From the outside, the Issachar Community house looks like just another gritty building on the edge of downtown Denver. Some may even think it looks like a 19th-century horse stable, which at one time it was.
Albus Brooks, Issachar's director and a former University of Colorado football star, sees something altogether different. "It's a pillar of light in the community," says Brooks, a longtime activist in Christian ministry. "Everybody thinks it's an old apartment building -- but it's really a transformational community."
The word "bridge" also fits the description. Together, Issachar and the suburban-based Colorado Christian University have linked resources to provide urban, inner-city young people with the educational opportunities of a private, suburban Christian university that offers both bachelor's and master's degrees.
Currently, CCU offers a scholarship program that has provided 10 students, living at the Issachar house, a college education at the University's main campus in Lakewood. From their separate vantage points, Issachar and CCU share a similar mission: to equip young people with a Christian perspective as they prepare to become leaders in the inner city. The Issachar students bring to the suburban university the cross-cultural sensibilities of growing up urban and minority. CCU provides them in turn with a solid educational foundation.
The two goals mesh well, Brooks says. "More than anything, the next generation of leaders have to have a biblical context," Brooks says. "We're getting that by being associated with a Christian university. We love that connection."
The role of Issachar, which was founded in 1999 as a branch of Colorado-based Mile High Ministries, is to identify leadership qualities in young people, ages 18 to 27, who come from mostly lower-income, urban-minority settings. Issachar nurtures those qualities in an atmosphere that stresses Christian integrity and purpose. It takes its name from the tribe of Issachar, which was described in the Bible as being a people faithful to God, who "understood the times and knew what should be done."
CCU President Bill Armstrong praised the joint venture, saying, "The great thing about Issachar is that they're raising up new leaders in the inner city -- young men and women of integrity, ability, and intellect -- and giving them educational and leadership opportunities. We're honored to be in on it, and so glad to have Issachar students at CCU. I predict many of them will go on to important positions of leadership in the years ahead."
Leadership is the goal of Shushan Chavelas, 24, one of the first Issachar residents to receive a CCU scholarship. Since she came to the United States with her family nearly a decade ago, she has been absorbed in her local church and in immigration issues, which includes her role as translator for her Mexico-born parents. Her dream is to find a career in international relations and perhaps work in an embassy someday. She used to attend a local, secular university, but found that CCU gave her an even sharper educational experience and broadened her worldview, all in the context of her faith.
"I wanted a Christian environment," she said. "I've been a Christian all my life and know where I stand, but being at CCU gives me a different perspective...it helped me understand not just the Christian stand on foreign policy, but how the country works, and its politics." If she wondered whether her personal experiences -- as an immigrant and a Latina -- would find a home at CCU, she says that's been dispelled. "My church doesn't look anything like the chapel [services] at CCU," she says, with a laugh. "But they encourage dialogue at CCU."
"Shushan is our hope," says Brooks. "She embodies everything we are at Issachar. She knows what to do as a woman of God. Now, to have this dream of working in an embassy and this savvy, intelligent interest in law and politics -- wow, Shushan, you're going to do it!"
Gathered around the fireplace in Issachar's homey, lodge-style living room recently, Shushan and 41-year-old Q Nellum, an Issachar staff member who is also a CCU student, shared their experiences in the new scholarship program. Well-seasoned brick walls and colorful paintings help define the cozy space. The room is dominated by a sturdy wood table that looks tailor-made for lively gatherings. And that's exactly what happens most Tuesday nights, when Issachar invites politicians, business owners, and civic leaders to talk to their students. Two recent visitors included Helen Thorpe, wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and CCU President Bill Armstrong.
Upstairs, students live in a network of individual, apartment-like rooms, and bond together as a family. Among them is Q Nellum (shortened from "Susie Q," her childhood nickname) and her family, which includes husband Victor and their four kids, ages 4 to 12. The couple has spent their lives mentoring and ministering to young people, first in their Aurora church, now at Issachar.
When the community asked the Nellums to become full-time staff and to live on the premises as mentors, they wondered how they could manage two families -- their own and Issachar's. The commitment would be 24/7, and would mean, as Q puts it, "being there in the middle of night to give whatever's needed -- from a cup of sugar to a hug."
Now, Q wouldn't have it any other way. She's added "student" to her packed resume and, as one of the Issachar scholarship recipients, is pursuing a degree at CCU that emphasizes Christian leadership. She smiles at how God has stretched her family's ministry, which before was predominately to young African Americans. While many of the residents of Issachar are African American, the Nellums are also enjoying the opportunity to mentor and live in community with Latino students.
"God was calling us to more," she says. "He wanted to take Victor and me out of our box, to reach beyond our limitations." CCU also added another dimension to her worldview -- and she has added to CCU's.
The defining moment came, Q recalls, in a CCU theology class. The professor made reference to all the opportunities available for Christian witness, even while families are sitting around the dinner table. As the class listened, Q challenged the traditional picture of American family life: "You know, urban kids don't 'sit around a dinner table,'" she told the professor.
The professor issued a challenge of his own. He suggested that Q conduct an unofficial public survey in coffee houses and stores to ask local Christians where they witness to their families. When she returned to class with her results, the professor used her findings to broaden the discussion. For Q, the teacher's willingness to be open to another cultural experience, and to open it up for a thought-provoking dialogue with other students, was the essence of what learning is. In her eyes, that landed him in the ranks of an unforgettable teacher and "a great professor."
So, if CCU brings great teaching and educational opportunities to Issachar students, what exactly do Issachar students and their cultural differences bring to CCU? Q thought for a moment, then smiled. "We bring salt," she said.
For information on Issachar Community, go to www.issachardenver.org.