New Aspen pastor welcomes all to his flock
Jerry Herships's road to Aspen had a few turns along the way
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What: Service at Aspen Community Church
When: 9:30 a.m. each Sunday
Where: 200 E. Bleeker St., Aspen
Info: http://aspencommunitychurch.org/ and 970-925-1571
Pastor Jerry Herships was elated the other day, and it was all over a pair of socks.
He’d just given a pair to one of Aspen’s homeless residents, and the way Herships told the story, it might as well have been him receiving the freebies after spending a night in the cold.
“I gave my first pair of socks on my way here,” Herships said. “I said, ‘You need a pair of socks?’ and he said, ‘I would love a pair of socks.’
“Everything else pales if your feet are cold and wet.”
Seated at a table in the Aspen Public House, Herships gleefully retold his exchange with one of Aspen’s more vulnerable residents, a beneficiary of Aspen Community Church’s sock collection for the needy. The drive began last week, and Herships, the consummate storyteller, was fired up about the campaign’s early success.
“The other day I mentioned about doing a sock drive for the homeless, and I put it on Facebook,” Herships said. “In the last five days we’ve gotten about 280 pairs of socks, about three- or four-hundred dollars in checks coming, all memoed as ‘for socks’ — because people realize when your feet are cold, not much else matters.”
In July, Herships started his appointment as the new pastor at Aspen Community Church, a Methodist place of worship that stands on the progressive side of social issues. Herships replaced Mike Nickerson, the church’s preacher since the summer of 2014.
“He has some life experience prior to becoming pastor, which I think adds a great deal to his ability to be effective as a minister and as a preacher,” said Don Bird, a longtime congregant of the Methodist church, which is open to anyone.
The road less traveled
Herships, who turns 56 on Tuesday, didn’t hear his calling until he had forged a life that included growing up Catholic in Detroit, doing stand-up comedy for nearly three decades and bartending for 10 years.
“I learned to speak as a comic and I learned to listen as a bartender, and both of those themselves relate pretty well to what I do now,” he said.
In the ’80s and ’90s, he was the house emcee at the legendary Improv comedy club in Los Angeles. He likened it to working at Birdland, the famed jazz club in New York City, in the 1950s. Herships introduced the likes of budding comics Jay Leno (for whom he’s also wrote jokes), Adam Sandler, David Spade and Jerry Seinfeld.
“I don’t think it’s hubris to say I really got to watch the best of the best,” he said. “I was the low man on the totem pole, but I was working with them.”
Herships did his own stand-up circuits, but after he and his wife, Laura, lost much of their possessions in their Burbank, California, apartment from the Northridge earthquake of January 1994, they moved to Orlando for a fresh start.
By that time, he hadn’t set foot in church for 10 years. While in Florida, his wife, a Methodist, convinced him to attend church there. That’s when he met the Rev. Bill Barnes. Herships was managing a local nightclub at the time and also trotting around the country doing stand-up. Yet he wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
“I remember going to my pastor at the time, and he said, ‘Did you ever think about ministry?’ And I said, ‘I curse like a sailor, I drink brown liquor, I look at pretty girls. I’m the last guy to do this gig.’”
The pastor wasn’t having it; in fact, he deemed Herships an ideal candidate for the clergy.
“He said, ‘Maybe you’re just the guy,’” Herships recalled. “‘Maybe we need to stop putting our clergy on pedestals. Maybe we need to start recognizing they’re limping along like everybody else, and let’s try to figure it out together.’”
By 2009, Herships was an ordained minister, his first assignment to St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch south of Denver. With the mega-church’s blessing, Herships started AfterHours Denver, loosely organized gatherings at bars and pubs in the area. The ministry would make, and still does, hundreds of peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless. The AfterHours crowd comes from a cross-section of life and doesn’t fit the stereotypical church-going type.
Bar managers were skeptical of Herships’ idea of mixing alcoholic spirits with the Holy version.
“We had 89 people show up at the first one, and I will tell you, when you bring in 89 people on an off night, bar owners find Jesus real quick,” he said. “That went well and that bar owner called another bar owner, who called another one and pretty soon we were doing it every Monday night, at a different bar, like a floating craps game for Jesus, and it was almost all 25- to 30-year-olds, … and I found they were deeply spiritual and had a lot of questions they wanted to ask, but the traditional liturgy and ritual of traditional church didn’t give them the opportunity to ask that.”
Herships’ experiences behind the bar as well as inside one inspired him to write two books — “Last Call: From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus” and “Rogue Saints: Spirituality for Good-Hearted Heathens.”
Herships says he can only do so much from the pulpit, yet mixing it up with people, whether they are on hard times or Cloud Nine, provides a more practical path to spiritual enlightenment.
“For me, you get a different and some ways a richer experience when you’re all sitting around drinking a pint and talking and going, ‘Now walk me through this sin thing. What does that really look like?’ Because a lot of us gave up the church as soon as we were allowed to.”
It’s been just nearly three months, but Herships appears to be settling into Aspen and his church just fine.
“The church has been on a steadily progressive journey over all of these years,” Bird said, “and Jerry is a natural result of that journey. What I like about him is his sermons are very, very reflective of progressive Christianity and while the congregation is progressive, Jerry has been able to articulate that progressive perspective in a very meaningful way.”
Herships and the Aspen Community Church endorse total inclusion of the LGBTQ community into the Methodist setting, including ordination and marriage. It is a position that is at odds with the conservative leadership of the United Methodist Church, creating a schism in the worldwide religion that is on track to break up in May at its annual conference in Minneapolis.
Herships said the breakup appears to be inevitable. He doesn’t shy away from the controversy, whether he’s on the pulpit or shooting the breeze at a local pub.
“I think there’s a social responsibility for a pastor,” he said. “Karl Barth was a theologian who said, ‘Every good pastor should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,’ and I think if you can’t transfer what’s written in this ancient text into how it functions in today’s society, then go become a professor at a seminary, which is a great gig.”
Having filled in for Nickerson in the past at the Aspen church, Herships said when he got the calling to relocate, he didn’t wince. He and his wife had visited other ski towns in Colorado, but Aspen stood above them, he said.
“Aspen was the only place that felt like a community,” he said. “Nothing against the others, they were all lovely, but they felt like a Main Street with an ice cream shop and a fudge store and a couple of bars and they were great, but this felt like people knew each other. There were grids and streets and a grocery store.”
On the peak seasons, the church services can draw as many as 50 people, a modest number by other churches’ standards. Herships said he’s OK with that.
“It’s kind of like comedy,” he said. “There’s an intimacy that happens in small venues as opposed to large venues.”
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”