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At 12pm on a recent Sunday in March, a former Presbyterian church at the corner of West 29th Avenue and Julian Street in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood is buzzing with sounds and activity. A group of yoga mat-toting Denverites has just engaged in psychedelic breathwork followed by a single, cathartic scream as part of a wellness event called Scream Church. In another lounge, a group of people sit silently around a table making crafts and sharing snacks as part of the Quiet Queer Happy (Tea) Hour. Downstairs in the basement, a handful of individuals are engaged in meditative dance for a workshop called Musical Circuits. Two floors above them in a sun-lit classroom, others are doing vocal improvisation exercises. And right near the old church’s entrance, a collection of leafy, green houseplants has been made freely available to people of color as part of an initiative called the Potted Peace Project.
All of these happenings are part of a new cooperative congregation called Shared Ground, which has taken residence in the 19th century church building and dubs itself an “interfaith climate resiliency hub.” That resilience, according to two of the organization’s steering committee members Adam Brock and Kēnya Stoute, isn’t just about countering environmental forces like climate change—many Shared Ground members teach or practice sustainable gardening practices—but also building community in the face of changing social climates and economic forces that make local gathering spots rarer.
“As Denver is gentrifying, we’re finding it harder to find places to build a community around people who have values aligned around things like collective liberation, entrepreneurship, and community organizing,” says Brock. “But a few years ago, I happened to be catching up with my buddy Paul Tamburello and he mentioned that he and his business partner just bought this old church.”
Tamburello, a real estate developer who’s best known for his projects and business ventures in North Denver—including founding and owning Little Man Ice Cream—had previously worked with Brock on the GrowHaus, a nonprofit food cooperative and permaculture garden that serves the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. The GrowHaus contributed to the two men’s affection for permaculture, which incorporates Indigenous-informed concepts around sustainability, diversity, symbiosis, and resiliency, and is most often applied in a physical sense to gardening practices (by creating diverse garden ecosystems, avoiding monocropping, composting, etc). But both Brock and Tamburello knew that permaculture ideas can be applied to social systems as well.
“So [Tamburello] says, ‘why don’t you use your permaculture design process to inform our thoughts about what we do with this old [church] space that I just bought and have no idea what to do with?,” Brock remembers. “And in exchange, we’ve gotten to use the space.”
That arrangement became formal last October, when Shared Ground signed a reduced rent, one-year lease with Tamburello to use the old church building at 29th Avenue and Julian Street. Soon after, Shared Ground began hosting its first public-facing events. And almost immediately, Brock remembers, “the growth was exponential.”
Kēnya Stoute, who’s on the steering committee and has participated in or helped organize events at Shared Ground including BIPOC-Centered Saturdays as well as the Black Friday Black Market—an artisan market which happened the day after Thanksgiving and featured all Black vendors—has noticed that with every event, more creative and community-focused Denverites discover the space and want to be a part of it. Stoute knows the feeling because she also felt that draw; along with co-founder and fellow woman-of-color Sarah Gilstrap, she has established a physical presence in the building with the Potted Peace Project, and has been collecting houseplants and seeds as donations and giving them out for free to anyone who self-identifies as a person of color.
“It’s so powerful for our community when there are a bunch of people of color coming up into this neighborhood and taking up space here,” says Stoute. “And it reminds others who witness it that ‘oh yeah, we can actually all be here.’ ”
Shared Ground determines what events it holds and which organizations can host spaces in the building through the collective decisions of various committees as well as discussions on the web service Discord. “Our Discord server is where we have conversations about things like, ‘what if we hosted this event in the basement?’ or ‘how is this policy working, and should we change it?’” says Brock. “[Shared Ground] isn’t like one person’s project. It’s a community of communities, and we’re all bringing in our visions, values, and networks to support each other.”
Other nonprofits or organizers using the space include Spirit of the Sun, an Indigenous-led nonprofit that supports youth; SPORE, a psychedelic justice and community organization; Honeycomb Wellness, which hosts yoga sessions; and RAREBYRD$, a music duo opening an accessible recording studio inside Shared Ground this month.
For any Denverites interested in checking out this community of communities, Shared Ground is holding a membership launch gala on Saturday, March 18 at 6 p.m. that’s free and open to the public. In addition to presentations about Shared Ground’s amenities and values, the gala event will include musical performances, a sound bath healing ceremony, tapas and desserts, non-alcoholic drinks, live art, and BIPOC vendors.
“To be a member of Shared Ground is, first and foremost, to say ‘I’m investing in the community that’s happening between these walls,’ ” says Brock. “That investment can take the form of money—we have a sliding scale of pay-what-you-can monthly contributions—or that investment can be time. We have a system that’s almost like a job board…there are all these little roles that members can sign up for that can fit the ways they want to contribute.”
In return for their donations of time or money, Brock says, members will get discounted rental rates for event spaces in Shared Ground, access to Shared Ground’s member lounge (which Brock says has “coffee shop vibes”) as well as a co-working space that are open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a say in the governance of the organization through access to the Discord server.
Both Stoute and Brock hope that Shared Ground’s rapid growth continues, and that the organization can continue beyond a looming hurdle: Brock says that Tamburello plans to renovate the old church. While the developer has already given Shared Ground an option to renew its lease after the renovations, Brock says the rent will increase from its reduced rate to market rate prices—much higher than the organization is currently paying.
“We have this incredible, one-year opportunity to prove that there needs to be something like this in Denver,” Brock says. “It’s just a matter of asking: What is the right combination of business models, space, and donors to make sure that what we’re planting here continues to thrive?”
This summer, Shared Ground is going to explore what it would look like on its balance sheet to pay market rate to remain in its current location, Brock says. But even if the financials don’t add up, both he and Stoute say they will try to find another location that works. The experience of running Shared Ground has taught them that there’s a need and a hunger for community spaces like Shared Ground in Denver. “Once enough people understand that and experience it for themselves, there’s going to be the will to continue, even if [Shared Ground] has to be transplanted into a different soil,” Brock says.
Fore more information on Shared Ground’s free membership launch gala on March 18, visit the organization’s website here.