It didn’t take long for the Rayback, a food truck park, bar and event space, to become a beloved Boulder institution. People gather around the fire pit and picnic tables outside, or the couches and chairs inside. Often, both: Its indoor/outdoor space is packed any night of the week with good weather. The business hours and offerings were extended in 2017 to include liquor and coffee.
Sunday mornings, the scene at Rayback is a bit different. That’s when The Well, a Boulder-based evangelical church, holds its services.
The Well’s teachings stand in stark contrast to the casual settings, and Boulder’s liberal reputation. From the pulpit and on social media, The Well’s pastors have preached subservience of women, the sinfulness of homosexuality and gender nonconformity, and the desire to meld Christian values with politics and government — beliefs that have led some Boulderties to label the church as homophobic, misogynistic and Christian nationalist, and question why Rayback would host them.
Representatives from both organizations characterize their relationship as purely business. Church leaders say they are following their faith, not trying to foment a forceful takeover of Boulder.
The Well has been operating out of Rayback since summer of 2020. One of their pastors, Matt Patrick, was a part-owner and co-founder of Rayback, though he sold his shares in 2018. A statement on Rayback’s website, posted in response to public scrutiny and amended at least once, said Patrick “ceased all involvement” when the business opened in 2016.
“I didn’t have a role of any substance,” Patrick told Boulder Weekly. He participated in media interviews to promote the business because “my job is I talk for a living.”
Rayback co-founders Justin Riley and Hank Grant are not members of The Well, they clarified in the online statement. Leasing space to the church was a business decision, the statement emphasized.
“The Rayback is a business, not a charitable organization,” the original version of the statement read. “We rent space to people and organizations for agreed-upon sums in signed contracts.”
Patrick said Rayback was chosen because it offered the chance to follow COVID-era protocols and was large enough to accommodate the roughly 250 people who attend on Sundays.
“It was honestly more practical than anything else,” he said. “And it could be a financial blessing to whatever place we ended up at” given the near-total shutdown of bars and restaurants during the pandemic.
Rayback’s online response hinted at “ongoing discussions” with The Well, but Patrick said they were not talking about ending the church’s lease early.
“They are concerned and so are we” about the recent negative attention, Patrick said. “I can’t speak to what they do and want to do. Currently we are still there.”
The Well is set to move into its own building. The church purchased 300 S. Broadway for $2.15 million in 2021; 95% of the funds were raised from members, Patrick said. They hope to move in late fall, but “that’s a Lord-willing statement.”
Through a spokesperson, Riley and Grant declined requests for an interview. They also declined to respond to questions sent via email.
Their statement online did not explicitly condemn The Well’s teachings, but it did say the establishment was one where “all people are welcome.”
“We do not tolerate or condone disrespectful language in any form,” the original version read, “be it public or private.”
Bruce Parker, deputy director of Out Boulder County, called Rayback’s response “a cop-out,” and said the business should “do better” to support LGBTQ customers and employees.
“Absolutely Rayback is a private business; they have to make a profit,” Parker said. “You can do that without doing things that are harmful to your community. If we were talking about them renting to a neo-Nazi party, a Proud Boy, they would not use that kind of excuse.
“I hope the Rayback will get clear about their values and make decisions that don’t cause the rest of us to feel that going there is supporting people who don’t think we deserve to exist.”
Criticism of the church’s teachings and meeting place were mostly limited to social media posts. But when the Daily Camera published an op-ed by Doug McKenna in early April, some of The Well’s teachings were telegraphed to a broad audience for the first time.
It included direct quotes declaring “homosexuality is a sin,” the yearning for a Christian nation (“I’m not so convinced that a Christian nation is the worst thing in the world”), and a plea for women to “obey [their] husbands” if they “want to save America.”
(Note: The hyperlinks in McKenna’s piece no longer work, though they were verified by the Camera’s editorial director. The Well’s sermons were taken down from its website the week the op-ed published; they are being restored to the website, but at different locations. Patrick said the website redesign was planned and that the timing was a coincidence.)
Following publication of McKenna’s piece, community members rushed to share other tidbits they found disturbing: criticism of racial justice on a podcast; sermons that encourage the forceful spread of Christianity; desire for more Christian representation in local government; and a tweet with an anti-trans slur that both The Well’s lead pastors liked.
Residents are disturbed by the increased infusion of religion into law, and shocked to see such rhetoric emanating from, as Rayback puts it, “Boulder’s backyard.”
