Thirty years ago, the building housed a K-Mart. In the words of Pastor Brandon Shupp, “that big red ‘K’ lighting up the night sky” became a symbol of the neighborhood, which is now called K-Land — though the old K-Mart has a new purpose these days.
Since spring 2021, the building has been Story Church’s home, a church plant launched by Pastor Brandon and his wife Jenn. Months earlier, the couple sensed a call to church planting. They spent time in prayer and discernment, eventually partnering with The Wesleyan Church, the Association of Related Churches and 12Stone Church to start something new. They moved to a place near to Pastor Brandon’s heart but far from their early expectations: his hometown, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Following conversations with many area pastors, they settled in the southeastern part of the city — in K-Land.
The neighborhood faces many challenges. According to Pastor Brandon, 51% of residents in the vicinity of the church live below the poverty line. Rampant gang violence, substance abuse issues, poor educational outcomes and other difficulties make K-Land one of the most challenged areas in the city and likely the state.
But the last several years have seen some shifts and not in ways Pastor Brandon anticipated. “My assumption was that we were gonna come in, we were gonna build a church, we were gonna slowly build traction in the community … and then eventually we’d have some vibrant outreach opportunities. What happened was the reverse of that.”
How it started
In July 2021 — mere months after Story Church’s inaugural service and amid a summer engulfed by gang violence — a community leader named DeAndre Smith approached Pastor Brandon. The pastor recalls that he “came to me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to be praying for me. I’m gonna try and get a bunch of gang leaders around a table and see if we can do something about the violence. And by the way, is that something you’re interested in?’”
Pastor Brandon responded with an eager “Yes!” Soon after, he was invited to a meeting where, indeed, DeAndre and a group of about 15 major gang leaders assembled around a table. Many of them were rivals, men who “shouldn’t be in the same neighborhood, let alone in the same room.” Pastor Brandon recalls the tension of early meetings like that one. “I’d just sit there and pray under my breath the whole time.”
The initial goal was not to negotiate a truce or convince the men at the table to leave their gangs. Leaving would actually be counterproductive, marking them as traitors and destroying their valuable influence. Instead, the initial idea was to form lines of communication. Once the gang leaders had met and talked with each other, efforts to pick up a phone before a gun quickly began yielding powerful, literally life-saving results.
A major early feat was establishing safe zones in places like Memorial Park, which was a gang violence hotbed for several decades. In the last two years, all the new safe zones — Memorial Park included — have seen zero gang-related shootings.
As initial tensions eased, possibilities grew. Meetings continued weekly and the group took on the name Men of Influence (MOI). Their continued affiliation with Story Church led to some unique opportunities, like a Thanksgiving banquet the church hosted in 2021.
Despite uncertainty about whether the banquet would stay peaceful, the church invited over 300 people — rival gang leaders, their families and other community members — to a thoughtfully prepared Thanksgiving dinner. Church members welcomed each guest at the door and walked them into the building. Pastor Brandon describes one leader seeing the banquet room and exclaiming, “You did this for us?”
“It was beautiful,” Pastor Brandon says. “We had 20 different gang leaders on our stage that day, saying, ‘I’ve been taking from the community for the last 20 or 30 years. It’s time I started giving back.’”
A massive amount of trust developed after the banquet. At the next MOI meeting, DeAndre broached the subject of an official pastor, hoping the members would agree that having someone in that role would be valuable. Roughly 30 men were present, and though many of them weren’t believers, all approved.
They unanimously chose Pastor Brandon as their pastor. A couple of the leaders who’d been most reluctant to trust him at first even told him, “I don’t want to be preached at … but I trust you.” The experience became one of the most meaningful moments of Pastor Brandon’s life.
How it’s going
The MOI continues to meet every Tuesday night, building communication to disrupt gun violence. More than that, they work to benefit their community and those beyond. Gang leaders from other cities come to their meetings; they’ve hosted more banquets; they’ve done backpack drives and Christmas toy drives; they’ve fed the homeless together; they’ve hosted Teen Nights, when local teens can come in for a free dinner and some activities. They even have a documentary in the works — and this is only the beginning.
How did all this happen? Pastor Brandon lists four actions he believes led Story Church to this movement: prayer, saying yes to open doors, listening and staying faithful. For him, it all comes back around to making disciples who make disciples. He wants to see suburban and urban churches partnering, embracing the mission field of urban centers, and everyone from business leaders to parents to gang leaders getting involved.
“They understand gospel concepts better than some Christians do in some areas,” Pastor Brandon says. A handful of gang leaders are already attending Story Church and Pastor Brandon has baptized some of their families. He’s excited to see what they might do in the future: “When these guys really get ahold of the gospel, watch out.”
To learn more about Story Church and get involved, visit storychurch.co.
Jerah Winn studies writing and honors humanities at Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana.