Leaving behind a liberal legacy
A photograph of Mt. Rainier in Washington hangs on the wall of the Rev. Mike Burr’s office at Koinonia Church. He’s climbed to the top of the snow and ice-covered mountain on three occasions.
“I grew up with Mt. Rainier outside my kitchen window,” Burr said.
Burr has also climbed Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, where he ended up spending a week with five people in a three-man tent, waiting out a storm.
“Mountain climbing is one of my great interests,” Burr said.
In July, after his retirement as minister of Koinonia Church, Burr, 66, plans to hike Europe’s highest mountain — Mt. Blanc in the French Alps where France, Italy and Switzerland converge.
Burr’s final sermon is Sunday, June 23. After 30 years of writing weekly sermons, he is ready to turn the pulpit over to someone new.
Koinonia is described as “a spiritual community based on the stories of Jesus, finding expression in openness, inclusion and interfaith understanding.”
Burr was trained in the American Baptist tradition. Interestingly, he sometimes calls himself a “Christian Atheist.”
“I’m a word nerd,” Burr said. “If you look at the word atheistic, it means non-theistic. There are more ways to think about the ultimate source of the universe than in theistic terms. Theism isn’t big enough.
“To me it’s all mystery, and too big for me to grasp.”
A couple of years ago, the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers named Burr “Person of the Year.”
Member Earle Mullen said he recommended Burr because of “his outstanding record as a humanitarian, progressive thinker and one who is concerned about the welfare of those less fortunate amongst us.”
“Plus, he’s an all-around great guy,” Mullen said.
Burr was pastor at a Seattle-area church before taking the helm at Koinonia in Grand Junction April 1, 2004.
Koinoia had recently adopted the controversial position of becoming a “welcoming church” for the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) community — a stance that placed the church at odds nationally with the American Baptist organization, but a position that set well with Burr.
He’d already been through the conflict in Seattle where the LGBT issue had split a region of churches.
“Several conservative churches wanted to throw the other churches out of the denomination,” Burr said. “I was head of one (church). We split off and formed a separate region of open churches.
“Koinonia has always had a reputation for openness, appreciating and engaging questions rather than being doctrinal.”
Burr was raised in southern Idaho, where his family attended a conservative Baptist church.
“What I took from there was the Sunday School songs,” Burr said. — “‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,’” for example.
“It doesn’t make sense to me at all to exclude somebody for who they are.”
In college, Burr discovered the campus ministry where people were talking a lot about social justice and civil rights.
The anti-war movement was growing in response to the ongoing Vietnam War. Burr became involved with the “underground railroad,” helping to transport young draft dodgers and deserters to Canada.
During the Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran wars, his Seattle church provided sanctuary to refugees fleeing those countries.
VOICE FOR ‘LIBERAL CHRISTIANITY’
Burr is a board member of Grand Valley Peace and Justice Coalition, and has continued to speak out on social justice issues.
John Mok-Lamme´ is executive director of the nonprofit Karis and founder of The House, a shelter for homeless teens. He and Burr produced a YouTube video titled “Who Speaks for God — Grand Junction,” exploring the relationship between faith and politics.
The two also host a radio program “Lunch at Mel’s” on KAFM Community Radio, where they discuss various theological topics.
“Mike is a real articulate voice for liberal Christianity,” Mok-Lamme´said.
About 100 congregants circulate in and out of Koinonia’s Sunday 10:30 a.m. service.
“I often use material from other faith traditions (such as) Buddhist, Islam and Taoism,” Burr said.
Church members have initiated other activities at Koinonia as well, such as “sangha,” a meditation group that meets twice monthly. Another meditation group gathers weekly on Monday.
For the past six years a group within the congregation has traveled to El Salvador each year to build schools and goodwill.
Outside the church sanctuary, a community garden is in its third year. Last year, the garden produced 1,000 pounds of produce for various programs such as Catholic Outreach and the food bank.
A Waldorf-inspired preschool, River Canyon School, is housed at the church.
“It’s nice to hear the sounds of kids around, and we’ve gained some members through the school,” Burr said.
After his sojourn in Europe, Burr said he plans to continue his occupation as a counselor and business/life coach — work he’s done for the past 15 years.
But first, he and his wife, Barbara, have a new grandbaby they plan to visit in the Pacific Northwest.
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