I call them “cactus communities.” Let me explain. A cactus has life and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. But a cactus is also highly guarded and difficult to open. So also are many rural and small town communities. On the one hand there is a lot of life there and they don’t need the frills, and conveniences that come with urban residence. On the other hand they can be hard communities and suspicious of “outsiders.” Strategies for mission work in such places do not contain the words “fast” or “quick.” They don’t involve established programs, constitutions or calendars. Metrics and goals are not ground in stone or hard in nature. Successful strategies for mission in these communities require a patient intentionality and are best described with three words: opening, relationship and commitment.
The first challenge in these locations is to determine how to best bring the gospel. Conventional methods and approaches will not typically work. Many of the people who live in a “cactus community” are not interested in church or in ministry. These are not conventional communities or people. Yet they are people for whom Jesus died. So the question remains: How are we to be in mission?
There are only a handful of ways to enter these locations. Let me describe one such way.
Terlingua is a community that is in the shadow of Big Bend National Park. It is at one end of a road that is referred to as “The River Road,” indicated as FM 170. (Writer’s Note: Placed along the Rio Grande, in the author’s opinion, this road has the most spectacular scenery in all of Texas.) Candelaria, the location of much mission work in circuit four, is at the other end of FM 170. Communities in between are Presidio, Redford and Lajitas. Terlingua is a community for hiding, though recently it has gained celebrity status after being highlighted on a National Geographic Channel reality show called, “Badlands Texas.” Three-hundred residents make up Terlingua/Study Butte. It is remote.
God’s people on mission look for ways and for means of being the presence of Jesus wherever they are. This includes these communities at “the ends of the earth.” So we (Margaret Peterson, Lynn Misch and I) went to Terlingua one Saturday morning looking for an opening.
We attended a Chili Cook-off. Terlingua is the location of the National Chili Cook-off Championship. Upward of three-hundred cookers from around the state and country attend this event every November. The cook-off this day was simply a qualifying event for the championship. There were seventeen cookers participating.
When we arrived, we were greeted and asked by Jim if we were cookers, judges or simply onlookers. We could have cooked or been judges, but there was a long ride ahead of me and so we said, “onlooker.” No problem. At 10 a.m. I was invited to have a beer or whatever from the cooler for a donation. I said, “Thanks but I have an eight-hour drive ahead of me.” I appreciated the gesture. Engaged in casual conversation with the cookers, I overheard a comment to the effect, “I don’t know if he was an ordained minister or not” followed by laughter. It seems they were talking about a wedding and its validity. I kept my mouth shut. Lynn and I also visited with a vendor who is part Comanche and who is married to a writer. She showed me her husband’s picture. Rugged and artistic would best describe him. She beamed with pride.
We had failed to bring chairs, and so, if we were to sit, we would be sitting on chairs they provided, under the shade by the workshop. It was a good place to sit and listen. As we talked with participants I was asked where I lived but no one asked me what I did for a living. I never asked them either. Jim, in his sixties, who owned thirty-six contiguous acres, one of which was being used for this event, pointed out his live-in girlfriend. She was a championship cooker.
To Lynn and my surprise, two of the “stars” of “Badlands Texas” were also cookers. Being familiar with the episodes, Lynn and I recognized them. One is from Del Rio and owns El Dorado Hotel. The other participant is a lady who has a Retro RV restoration business. She is originally from Austin but is now a full-time resident of Terlingua. She also won this chili cook-off and qualified for the National CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) Cook-off in November.
Margaret interacted with many of the participants as well. She gathered business cards and made connections for future events where the mission presence would be more intentional. This trip was for scouting purposes. We wanted to see if there was a way to break into this “cactus community.” The way into Terlingua is not clear at this point. We don’t have a clear path for commitment or for relationship development.
Other communities have opened up to Margaret’s strategy. She has begun what is called the Lutheran Literacy Project. She is gathering books to be distributed to families. Having set up tables at locations such as Presidio, Ft Davis, Balmorhea, Marfa, Alpine and Comstock, her efforts have delivered more than 1,500 books to children and parents. There are more locations being developed as well. Independent school districts, state parks and “cactus communities” are all welcoming Margaret in her efforts to make connections. I have personally watched conversations with people hanging around the tables who initially looked discouraged and discontent but left being not only encouraged but energized, all because the people manning the tables took the time to listen and respond with words filled with the love of Christ.
It is slow work, but with patient intentionality, there is fruit, even at the ends of the earth.
By: Rev. Steve Misch
Mission & Ministry Facilitator, Area A