Eleven Reflections from a Week Listening Across the Plains of Southeastern Colorado
Each year, our team at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado takes two or three “listening tours” around the state. This year, we spent a week along the Hwy 50 corridor of Southeastern Colorado — in towns like Lamar, Wiley, Las Animas, La Junta, Fowler, Avondale, and Pueblo — sitting around diner tables, walking farms and canal lines, breathing in the hot dust, eating lots of food covered in pueblo chile-based green salsa, and listening to stories. It’s one of the most neglected and least understood parts of our state. These are a few reflections from the trip.
1. Our week began with the three hour pilgrimage from Denver out dirt roads to Sand Creek: the site of the most atrocious massacre of Indigenous people in Colorado history. Hundreds of Arapahoe and Cheyenne — mostly women, children, and the elderly — were gunned down by US army forces who went rouge, were celebrated as heroes, and paraded the mutilated body parts of their victims down the streets of Denver to great fanfare. Governor Evans, after whom the 14er and Denver boulevard are named, was the driver of a devout Christian and someone who believed in desegregation, was convinced that Native Americans were less than human. He wanted to build a state for whites and white industry — which meant clearing the land of its original inhabitants; a clearance that resulted in genocide. Evans declared, “All citizens of Colorado…go in pursuit, kill and destroy all hostile Indians that infest the Plains…” We Christians still have not reckoned with the belief systems woven into our theological imaginations that allow us to see others as less than human, and to support political-economies that take such dehumanization to its logical conclusion. I am disturbed by the ongoing ineffectiveness of the gospel to cultivate openness, inclusion, and compassion in the hearts of Anglo Americans. It makes you wonder if American Christians aren’t living in some Orwellian universe in which Caesar has been calling himself Jesus, has been using the phrase “The Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven” to describe the Gospel of White-US-Capitalistic Empire, has convinced everyone that the violence of self-interest in in fact the just-peace of universal shalom, and has somehow pulled off all these swaps without anyone noticing.
2. My life in Colorado is the fruit of these murders. My work today has to wrestle with the implications of the ongoing settler colonial state we’ve built on other people’s land. This is a real and present problematic that has to be faced, not just by the culture at large but by justice seeking organizations and movements like the ones I am a part of. It begins by facing the history and naming who’s land we’re on. Here’s a reader we put together in advance to help us face our history and begin acknowledging the first peoples. I’ve been inspired by the work of Mark Charles, who points toward a process of Truth and Conciliation this nation must embark on if we wish to heal — something similar to what other settler colonist states have done including Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
3. Listening to this podcast, which does a marvelous job unpacking the broader historical context of Sand Creek, we were jarred by the parallels between the build-up to the Massacre and the current climate surrounding immigration and the crisis on our border today were deeply disturbing. Mass fear and othering begets mass violence. We should all be deeply disturbed at the potential for mass violence rippling beneath the surface right now — and t-ed up by easy access to assault weapons and the self-declared radical border militia who tote. How do we deescalate the tension? How do we release fear? How do we allow human encounters to transform hearts? These are life-and-death urgent questions today.
4. You don’t have to go to the border to come face to face with the harsh plight of immigrants in the US. Farmworkers sweating in the melon, pueblo chile, corn and alfalfa fields of the Arkansas Valley showcased these struggles for us to heart-wrenching effect. Housing, food, water, transportation, health-care — immigrants are dependent on their employers for all these necessities, and subject to exploitation. Workers here on an H-2A Visa (used by agricultural workers) live in a state of functional indentured servitude, while the undocumented are even more desperately vulnerable. US food systems are dependent on this labor while our immigration systems make it increasingly difficult for an adequate number of people to come in legally, leading to food rotting in fields, while we further demonize and abuse these essential contributors to our economy. It seems we, and I speak particularly to those of us whose scriptures instruct us to “welcome the stranger,” have lost our minds.
5. There are saints everywhere, serving in anonymity. Sister Nancy epitomized this for us. She runs El Centro de los Pobres out of a metal building behind the Catholic parish in tiny rural Avondale. A former neurosurgery nurse, she’s been serving the poor, the undocumented, and the immigrant for twenty years. Her presence is like coming home. She takes everyone by the hand, warmly calling their name, and welcoming their questions with compassion and clear direction. Her fire for justice echos in the tradition of Cesar Chavez and Colorado’s Corky Gonzalez. Los Pobres is the only place serving undocumented people in the Southeast. They are oasis of care helping people survive beneath an inhumane empire that reviles them while depending on their labor. They are a hub of communication when ICE raids are happening, helping people avoid deportation and see another day. God bless Sister Nancy and her team, and please consider supporting their work. We left her side with full and broken hearts.
6. At least in Colorado, the urban-rural divide is not a simple function (as urbanites tend to believe) of ignorance, ideological differences, and social isolation. Rural communities in Southeastern Colorado are being gutted by the selling off of water rights to large and rapidly growing cities on the Front Range. While urbanites in the arid West are wholly unaware of where their water comes from, rural and farming communities are seeing the essential resources on which their lives depend literally dry up before their eyes. Crowley County was the prime example. Large ranches bought up most of the county’s water rights, then sold it off to Aurora. Agriculture in that part of the state is now functionally over — along with most of the economy, followed closely by the people. On multiple fronts, this divide is not simply arbitrary animosity, it the outcome of callous indifference to people’s welfare and the material resources in which that welfare is rooted. No wonder resentment grows.
