DOUBLE FUNCTION: Brief movies present Aurora’s variety, unity and polarization

At “My Father’s House”, members of various ethnic and religious groups gathered in the new Village Exchange Center to attend an event where food from different cultures was exchanged.
Screenshot from the documentary “My Father’s House”.

IIt is routine for Aurora politicians and business promoters to take pride in the city’s ethnic and racial diversity. However, two documentaries that have received widespread attention draw vastly different conclusions about Aurora’s decades-long efforts to create an inclusive place to live.

North Aurora’s Village Exchange Center sees the on-screen treatment – and international recognition – in “my father’s house.” The 15-minute film tells of the last days of a former Lutheran church on Havanna Street 1609 and its transformation into a multicultural space for refugees and immigrants.

And last weekend, activists in In Defense of Justice in Denver painted a dark and bloody picture of Aurora.

The 30-minute watch records the deadly encounter between Elijah McClain and three APD officials in August 2019, police violence against black residents, and the plight of four socialist activists who face long prison sentences for their roles as leaders of peaceful protests.

While “In Defense in Denver” is attracting the attention of prominent American activists, “My Father’s House” received an Emerging Documentary Award from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last weekend. The play originally debuted at a private film festival in Telluride last year.

The short film, directed by Rob Shearer, documents the successful efforts of former Pastor Marcel Narucki to accommodate the ethnic diversity on his doorstep after his long-standing denomination, the St. Matthew Lutheran Church, lost members.

By 2017, Narucki had seen his neighborhood of North Aurora evolve from a largely white community into a tapestry of refugees and immigrants from around the world over the past few decades. About 80% of the refugees in Colorado will be relocated within a mile of the former church, according to the documentary. Many Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Central America also made their way into the neighborhood.

Of these newcomers, “most of the people have strong religious ties and are not Lutherans,” said Amanda Blaurock, executive director of the VEC.

Faced with a dwindling flock and grief as his ward dried up, Narucki led efforts to change the Church’s mission. He is now the coordinator for Congolese Pentecostals, Nepalese Buddhists and other communities who take turns praying there. Before COVID-19 struck, Aurors from around the world packed into the basement of the room to cook and exercise. Volunteers continue to distribute food to hungry families and hand out grants to undocumented workers who were let out of pandemic-time safety nets.

It’s a mission fueled by a core belief in diversity and multiculturalism that runs counter to the Trump administration’s efforts to end refugee admission, Blaurock noted.

“These are times of division,” says Narucki in the film. “We can see the other as a stranger other, as someone who is a problem, or we can see the other as someone I belong to.”

If “My Father’s House” embodies the best of Aurora’s reputation – a place of racial and ethnic harmony – “In Defense of Justice in Denver” embodies the worst.

The half-hour film documents McClain’s death and the protest movement it sparked.

Viewers can watch again as the Aurora Police Department cemented its national reputation for brutality this year amid a spate of scandals: officials held a black family, including children, at gunpoint after misidentifying their vehicle; a policeman aimed a gun at the head of a prominent doctor; and another officer, since fired, hobbled a black woman in the back seat of a cruiser, lying contorted and gasping for breath for 20 minutes.

APD was also convicted on national television for reacting aggressively to a picket for McClain. Like most of the major protests against racial justice in Aurora last year, the vigil was partly organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

The protests and marches are the focus of the 30-minute film, which was directed by William Whiteman.

The film is another call to action.

Whiteman opens the film with four activist leaders – Lillian House, Terrance Roberts, Joel Northam and Eliza Lucero – describing a coordinated police round on September 17, 2020. The four said they were arrested at their homes or while running errands and were surprised to learn how prosecutors would bring a range of charges that could put decades in jail.

These include allegations of kidnapping attempts, incitement to riot, theft, and more. Northam, 32, faces 11 crimes and 12 misdemeanors after contributing to largely peaceful protests and demonstrations over the summer.

“Well, this is one of the highest charges we have ever seen for peaceful political protest in recent years,” civil rights attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said in the documentary.

The four activists and civil rights attorneys, including McClain’s family attorney Mari Newman, decide to fight the charges and make Aurora a safe city for black residents exposed to police violence. They urge supporters to sign a petition at www.DenverDefense.org and see how the charges are dropped. Prominent activists have already done this.

The indicted activists released the documentary before it becomes due in various courts starting next month, and an APD official is due to appeal his dismissal in connection with the McClain case soon.

The city’s Community Police Task Force is also likely to make some police reform recommendations to the city council, and ongoing city, state and federal investigations continue to hold criminal charges against the three police officers who brought McClain under.

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