Aspen Chapel’s 50th anniversary celebration part of way it is increasing its community outreach for future
For the past half-century, the chapel at the edge of Aspen has stood as a welcoming sight as visitors and locals have rolled into town. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, those with the institution want it to be Aspen’s chapel, not just the chapel in Aspen.
Based around the idea of inclusivity and not worrying about someone’s past religious beliefs or where they stand now, Aspen Chapel continues to develop and find ways to be more inclusive, whether it’s working more with local nonprofits to support what they are doing or giving someone a place to just sit, think and be.
For the past few months, the chapel has been celebrating its golden anniversary with a number of speakers, programs and events that bring together those of different beliefs and faiths — from Christians to Buddhists, Judaism to Islam.
The celebration culminates this weekend with three days of festivities and rededication at the chapel, starting Saturday with world-renowned theologian Matthew Fox speaking to “Deeper Forms of Living,” a rededication event Sunday morning and a gala Monday celebrating the idea of immersing one’s self in the elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit.
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The idea of inclusivity is what the chapel was formed around, but new of late is reaching out to the community in ways beyond a Sunday service, a wedding ceremony, baptism, funeral or other traditional religious events.
“We want to continue to be there for people who didn’t have a home to go to. We want to be a spiritual home for everyone,” Rev. Nicholas Vesey, the chapel’s minister since 2014, said recently. “We try and say, ‘Whoever you are, you don’t have to believe in anything. It’s not about belief. It’s about a place you can go and be received and your spirit will be respected.’
“Some people come here because they don’t have any place to go, but they needed to be somewhere where they were contained. We want to be that opportunity. We don’t demand anything. It’s the humanity at the center of it that’s the most important thing.”
The chapel opened in 1969, but after a few years of just being there, it was Gregg Anderson, now retired but the chaplain emeritus, who helped try to let the community know the chapel was open and welcoming, no strings or religion attached.
Anderson started visiting Aspen as a child in the 1950s when his family came to ski. His father suffered from polio and could not do a lot of activities but wanted his children to have those opportunities and brought them to ski and enjoy the outdoors.
Anderson said he returned to Aspen in 1972 with no intention of being a minister but rather on a break before applying to law school, which his father insisted on. That didn’t happen, and Anderson started helping the community church.
Aspen Chapel opened in 1969, and in the first few years the chapel didn’t have much activity and wasn’t proactive. Anderson was hired in the spring of 1978 and focused on the interfaith idea.
“They were kind of sitting back and anyone who wanted to use it, they were open to that. They wanted to be a very open facility to the community,” Anderson said. “They were never going after programs, and I started doing that and I guess that made a difference.
“I started a devotional service on Sunday mornings. I understood the purpose and goals of the chapel, which was to be interfaith.”
To be inclusive and welcoming meant not having a membership, Anderson said, because that can close off some people.
“I coined the phrase, ‘Because there’s no insiders, there’s no outsiders.’ Always being open to all people,” he said, “and we are still in that way.”
opening the doors
Anderson spent his first 20 years making it his mission to get a body of people to connect with the chapel so they could begin outreach into the community. It took time, but it came together.
More constituencies formed with the music and choir, the gallery and the seminars.
Community outreach is what the chapel has been heavily involved in the past four years as Vesey and others continue in Anderson and the chapel’s vision. They see helping other area nonprofits as one of the critical roles for the chapel in the coming decades.
Anderson retired in 2015 after nearly 37 years (and about 1,400 weddings), and he remains “quite invested” in the future of the chapel. He appreciates where things are headed.
“They are doing more of community outreach today, which is terrific that they are reaching out and coordinating with a lot of other nonprofits,” he said. “We have a lot of different circles of people, which in one sense is not easy to do but in another sense in a broad form is being a chapel for Aspen.”
Vesey said partnering with other nonprofits across the valley is not about duplicating the work others are doing but supporting what they are already doing.
A little over three years ago he threw open the doors to the nonprofits to come speak at a Sunday service to let people know what their group does. It was a way for both sides to learn about the other.
