of the Village Exchange Center (VEC), Blaurock knows first hand about the changing landscape of local religion. The center, located in the former St. Matthew Lutheran Church, is at the heart of the movement to build an inclusive environment where residents from diverse backgrounds come together to interact, share, celebrate and worship. In March 2017, faced with declining attendance and changing neighborhood demographics, Pastor Marcel Narucki and the St. Matthew congregation decided to donate the church to create a new community center rather than sell the property.
Aurora is one of the most diverse cities in the country—about 20 percent of the city’s population was born outside the United States. VEC offers a broad range of culturally relevant programs for all Aurora residents, and especially for immigrants, refugees and historically marginalized people. New offerings are determined through robust community input in the form of multiple-language focus groups, town halls and meetings with stakeholders and leaders.
Programs include a food pantry, youth groups, small business grants for minorities, a fund for undocumented immigrants who lost their jobs during the pandemic, a COVID-19 vaccine clinic focused on equitable access, a community farm and more.
The Village Exchange Center’s innovative model is the subject of a short film, called “My Father’s House.” Produced by Blaurock and Denver filmmaker Rob Shearer, it won the prestigious Cannes Film Festival’s American Pavillion Jury Award for Best Documentary in 2020. Due to pandemic restrictions, Blaurock and Shearer attended the festival in 2022 to screen the film in front of a live audience. It continues on the festival cycle this fall with a screening at the Wyoming International Film Festival and the Footcandle Film Festival, and it is already driving conversations about its timely subject—the decline of religion around the world and the challenge of how to build community in new ways.
In the film, Blaurock and Pastor Marcel Narucki, co-founder of VEC, Blaurock’s stepfather and the primary subject of “My Father’s House,” share how they built the center and effectively engage with their increasingly diverse community. Through the film, the co-founders are together spreading the impact of VEC’s story far past the center on Havana Street in Aurora.
“I think this could be done all over the United States and all over the world,” Blaurock stated.
Religious participation is undeniably on the decline. In the U.S., the percentage of Americans reporting that they belong to a house of worship, whether a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, dropped below 50 percent for the first time in 2020. For comparison, the percentage of Americans belonging to a house of worship was as high as 70 percent in 1999. Worldwide, young adults are significantly less likely to be affiliated with a religious group than adults over 40.
The Morgridge Family Foundation’s Future of Giving report, created in partnership with sparks & honey, found that the decline of religion has implications even for non-religious organizations. Twenty million fewer American households donated to charity in 2018 than in 1998, a shift tied to the decline in religious affiliation among younger members of the population.
The decline of religion also means a decline in community spaces, which are critical for community well-being and social cohesion.
“We feel that the exponential growth and the success of the Village Exchange Center is due to the physical space,” Blaurock said.
She shared a story about a Day of the Dead event the VEC hosted in partnership with the Mexican Consulate in Colorado. It happened to coincide with our Congolese congregation’s weekly choir practice held at the VEC. “As the Day of the Dead event attendees filed out of the center, everyone quietly stopped and listened in awe,” Blaurock said. “It was a meeting of two different cultures connected by the physical space they shared and a mutual appreciation for music.”
“I think there is beauty in celebrating each other,” Blaurock added. “The Village Exchange Center is all about having a space where different communities that don’t have the opportunities to encounter each other can do so in a positive way. That’s what we’re doing differently. We empower people to find a way to truly find common ground and community again.”
Upon first entering VEC, visitors see a mural created by Denver-based Detour Art Studio. It declares, “I belong and I am powerful” alongside a depiction of one of the first VEC after-school students who walked into the community center and said, “This feels like home.” It symbolizes what VEC hopes to be to everyone in the community.
Blaurock has big plans for VEC’s future. In addition to promoting “My Father’s House,” she’s working toward sustainable funding and earned income.
“The direct and indirect impact of creating spaces for community and health and well-being is much larger than I think people realize,” Blaurock said. “And it’s not just for the benefit of refugees, immigrants or underserved populations, but for the benefit of the whole population of a community when they get to encounter one another.”
Visit the Village Exchange Center website to learn more about their programs and get involved. For those in the Denver area, attend a screening of “My Father’s House” by registering on their Facebook page.