although many locals and visitors think Vail Valley is “heaven on Earth” where the most pressing concerns are when the first dump of snow will come and who’ll win this year’s World Cup downhill, we do have some very real issues no different from and in some cases worse than those beyond the boundaries of “paradise.”
We sometimes need a reminder that paradise is elusive for many who live in and travel through our slice of heaven. Christmastime provides a good opportunity to pay tribute to our dynamic interfaith community of congregations and related organizations that serve all comers in Eagle County. It’s a great time to recognize what a compassionate community we are, able to give to others through the amalgamation of faith-based groups that function across denominational and congregational lines to address needs in our community.
Bedrock of faith
Since Vail’s birth more than 50 years ago, the interfaith community spread throughout the county. In December 1963, Vail opened its lifts, realizing the founders’ dream of creating a dream-like ski resort. They built it. Many came. With lifts up and running, hotels springing up and talk of a tunnel through the Divide, it wasn’t long before the founders decided a chapel was needed.
Vail Chapel opened in 1968, becoming the “spiritual home” of the resort. Although intended to serve as a resort chapel, providing a place of worship for visitors to the community, Vail Chapel’s place in community life grew in importance with the influx of full-time residents.
Father Brooks Keith, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, who is affectionately known as one of the “vicars of the valley,” arrived here 19 years ago. He thought helping Father Bruce Moncrieff minister to families in the growing Edwards area would be a good two or three year bridge between his seminary and doctoral studies. Now, as he prepares to celebrate the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration’s 40th anniversary with his dynamic congregation in Vail and Edwards, he takes comfort in knowing he is part of a thriving partnership, an outlier in this dwindling age of church attendance.
From its bedrock in Vail, the interfaith community grew west, following the shifting demographics and the development of Beaver Creek. In 1987, the second interfaith chapel opened at the base of Beaver Creek Mountain. In 1999, St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church opened its Edwards campus. The third interfaith chapel, located in Edwards, opened in 2010. In its 2010 report, the Association of Religious Data Archives listed more than 30 congregations that call Eagle County home. Ten congregations, including B’nai Vail and the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, other Christian congregations and non-denominational Christians now share the valley’s three interfaith chapels.
The flourishing wedding economy that infuses millions of dollars into the local economy each year is a product of the interfaith community’s growth. In 2008, Eagle County was the third most popular wedding resort in America, behind Las Vegas and Hawaii. Interfaith clergy conduct most of those weddings. Many return to celebrate anniversaries and baptize their babies.
Necessity breeds cooperation and service
The interfaith community’s footprint is huge, providing an array of services for all comers from baptisms, weddings, memorials and assistance. The interfaith partnership provides what Father Brooks calls an “incubator of service.” The cooperation among congregations arose out of necessity due to the small numbers and meager resources in the early days. However, once the congregational landscape began to flourish, most congregations, particularly the interfaith chapel tenants, continued to work together, creating service organizations and populating the leadership ranks of local charitable foundations.
In 1991, Pastor Jerry Milsaps, of the Lake Creek Baptist Church, founded Vail Valley Cares. The parishioners’ overwhelming generosity prompted a partnership between Vail Valley Cares and Vail Valley Rotary to open the Edwards Thrift Store. Today, Vail Valley Cares operates as the interfaith community’s “caring arm.” In 2012, its two thriving thrift stores generated $200,000 that was funneled back into the community.
Samaritan Center of the Rockies provides much-needed access to professional mental health counselors, often at a reduced fee. Vail Valley Young Life, part of a nationwide multicultural ministry, provides direct outreach to adolescents during those critical years of development. Last summer, 110 Eagle County youth attended a Young Life camp that for many was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
In association with Salvation Army, our interfaith community nourishes stranded travelers in Vail during blizzards at the free weekly Thursday night community dinners at the Edwards Interfaith Chapel, by helping stock Salvation Army’s pantry and feeding hungry first responders and victims during crises. Recently, Deacon Steve Baird and his ECOT team of volunteers served 4,185 meals from the Salvation Army canteen over seven days in flood-ravaged Lyons. Even Vail Valley Medical Center now has a part-time chaplain, Worth Whitley, who provides comfort and support to the sick, the dying, their families and hospital staff.
It’s actually not necessary to pry open the heavy doors of the churches and interfaith chapels between Vail and Gypsum to see what goes on inside. It’s quite visible in the community. But this Christmas season, as church attendance swells into the thousands, take a peek inside and join in the celebration of community and love.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are www.suziknowsbest.com and www.winefamilies.com.