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March 12-18, 2009Can you party against poverty?
Hell yeah, says Reverend Jane Ann Stansfield
and her unorthodox church
by Jim Lillie
The last two decades did more than distribute wealth disproportionately in America. Somehow along the way, it became easier — and more profitable — to co-opt one’s enemies than love one’s neighbors. Cynicism has become almost pathological in a country that was once known for undying idealism.
Fortunately, the current economic crisis has given everyone a chance to reorder their priorities. And while it’s true that charity usually begins at home, the Reverend Jane Ann Stansfield doesn’t believe it ought to stay there. The founder and spiritual leader of the Hell Yeah Church of Love and Miracles, which meets one Sunday morning a month at a downtown Boulder lounge (with Bloody Marys and mimosas available), Reverend Jane recently launched a series of Rent Parties designed to help local people pay their bills.
She got the idea while attending a Conference on World Affairs seminar last year. A presenter described events that took place, often spontaneously, in New Orleans and Harlem during the Great Depression: upon learning that a neighbor was in need of rent money, people would corral a few of their musician friends, head over to the needy person’s home, push back the furniture and the rugs, have a grand time, and, at the end of the night, pass the hat for donations. Somehow, the practice didn’t bankrupt itself, and, in this small way, neighbor managed to help neighbor through tough times.
Following loosely in that tradition, Reverend Jane — who says that’s what people were calling her long before she was formally ordained — decided to help local folks by using her connections as a manager of bands and musicians (the band, Hippies with Guns, provided her post-ordination ceremony entertainment). She coaxes an act to play for the evening, sometimes for pay and sometimes not, while promising attendees that all net cover-charge proceeds will be donated to a deserving member of the community. She just doesn’t say who the recipient is, and she doesn’t ever plan to, partly, she says, to spare that person the stigma of being ID’d as needy. Try pushing her on the subject, in the interest of providing the scam-shy with information on where their charitable contributions are going, and she says, “We’re all deserving. We’re all one.” Concede that point, but reiterate the fact that people still want to know who specifically is benefiting from their donations, and she says, “It’s only 10 dollars [per person cover charge]. It isn’t about the money. It’s about people coming together.” Never mind that Depression-era rent partygoers mostly knew whom they were helping because the parties were typically held at the recipient’s house instead of at a local bar. Or that any other group with the word “church” in their name likely couldn’t get Reverend Jane’s idea out of committee, much less into the fellowship hall.
For the 50 or 60 patrons who opened up last month’s party on Fat Tuesday, which featured local favorite Wendy Woo as musical guest, none of those issues seemed to matter. Everybody, including the drummer’s 95-year-old grandmother and Woo’s dad, were more intent on having a genuinely good, if subdued, time, while generously donating cash at the door as well as in exchange for “free” CDs. Reverend Jane kept her remarks short, the b.side paid for the sound guy’s time, and Woo and her band were a constant, thumping reminder that people with day jobs are still willing to spend their spare time on causes greater than themselves, even if they don’t know what, or who, that works out to be.
Reverend Jane isn’t easily given to preachy pronouncements, nor is she a run-of-the-mill busybody. Raised Episcopalian, divorced at age 50, she was compelled to re-examine her life. A therapist gave her two pieces of advice, one of which, “All things are possible,” she kept as her church’s current credo. The other was, “Replace all fear with faith.” It’s clear that she takes both mantras to the bank every day.
She eventually became a prayer chaplain while at Unity Church in Key West, moved to Boulder, where her son currently resides, and eventually found her way to Kansas City, where she was ordained by a Unity offshoot group called the Conference on Practical Spirituality. While paying a leisurely visit to the Little Bear Saloon in Evergreen, where she’d blindly booked one of her clients some years earlier, she happened upon a band that was playing a Black Sabbath tune, which, at that particular moment, inspired her to say to herself, “That’s what church ought to be about. Hell yeah.” A beautiful, incarnational moment, as she tells the tale. So beautiful, in fact, that for the past year or so, ski-movie mogul Warren Miller’s company has been filming her for a possible TV show on the Women’s Entertainment network.
“The days of organized religion are numbered,” she says. “I don’t think it lets people come to their own fruition. Everything is whole and complete at all times. There’s no separation from anything. It’s we who separate... I think people don’t want to have dogma, period. I only tell my story, my truth. I’m not up there reading from a book... This has given me an opportunity to go deeper. I appreciate all of my experiences. I don’t kick anything to the curb,” she says, taking care to point out that that includes her Episcopal upbringing. “I think every one is a stepping stone. Each one makes us who we are now. We outgrow our parents, our school, our clothes. But it doesn’t mean there’s judgment or blame there.”
“It’ll be as long as it needs to be,” she says of her church’s prospects. “It’s not up to me. I’m not the source. The source is within every one of us. And is all of us. I don’t know what it’s supposed to do. It’s up to the people. If it inspires them, so be it. Or if they just want to have fun...”
Or if all they get is the inspiration to help their neighbor?
On the Bill
Hell Yeah Church of Love and Miracles presents a St. Patrick’s Day Rent Party featuring music from Something Underground at 7:30 p.m. on Tueday, March 17, at the b. side lounge, 2017 13th St., Boulder, 303-473-9463. Cover charge: $10/$5 student. www.hellyeahchurchofloveandmiracles.org.