Last spring, after ending my call with a congregation in the Northern Illinois Synod, I moved back to Durango, Colo. I hoped to find my next call in these mountains that have long been my home and heart. But as they say, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell God your plans!” Amid my discernment, the Spirit sent me to Purple Cliffs, a community of people experiencing homelessness. They live in tents and shanties on the side of a mountain at the edge of town; below lies el Rio de las Animas—in English, the River of Lost Souls.

The people and agencies of Durango and La Plata County have done a marvelous job of supplying the material needs of this community—hot meals, nonperishable food, potable water, tents, tarps and propane tanks for cooking and heating. There are trash receptacles and portable toilets.

But, as often happens with people living on the margins, their spiritual needs were largely unmet. I made some inquiries and was directed to Tim (last name withheld), the informal “mayor” of Purple Cliffs. I offered my services as a volunteer chaplain, and Mayor Tim jumped at the idea, offering me the library tent to use as a chapel.

The Purple Cliffs residents have made me feel quite welcome. Establishing a church there, however, has been a slow process. I’ve had as many as a dozen folks show up for Sunday worship, but there have also been days when no one came. Still, I open the chapel each Sunday, ready for whoever might feel inspired to stop by.

Offering a Sunday worship service is important, but it’s just a small portion of what I do at Purple Cliffs each week. Most of my chaplaincy involves simply being present and letting the Spirit do what the Spirit does. From day to day and even moment to moment, I never know what my service will entail. Sometimes I drive folks to the rec center for a hot shower, or to the doctor’s office or the grocery store. Other times I help with repairs or camp cleanup. Sometimes I just sit in the kitchen hut and shoot the breeze with whoever might be there.

And sometimes, when I least expect it, I get to talk with somebody about Jesus Christ and his church. I delight in these conversations, even (or especially) when the other person has been harmed by the church and grown suspicious of God and organized religion. Each interaction is an opportunity for evangelism, a chance to share Christ’s unconditional love for each of us. For people who have suffered a lifetime of judgment and condemnation, this can be a powerful step toward personal healing and the mending of relationships with God.

I can’t do this work alone, but I have been blessed with strong support. My home congregation, Christ the King Lutheran in Durango, has embraced my chaplaincy and recently made Purple Cliffs an official church ministry. We hope to grow the ministry in coming years, but for now I’m grateful for this opportunity to be Christ for others, and humbled to see Christ in them.

Paul Gebo
Paul Gebo is an ELCA pastor.

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