Have you ever sat in a corn field on the front range of Colorado with an ex con and some youth, pulling bindweed off of corn stalks? No? Well let me tell you- if you ever get the chance, it will change your life!
It was July. I had taken the youth to Harvest Farm in Wellington, Colorado. The farm sits between I-25 and the rockies. If you face to the East- all you can see are the cars and semi's rushing down the interstate and beyond that- miles and miles of open land. If you are facing west- the rockies stretch out before you in all their grandeur with snow-capped peaks and purple silhouettes. July on the front range is hot. It's a dry heat (a nice change for us Minnesota kids) that quickly dehydrates you and burns your skin. One of the first lessons of the farm is sunscreen and water by the gallons. At the farm, work therapy is crucial to the success of the residents in battling their addiction. They may work in the kitchen or with the livestock or in the garden and fields. As volunteers on the farm, our job was to work with the men in the various work therapy areas. By working together, we were given the chance to work alongside someone we wouldn't encounter in our normal day to day lives and experience farm life.
On this particular day, our job was to weed the cornfield. When we were told this was our job for the day, we were a little confused to say the least. Coming from Minnesota, we had no concept of sitting in a cornfield in July hand-weeding around the stalks. This field of corn was scrawny and struggling. Kelly, the garden and field manager, told us the corn was being taken over by bindweed and we needed to free it in order for it to grow. (just in case you are worried, no- it is not normal in Colorado to hand weed corn. This was a special field) As you can likely guess, removing bindweed from corn was a job for the newest residents at the farm and perfect for a bunch of green volunteers. With work gloves and water bottles in hand, we all ventured into the corn field and sat down among the stalks and began the painstakingly slow process of removing the bindweed.
Bindweed does just what it's name implies, it wraps itself around the stalk of corn and basically suffocates it. You have to pick at it and gently tease it away from the corn, being careful not to damage the delicate plant. Pulling out bindweed leaves you lots of time for contemplation and conversation. I was working alongside Ray. He was a tall, lanky African American gentleman, probably 40 years old with a quiet calm demeanor. A broad straw hat shaded his shoulders and a tank top creased with dirt stretched across his chest. He appeared deeply focused on the task at hand. After our first greeting, he worked about 4 feet away from me in silence. All around us, youth were laughing and telling stories. Some of the cockier residents were teasing and showing off to the kids. Ray kept his head down and kept working. We worked that way, in companionable silence, all the way down the first row and half way up the next- a solid two hours. He stopped to take a drink of water, looking off at the distant mountains. "I could drink in that view forever." I stopped, took a sip of my own water and sighed. I couldn't agree more. In that moment, the silence fell away and he began to share his story with me. As the day stretched on, I heard about his family, his drug use, his time in prison, and his hopes for the future. He told me that coming to the farm was the scariest decision he had ever made, but it had likely saved his life. His story continued to pour out as we teased the bindweed away from the stalks. By the end of the day, his deep baritone laugh could be heard across the corn field and I had received a gift in his story.
At one point he said to me, "I am here to save my life. Why in the world are you here? Isn't there something better or more important you could be doing?" I thought about it for a moment. My own words surprised me. "I think this might be saving my life too." Sitting there among the weeds I learned a crucial lesson about being. Being present, being open, simply holding space.
Working on the margins is a lot like pulling bindweed from a tender stalk. It takes patience to work through the levels of trauma and oppression. Sometimes the best way forward is being comfortable in the silence. What I know for sure is when you begin to get a glimpse of what lies underneath and the sheer will to flourish despite the weeds- it is a gift. Sometimes, when the days get long, the crisis' seem insurmountable, I think about Ray and the time spent under a bright blue Colorado sky. Being trusted to sit in the weeds and listen, holding sacred stories is truly an honor.