Bethel Community Center: A gathering place where friends become family

By Mary Ann Saffer

The eastern plains of Colorado are a wide and windswept expanse with few people and fewer churches. As the nation expanded westward in the early 1900s, a number of new church plants were undertaken. Bethel Church of the Brethren, 9 miles north of Arriba, is one of those still in existence today.

The Arriba community is an underserved community in eastern Colorado. Demographic changes radically affect the community. Family mobility results in fewer children and families, which leads to small town schools consolidating, and many businesses closing. Consolidating schools result in broadening the community to a much larger geographic area.

New people are moving to this rural area to escape the cities. People used to “know” each other but today, due to busy lives and a lack of a place to gather, many people do not “know” their neighbors or their local churches.

In 1949, Elvin Frantz, an energetic pastor, saw a need in this community and began talking about building a recreation center next to the church. The idea caught fire, and soon the community was just as involved as the church members. The building was built with donations and volunteer labor and named the Bethel Community Center. The center had the reputation for being available to community groups and individuals for a multitude of activities.

A view of the Bethel Community Center in Arriba, Colo. The pictures below were taken while renovations were underway at the center.

Please pray… For Bethel Church of the Brethren
and the ministry of the Bethel Community Center.

Over the years, the building deteriorated, making it undesirable for community use. There were no bathrooms. It had a leaking roof, and a mouse infested kitchen.

The church discussed whether to restore the building or to tear it down. After surveying the community and finding 81 percent of residents interested in using a renovated facility, it was decided the community had invested so much in the building that it should be restored and offered back for community use. The congregation and community worked side-by-side for 10 years to renovate the community center.

To fund the renovations, the community and church donated money and services. Multiple foundations provided financial support, and 2,082 volunteer hours were donated to restore the old building. Renovations included bracing up the sagging roof, new roofing, insulating, drywalling, and refinishing the water damaged gym floor. An addition was built onto each end of the gym. A modernized kitchen, bathrooms, meeting room, and a shower. An ADA accessible entrance with storage rooms for athletic equipment, tables, and chairs.

The Bethel Community Center is used by the community. Activities include church and individual sponsored events such as roller-skating, parties, family gatherings, funerals, meetings, Vacation Bible School, Get to Know Your Neighbor activities, social events, concerts, movies, and recreation just to name a few. These are all community activities that serve a wide range of people, from children through seniors and the disabled.

Several organizations use the center. Girl Scouts and 4-H clubs from the neighboring community and neighboring towns use the building for meetings, parties, and recreation. Multiple birthday parties are held, where skating and recreation are a featured part of the party. Youth use the building for basketball/volleyball practice. Neighboring youth groups use the facility for parties. People from a wide area, including portions of three counties, use the center.

An active board of directors, made up of church and community members, works closely with the Bethel Church of the Brethren board. They developed mission and vision statements, policies, and oversee management of the center.

The center is a project designed to bring together, support, and deepen community engagement. The center also provides a shelter the community may use during catastrophic events.

The Bethel Community Center is offered as an example of “Jesus in the Neighborhood.”

Its mission is to be “A Gathering Place Where Friends Become Family.” From inception, the intent has been to open a modern ADA accessible facility for community use to strengthen this community.

This project can be seen, in one sense, as an innovative way for one rural congregation to address the needs in its local community. And you would be correct. In another sense, it stands as a tribute to the foresight of one energetic and charismatic young minister, who in 1949, began talking to the community about building a “recreation building.”

In January of 1949, Elvin Frantz began talking to his small congregation and the surrounding community about his perceived need for a recreation center. The idea caught fire and by November of 1949, the church and community had erected and dedicated a community center. Total cost, about $6,000, due in large part to donated church and community labor and equipment.

Today, similar needs exist in this rural area, and they have been met, in part, in similar fashion with donated labor and equipment in addition to generous grants from local and state foundations.

Looking back for the seminal inspiration for today’s Bethel Community Center, one is drawn to the idea and energy of Elvin Frantz in 1949. He was certainly not thinking of developing a legacy as he championed the work among church and community then, but looking back today, he did develop an enduring legacy.

Never underestimate the power of a good idea in the hands of an energetic young minister.

— Mary Ann Saffer is a member of Bethel Church of the Brethren and chair of the board of the Bethel Community Center. This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Church of the Brethren’s Western Plains District.


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