›› This band was getting down. The sextet kicked off the service with keyboard solos, rhythms pounded out on a bongo drum, funky bass lines and soulful vocals straight out of the final rounds of “American Idol.” Decked out in a flowing purple robe, guitarist and singer Barb Pons strummed her six-string and crooned about the “path of transformation.”
By the time the band finished their first tune, the 200-seat congregation hall, or “sacred space,” at the New Dawn Center for Spiritual Living had taken on the electric feel of a small rock club. The crowd of about 60 who’d braved snow and the daylight saving time change to attend this Sunday morning celebration service cheered, clapped and got to their feet.
It was an unorthodox way to begin weekly worship for anyone raised with the rites of traditional Christianity, Judaism or even Buddhism. But the New Dawn Center screams unorthodox, even in its Chambers Road strip-mall digs. The center’s leaders say the approach is trans-denominational. Its practice of the New Thought religious and spiritual school draws elements from Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and quantum physics. Leaders speak at length about honoring “all paths to God,” whatever form they take.
That inclusivity was clear in the first formal Sunday remarks by Rev. John Pons, a staff minister at the New Dawn Center. He led the congregation in a weekly affirmation that would play well as a larger statement of purpose.
“We are a vital, vibrant, prosperous and growing community and wherever you are on your spiritual path, you are welcome here,” Pons said, his words echoed by the diverse crowd of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities.
It’s a welcoming message that has been at the heart of the New Dawn Center for Spiritual Living since Karen Paschal led its first service in 2004. Paschal, New Dawn’s senior minister and spiritual director, has been at the helm since the beginning. A former nurse and a 2001 graduate of Denver’s Holmes Institute and Seminary, Paschal started her spiritual studies as a complement to her work in the health care industry.
“I started out in a small church in Aurora, and the minister left unexpectedly. So I found myself leading the church,” Paschal said. “I was bi-vocational at that time; I was still doing full-time nursing.”
By 2004, that church morphed into the New Dawn Center and eventually moved to its current home on Chambers Road. The center is rooted in the New Thought movement, a philosophy founded by Ernest Holmes in the 1920s that fuses separate religious traditions and scientific precepts.
At its heart, Paschal said, the philosophy boils down to the difference between spirituality and religion. It’s a distinction that can come across as cliché or vague, but Paschal points to a clear difference between the two.
“I think spirituality is a recognition that there is something greater than we are that is a part of us and a part of everything that we see,” Paschal said. “When we take the time to slow down and touch that, that’s where we find our peace. That’s where we find our joy. That’s where we have an opportunity to share it with one another.”
In the last decade, Paschal and the rest of the staff have spread that message to an ever-growing congregation. The center just wrapped up a successful campaign to grow the number of seats in its sacred space to 200. That push came largely from the fact that Sunday services were filling up. More and more, the services were standing room only.
But the Center’s growth has gone beyond the walls of the building. In addition to a growing variety of workshops, classes and services, New Dawn members have become more and more visible in the wider Aurora community.
Paschal helped launch the Season for Nonviolence speaker series that’s run at local public schools during the past three years. Along with Aurora Police chief Dan Oates and Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry, Paschal has hosted guest speakers like Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, as well as Azim Khamisa, who speaks internationally about the value of nonviolence and forgiveness.
What’s more, Paschal and the New Dawn Center became one of the many public faces of tragedy and healing after the shootings at the Aurora Century 16 theater in July 2012. She led a prayer vigil that was televised in the days following the shooting. Rebecca Wingo, one of the 12 who died in the theater, was a member of the New Dawn congregation.
“It became more personal,” Paschal said. “To me, violence is about our separation from one another, our looking at differences instead of who we are collectively.”
Paschal spoke from her office in the back of the New Dawn Center where a painting on the back wall depicted in imagery the story of the prodigal son from the New Testament, and books about Islamic mysticism and Indian spirituality shared space on bookshelves with renderings of Hindu goddesses and lotus leafs. A coverlet draped over the sofa bore the image of Buddha, and a framed portrait of Jesus hung nearby on the wall.
“Jesus came to change the world, but not in the way that we grabbed hold of it,” Paschal said, her eyes lingering on the black-and-white portrait. “I believe that Jesus was an example, not an exception. All of his teachings, if we really look at them, were about the possibilities of our life.”
Possibility was a constant theme in Paschal’s sermon this Sunday morning. Dressed in a sparkling and flowing robe, her voice amplified through a wireless mic, Paschal spoke of mystery and misery. She spoke of rescuing the Gospel from fundamentalist Christians and those who discriminate.
“I choose love,” she stated simply.