“People respect freedom of religion,” said Rebecca Zimmerman, a PhD student at the University of Denver who is studying intimate partner violence. “It’s when you talk about changing society so that everybody has to believe the same thing that you do that I get concerned.”
Those beliefs are directly from the Bible, Patrick said, and The Well stands behind them. He sees the criticism as part and parcel of being a Christian.
“If you’re going to faithfully preach through the Bible, you’re going to butt up against things culture and society don’t like,” Patrick said. “When you’re resolved to hold fast to your faith and convictions and principles, I think history will tell you that people will hate that.”
Patrick said he did not recall liking or replying to a tweet with a common slur for transgender individuals, nor did his co-pastor, J. Chase Davis.
“If I did, I did,” Patrick said. “I don’t remember every tweet I participated in.”
As for spreading the faith, including into facets of government, that’s part of Christianity, too, Patrick said. The Well are not Christian Nationalists; he prefers the term Orthodox Christians.
The evangelical magazine Christianity Today distinguishes between Christian Nationalism and “normal Christian political engagement.”
The latter, they write, “rejects the idea that Christians are entitled to primacy of place in the public square or that Christians have a presumptive right to continue their historical predominance in American culture. Today, Christians should seek to love their neighbors by pursuing justice in the public square, including by working against abortion, promoting religious liberty, fostering racial justice, protecting the rule of law, and honoring constitutional processes. That agenda is different from promoting Christian culture, Western heritage, or Anglo-Protestant values.”
Patrick said The Well does not believe church should be elevated over state, nor that state should be elevated over church. The state and church should both have roles in governing, he said, not be “stacked in a vertical hierarchy.”
“I would say locally, it’s out of balance. I don’t necessarily feel represented in Boulder often.”
Concerned Boulderites argue that The Well shows their hand by echoing and amplifying common conservative flashpoints, like critical race theory or trans rights, rather than focusing on other parts of the Bible, like Jesus’ instruction to care for the poor and downtrodden.
“Defending Tucker Carlson, it’s not like defending the Pope or something,” Zimmerman said.
Moreover, these beliefs are being codified into law. Hundreds of bills have been introduced across the country this year that criminalize providing gender-affirming care, ban books that discuss gender and sexuality and prevent people younger than 26 from transitioning — all while queer and trans kids and adults suffer from higher rates of suicide and violent crime than the general population.
“At a time when LGBTQ people are the target of insistent and incessant political bullying,” said Parker, “it is irresponsible and deeply harmful for people who consider themselves moral leaders to spread messages that make LGBTQ people less-than and give power over everyone else to a small group of men.”
‘Living in community’
Not all Christians denounce homosexuality or non-confirming genders. Out Boulder County partners with numerous Christian organizations who welcome LGBTQ members.
As the many different denominations of Christianity show, there are hundreds of ways to interpret the Bible, said Nicole Garcia, a transgender woman and ordained Lutheran minister. Garcia is also the faith work director for the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“If I have the privilege and ability to desire and interpret (scripture), the pastor at The Well has that same ability,” Garcia said. “He should be able to teach and preach and interpret the way he wants to.”
Like Parker and Zimmerman, what Garcia objects to is the infusion of The Well’s brand of Christianity into American law, which elevates one denomination’s views over others in violation of the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution.
“They have to realize that their ancestors, who came over to make this a ‘Christian nation,’ left Europe because the European kings and princes could dictate how they could express their faith,” she said.
In seminary, Garcia studied the early history of the church, learning how the Protestant Bible — Catholics use a different one, with seven additional books — came to be put together. Key aspects of the Christian faith that many followers today accept as doctrine, such as whether Jesus was a god or a human, were debated and decided by men, and influenced by the social, political and cultural forces of the day.
“It’s hard to know if this little Bible — copied from copies that were written 1,000 years ago, which were copies of things written 1,000 years before — is the exact word of God, or is it a place where we start, where we begin our relationship with God, by living it and reading into it and trying to live out the message?” Garcia said.
“One of the big teachings God gave us is to love God, love ourselves and love our neighbor. That’s living in community.”
Part 2 of this story will explore how churches like The Well establish themselves by leasing cheaper public spaces at Boulder Valley School District.
Shay Castle is the founder of Boulder Beat, an online news site dedicated to deep-dive journalism on local issues.