Madonna Of The High Plains

A Visit From The Sheriff

I was still organizing my office in the church when I heard the front door open and close and a very large man in a police uniform appeared.  He smiled, introduced himself as the county sheriff, and held out his hand, not looking me in the eye, appraising my study.  He said that he had heard that I was new in town and that he just wanted to stop by and introduce himself.  We made small talk.  Then he asked about my background.  I wondered if I was being interrogated?  Instinctively I kept my answers polite but brief. With the procedure over he seemed satisfied, and then he added, I just want to make something clear.  This is how it works here.  We live in a very remote area of the country.  And we are at the intersection of two major highways.  And if people want to stay off of the interstates then they travel these roads.  So we keep a close eye on everything that goes through this town.  There can be some really unsavoury characters show up here. So I’d like to ask for your cooperation. Sometimes travelers will stop by the churches in town looking for a handout so I’d like to personally ask you to do me a favour if that happens.  Before you go helping anyone if you’d get their name and if you can a license plate number and just call it in to our office and we’ll check them out and if they are straight up then you can help them however you see fit.  Okay?

No, it was not okay.

It was not okay for any number of reasons.  It was not okay for the government to be telling the church how to behave.  It was not okay to dictate what any response should be in any situation without knowing the situation first.  It was not okay to impose extraordinary values of nationalism on the Works of Mercy. It was not okay for you to ask me to do your job.  It was not okay for me to play into your psychology.  It was not okay for me to be either disrespectful or abusive.

No, it was definitiely not okay.

So I simply responded with, I understand.  Satisfied, he excused himself and left.  I sat back in my office chair. The irony of the place dawned on me a bit more.  I had moved to this town only the week before and there had already been three incidents in town using firearms, the most dramatic of which was an armed standoff a block from the manse with shots fired between the sheriff and an armed man in a semi truck who was headed into town to kill his employer for not having paid him.  If those incidents were not enough to make me wonder what I had gotten myself into, then this interaction with the sheriff convinced me that perhaps it was not the tourists who were the real threats.

A Pistol In The Front Seat

A week later a member of my parish agreed to drive me around the region to help orient me.  A farmer, he pulled up in his pickup truck early one morning.  When I got in there was a Model 1911 .45 calibre pistol sitting openly on the front seat of the truck with a loaded magazine on the console next to it.  Pulling out of town I decided that I had better talk about the elephant on the table. So what’s that for, I asked, are the pheasants staging an uprising?  No, he replied, I just feel better having something like that riding with me.  You never know who you’re gonna run into out here.  So I followed it up, Do you mean that you have enemies here who you need to protect yourself against?  Not so much that but outsiders mostly, he responded.  And there it was again.  Justifying your own violence by blaming the supposed threat of the stranger.  Since I was new was I a threat?  Was there an implicit message in this for me?  I felt extremely uneasy.

Murder Without Killing

There was a widow twenty years my senior in that church who I had come to feel I could implicitly trust.  A rancher and a rancher’s daughter, she spoke straight; she did not tolerate nonsense. So we were having coffee at her place not long after all of this and in the course of our visit I simply told the story of the sheriff’s visit and left off without saying anything.  I simply threw in the bait; I was fishing.  We were at her kitchen table.  There was silence.  She looked down at her coffee cup.  She looked up into my eyes. She said, That’s wrong.  I know about it.  I don’t agree with that at all.  And that’s the way it’s been around here forever.  And I hate it.  But I don’t know what to do with it.  And with that the pit in my stomach from the week before went away.  Neither of us had well thought out plans about what to do. But as we visited it became clear that this threat of outsiders was not so much about the fear of outsiders as it was about doing what was required to assert control by town residents.

In the first year there were three child suicides.  I was confused with the first.  What could be so bad that a young person would take their own life?  I was overwhelmed with the second.  And then I became outraged with the third.  For the population that amounted to a child suicide rate that was sixteen times the national average!  But it did not phase the residents of this town.  Talk in the coffee shop blamed those who took their lives. The exact phrase was, If you can’t take the pressure then it’s an honourable way out.  And why did not young people just leave?  Because these children were routinely indoctrinated that, It ain’t no better no place else.  Sexual assault and spousal battery was also common and mostly went unreported.  I was fortunate that the spouse of a new professional in town was a certified psychotherapist and that this couple began attending the church I was serving.  Talking with her we decided to begin a workshop that addressed these situations.

A Bona Fide Community Forms

Together we team taught a course based on the best seller, Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher.  As a discussion group we examined the effects of social expectations on the development of self-image.  A regional social worker heard of what we were doing and threw in her support.  It was a great success and people of all stripes looking for help attended.  It was a radical move.  There were no mental health services anywhere in the region.  We were starting to name abuse for the first time in this area.

What we – organizers and attendees – discovered was that we had unconsciously begun to behave as a united team that started with information, moved into understanding consequences, embraced better consequences, formed a coalition, and began to take action, intervening in the violence historically at work in that community.  From that experience other groups formed that began addressing other social issues in the community.

Racism Without Racists

In the midst of all of this it also became clear that town people perceived a great threat to their welfare and safety by people of colour.  From the start I was told that Hispanics in particular were not welcome. There was an historic black community a half hour away that had been formed by former slaves who had fled the south and homesteaded on the high plains in the 1870’s.  And from time to time members of this community appeared in town on business.  But when they did appear the word spread quickly.  And while they were tolerated I was informed by a realtor that under no circumstances would listed houses be shown to any person of colour. But I came to discover that when asked people of this place, including my parishioners, were emphatic that they were definitely not racist because they had not personally ever harmed anyone of any other race.