7. Water is increasingly scarce in many of these communities, but for some it goes beyond that — the water is poison. The people of Wiley, Colorado can’t drink or cook with their water. It’s too full of radon, uranium, and other heavy metals naturally occurring on the ground water. To have anything potable, they have to drive into a small brick station in the center of their town of 400 daily to fill up five gallon containers. And they aren’t alone. Many small communities in the Southeast of our state face the same crisis. A solution isn’t in sight. Indeed, the human geography of our state, of the West as a whole, is shaped by the narrow geography of our watersheds. Name a town, and I will show you the water it grew alongside. Life in the West is as tenuous as the streams we depend on — the Arkansas and the Platte, the Poudre and the Gunnison, the Rio Grande and the Colorado. How long do the rest of us have clean and sufficient water from these sacred sources? How long until we begin to live out here as if water were life?
8. Pueblo is another victim of environmental injustice. Xcel Energy, the provider of power to the Denver Metro area, has the majority of its power plants (largely coal fired) located in Pueblo. Pueblo, however, receives none of that energy but rather sends it straight to Denver. Instead, they have to buy their power from Black Hills Energy in the Dakotas, regularly paying as much as double what Denverites pay despite being the workers at these plants. This is on top of the significant super fund sites left behind by smelting and steel plants that were located in low-income, largely Latinx neighborhoods. As Governor Polis moves us toward 100% renewable energy in 2040, an essential function must be to bring a Green New Deal perspective that demands equity, repairs harm done by the old systems to people and the land, and redistributes resources and opportunities.
9. Housing is Gordian knot in small town America. Housing is a necessity of life, but it isn’t the starting point of economic wellbeing for a community. The whole economic ecosystem is broken in much of rural America by global transformations in trade and finance, off-shoring of industry, consolidation and corporatization of agriculture, the urban-centricity of American culture, and public disinvestments. If life begins with water, then then the economic water required for life in these communities has been dammed or siphoned off. Construction costs for new homes costs more than double what they are work in the open market. Affordable housing finance mechanism designed for the scale and tastes of urban markets are nearly useless in rural communities, leaving them without alternatives. Area Median Incomes are so low that these standards are nearly meaningless when attempting to assess who needs housing. And while incomes are low, costs of living are still high — milk and gas cost more, transportation costs are higher because the distances are so great, healthcare is subpar or only available at a great distance, and Amazon purchases cost the same. Ironically, in Pueblo, were learned of barriers to creating affordable housing like high environmental efficiency and aesthetic design standards. While these could be solved in the short term by providing design waivers for units that will house households earning 80% AMI or below, it could result in a stigma of perception that low-income housing is ugly and only for “those people” (as has been the long stereotype of public housing), while further contributing to climate change. To say that finding quality affordable housing in Southeastern Colorado is a problem is to say something true. But it is also misplaces the basic challenge of life in these rural communities — building a local economy that provides everyone with what they need to thrive, and the need for a just (re)distribution of resources.
10. Loneliness and isolation exist side-by-side with rich communal and family ties. Even in small communities, people have their circles, their segregated in-groups. Single men working in the ag and energy industries (which dominate the employment scene) largely stick to themselves, poorly woven even into the communities where they reside. Attendance at local school and at church events is down. Something seems to be happening, no matter where you live, where the cultural skills and habits of connection on which community depends are bleeding out. Blessed are the reweavers. Greater still are those who can find ways to weave relationships of care across chasms of perceived difference — gender, race, class, sexuality, national origin, religion, politics. We are all desperate for belonging. We desperately need a belonging that refuses to exclude.
11. Resiliency sings amidst the struggle. Communities of hope and resistance are fighting to broaden the circle of inclusion. People like Rev. Travis, serving multiple small Methodist parishes in towns like Wiley and McClave, who drove us around and rattled off the details of every farmer and farmer worker housing project, who is helping run a food pantry serving 150 families and a clothing closet for kids at the local school, and who is committed to the long-haul work of loving his people toward open and inclusive hearts. People like Andrea, our Latina barista in Lamar, who moved out there from Oklahoma City and said it was the first place she felt like an outsider, who felt alone at first for her beliefs and skin color, but who found her people and employed a DACA student at her coffee shop. People like Kate who’s driving all over to provide free legal support for immigrants. People like Sam who is serving a 17 county area with Volunteers for America, seeking out, supporting, and rehousing homeless veterans wherever he can find them. People like Steve who moved back to their hometown after going off the city for school and work, who came back with an economists eye for economic development, who is reviving a housing sector from the ground up and solving problems others have never taking the time to understand. Hope burns in the presence of fire breathing, hug dealing saints like Sister Nancy. Pride is carved out of chile festivals and church potlucks. Love is being made public, being birthed into material and felt liberation (to paraphrase Amanda Henderson), all across Southeastern Colorado through the deeply rooted work of thousands of unnamed souls. I am changed by my encounters with them this week, and pray for ways to honor their stories and walk in solidarity toward the fulfillment of their dreams.
* please excuse any typos…I’m tired but wanted to get this out while it’s fresh
** I work with the very best humans in the world. I am so grateful to have made this journey with my co-worker friends Amanda Henderson, Jill Wildenberg, Tamara Boynton, Melanie Kesner, and Jessica Dominguez. These reflection are the fruit of our constant collective processing and wrestling throughout the week.