“Occasionally you do frighten the horses and you’ll get somebody who will say this is a step too far for me,” Vesey said of the open approach. “But basically, we’ve got people here who’ve done every course under the sun, and they just know there is a broad understanding of inclusivity that is at the center of who we are. And we want to promote that.”
Since then, the chapel has made partnerships and done events with English in Action, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the Buddy Program, Shining Stars, Habitat for Humanity, Lift Up and Senior Center, the chapel’s managing director Heather Macdonald said.
“Our goal is to become very community-centric, very community focused, and giving people opportunity to serve,” Macdonald said. “It’s one thing to go to a Sunday service or do a lecture. It’s another thing to serve the community. That’s part of linking in with other nonprofits. It’s the service part of what we’re doing.”
As well, Tom Ward, co-director of the chapel’s art gallery along with Michael Bonds, has worked in the past year plus with some of those groups as well as Huts for Vets, Wilderness Workshop, the Aspen Animal Shelter and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Those shows, which usually run about six weeks at a time, typically are not big money-makers, Ward said, but more importantly are about outreach.
People who didn’t know about what he calls “Aspen’s best kept secret” are visiting the gallery to support the groups’ shows. At the same time, they learn a little something about the gallery and the chapel.
“It’s not so much a financial thing as it is it opens up the gallery to a bigger circle of people and opens up a way for their people to look at art in a different way,” said Ward, who has been with the gallery since it started 34 years ago at the chapel. “It seems to be working so far for everyone. I don’t think we had any idea it would take off the way it has. Every show we have had new people, a whole crowd we never had before.”
They already are planning shows and finding partners on the 2020 schedule. Ward and the gallery have hosted 213 consecutive shows, and this new venture has supported that streak.
“The more we give out, the more you get back,” Ward said. “Our purpose at the chapel is to be out there for people and reaching out and helping them.”
Also part of the Vesey’s vision for the chapel in the coming years is to find new streams to pull people to the chapel. Included in that is a marketing plan (something he has a background in) and social media channels.
Currently, the chapel has the technology with three cameras, solid lighting and audio. That, he says, will help as they explore different avenues to promote who they are and what they stand for.
“The concern for the local community is the first thing,” Vesey said of the vision. “Second is representing the spirit leg of the mind, body and spirit side of Aspen. We want that to be a part of it. And we want to work more in the future to represent that side of things.
“Third, we want to be part of the development of a more equitable consciousness and society and make some kind of contribution to that sort of story.”
He said they average about 100 people at a Sunday service, and will have another 150 people who will access the service through their website or other ways.
Vesey wants to develop their broadcast network via YouTube and with a greater presence on Facebook. He said they are thinking about doing a television program from the chapel using the technology in place.
Anderson sees the advancements with technology as a way to show what the chapel represents.
“I think that’s just terrific,” he said. “They’ve had a good, good beginning with (video avenues).”
Barbara Owens has been involved with the chapel’s boards for 15 years, but her wedding in 1986 was one of the hundreds that Anderson performed at the chapel. Owens, who now serves on the board of trustees, said tapping into the improved technology is opening the doors to “connect with the world.”
“It’s an interesting dynamic. People will come to the chapel for one thing then learn about other things going on and find like-minded people, and that is how community is built,” she said. “Each program we offer is an on-ramp for someone to get their spiritual needs met. From music and choir to arts to youth and adult education and others, they all are enriching in different ways.”
As well, more high-profile events with “world-class speakers from a spiritual perspective” on a variety of topics are planned, Vesey said. He also is writing and releasing books related to chapel that he said will help build its credibility.
They have brought in consultants to look at the chapel’s boards and the development in the future. That, he said, has brought on conversations on how they should be moving forward.
The increased programming has brought “a lot of vitality” to the chapel in the past few years, and there is something going on there on any given day, Anderson said.
“I wanted the chapel to be part of the community, and I would like to think we have made some significant inroads in doing that,” Anderson said. “If we can continue to grow within the community and people see us as an integral part of this community and helping with the body, mind and spirit theme of our community, that’s what I want to see happen.
“And if we expand beyond that to downvalley, Colorado and the country and we can become known more of upholding this progressive theology. … I think we have a lot to offer and we need to make it known.”
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