Taking Responsibility For Racism

A year after moving to that town I received a phone call from my widow friend.  Her friends who ran the motel had called her to tell her that a Native American woman traveling alone had checked in with a child and that the sheriff who regularly patrolled the motel parking lot had paid her a visit to check her out.  They were upset.  My friend was upset.  And I became really, really angry.

I left my office.  I got in my car.  And I drove to the motel.  I did not know what I was going to say but there was only one car in the parking lot and it was parked outside a room and a light was on so I knocked on the door. I felt like crap.  And she answered.

She had a slight build and held a baby in her arms.  She had a skeptical look on her face.

I started by apologizing for disturbing her.  That she had a right to not be disturbed.  But that there was a group of us in town who were aware of the actions of the sheriff, and who did not agree with his actions, and wanted to let her know that we were aware that he had been there to visit her.  We apologized for his intrusion.  I apologized for my intrusion and said that she would be justified if she did not want me there and could ask me to leave and I would.  But we wanted her to feel safe.  I invited her to my home for dinner with my family, and let her know that if she would feel safer with us – my wife and three children – that she would be welcome to spend the night.  Her face softened.  I asked if there was anything that she needed for her baby.  Did she want to go with me to the grocery store?  She said no, but gave me a list of items that would help her out.  So I went shopping and returned with the goods and gave them to her for free.  And then we stood and chatted for a few minutes. I gave her my address and phone number.  I apologized again.  She thanked me.  And that was the last I ever saw of her.  Her car was gone when I drove by the next morning.  Without her having contacted me I would not have bothered her again in the morning anyway.  It was already just another uninvited intrusion.

Welcoming The Stranger

Virtually no one in that town would have said that they were racists.  They would have justified themselves by saying that they had never personally said or done anything to oppress a person who was not white. In their mind the sheriff was simply keeping them safe.  And as far as selling realty to people of colour they were just keeping to their own, because after all we all feel more comfortable among our own, right? But in spite of these narratives there was insidious intent behind them, and a sophisticated social structure that had established them, built them up, and supported them.   Looking back I am quite certain that I was just as intrusive and perhaps as threatening in going to visit that young woman as was the sheriff. If I had to do it over again I would have brought my wife with me, or perhaps one of my own children.  But this was my coming out as someone who finally decided to do something about latent racism and so it was a feeble and faltering attempt, but at least I overcame the inertia in which I had been raised and did it.

White society is built on the priority of the individual and their right to pursue their own best interest to the exclusion and destruction of others. When you have a whole people group who subscribe to this way of living then how do its adherents even acknowledge the inherent discrimination that denies to others the basic needs of life? That that town even existed was a simple witness to the wanton violence that had been inflicted upon native people in that region a mere hundred years before.  Look at the original treaties.  Technology would be traded for use of the resources.  But the upshot was that the renters had violently taken the rental property by force and became incensed when the landowners had stood up for themselves, so killed them off.  That was the violence of the first settlers.  And in that region there are far enough historical records that testify that the men who did this were Civil War veterans.  Killing had become a way of life for them, and race issues were far from settled when the Civil War ended.  Study the constant compromises made throughout the United States during reconstruction and that only came to a head in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and  it is easy to trace the violence that undergirds white structures of power in the US today.

The point is that today there may not be armed gangs of whites on horseback rallying in that region to kill off people who do not subscribe to competitive individualism, but there are violent systems maintained that continue to serve to promote individual’s power and that will deny access and advancement to non-whites, and be homegrown enough to cause the children of these people to question their own futures even to the point of taking their own lives.  These systems promote a matrix of power and financial achievement.  Its actively passive dynamic is how white people can claim to not be racists, but can continue to benefit from a racist system.

This was my coming out.  Over the two year period I was there it no longer became acceptable for me to claim to promote the gospel and to accept a paycheck from people who had no intention of doing the teachings of Christ.  I did not know at that time what my next actions would be any more than I knew what I would say when I showed up at the room of that young mother.  But I knew that I had to do something, even if I made mistakes.

I still apologize to her, but I am grateful to her for tolerating me, because it changed my life.  I was honest and she responded as a true person faced with someone who was ignorant but who wanted to learn, which she recognized was far above how other people in my own culture lived.  And I am grateful to the others who were fully alive in that town who helped me to start to politic in actions as we learned together to organize as a community at the grass roots to support the genuine needs we encountered, all of which was begun in order to protect children in that deadly, violent environment.

The story of the birth of Christ is scandalous.  Born in secret.  Born at night.  Born in a country where its residents were enslaved to a foreign empire.  All because of necessity.   Jesus would have to flee to a foreign country in order to simply survive.  There was no miracle of protection for him in his home country.  Joseph and Mary would have to elude the political system of their time and  slip through the dragnet put in place to eliminate them as a threat to power.

It’s hard to see yourself as the bad guy when you are indoctrinated to see yourself as the good guy.  Listen to your guts.  Learn the truth.  Join with others who are fully awake.  Take action out of love and compassion as a group even if you do not know what to do. You are not alone.