I grew up in a Colorado that is without mountains. That might seem hard to imagine. Growing up on a thousand-acre Northeastern Colorado farm and ranch might also seem hard to imagine. 1,000 acres is a lot of land by most people’s estimations. Miles of winter wheat, oats, corn, natural prairie pastures and hundreds of head of cattle were the imagery and reality that populated my childhood mind. I even grew sweet corn that I handpicked in the summers to sell to passers-by that cruised down our dirt road on the way to the local lake for summertime boating and swimming. I swam plenty in that local lake as well, locally known as the “Jumbo Reservoir.”
The vivid imagery and memories of growing up are ingrained even still, forever cherished. There was Sunday Mass at the local little Catholic church, St. Peter’s, where 30 or 40 Catholics would gather, and often times the parish priest, based at a larger church 45 minutes away, would have Sunday dinner with us on his way back home. I was one of the consistent altar servers, because, well, there weren’t many altar servers to be had in a small town at a tiny (but beautiful) church. There was rhythm and routine to life. The seasons of sowing, growing, harvesting and dormancy would come and go. Summers were hot, winters were cold. Yet not all was predictable. There was the wild weather of the western “tornado alley” in which we lived, a corridor of high tornado frequency that runs across much of the Great Plains states.
The Colorado Plains
Depending where you live, I am guessing you are surprised to hear that Colorado has tornadoes. Much of the eastern part of Colorado, including my native stomping grounds on the borderlands with Nebraska, though still high in elevation (nearly 4,000 feet above sea level), is not in eyesight of the front range of even the tops of the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. A Colorado without mountains is unheard of to even many well-versed, well-traveled Americans. It is picturesque here, too, but it is not the Colorado of ski resorts and lodges. No sooner does one cross into Colorado on I-76 that juts off of I-80, angling down to Denver, then steep sandhills, expansive green grasslands dotted with sage brush and horses running through them greet you. Such changes in landscape, like the weather, can be surprising and sudden to the unsuspecting traveler.
As a native Coloradoan, fierce weather is part of the life and topography. From this developed a hobby of weather photography, and, in moderation, storm chasing. Some would say no amount of storm chasing is moderate. But I digress.
Blizzards can occur here from September to May. Snow is never far away from the psyche here. It is also really “Hail Alley,” an area of exceptionally frequent hailstorms, thanks in part to our relatively high altitude. Personally, I’ve seen golf ball to tennis ball-sized hail fall for 20 minutes steadily; and softball-sized hail usually falls somewhere nearby at least once a summer. As a cradle Catholic, such unpredictability and a way of life at the mercy of the natural elements almost invariably impacts one’s spirituality and faith life. “When people make plans, God laughs,” so one saying goes. This is perhaps nowhere truer than the Great Plains of America, northeastern Colorado included.
Faith in the Midst of Tornadoes
In this setting, I grew up learning that the Catholic faith was always a priority. You didn’t miss Sunday Mass. You found a way to make it work, unless a snowstorm had blocked all the roads and had closed the way to church, in which case, you stayed home and made appropriate time for prayer together with a family Rosary. Seeking God’s Kingdom first, everything else would come about in due time and season.
Yet growing up in a devout Catholic family did not equate to a health and wealth Gospel. Some years, the hailstorms still devastated our crops. Some years wicked, white-out snowstorms would kill some of the livestock. You learned to praise God in every storm, in every ray of sunshine, in every raindrop, and even in every hailstone. Droughts were plentiful. So were flooding rains. “All or nothing” it seemed went the weather. I remember crying as the hailstorms would obliterate our crops and garden. But as the summertime storms raged and the power went out, alongside the weather radio that would blare its severe weather warnings, always blazed a red holy candle illuminating a crucifix-adorned candle holder. In every danger, the Cross of Christ was present in our home. There was no darkness that the light of Christ could not pierce.
Trusting in the Sacred Heart
I have a nephew who from early childhood to now in his late teen years has found great comfort in thunderstorms only with the light of a Sacred Heart of Jesus holy candle burning. He knows his priorities. We are not always in control of the fears that are deep-seated within us, but we do have control of choosing how we respond to our fears. Like my nephew, I try to make the choice each day to let the Sacred Heart guide me. Life is a stormy affair. And as our Lord proved, woken from sleep by fearful disciples as a storm ravaged the boat He and the disciples were in one night, no matter how great and ferocious the elements seem to be, He, Jesus, is always in control.
Our prayers, our faithful Mass attendance, did not always equate to abundant harvests in the natural realm. But God never left our side on that plot of land that my father named “Oatmeal Acres.” I was not always fond of life on that farm, a life that we left when I was 14 as my dad retired and sold his agricultural and livestock operation. Yet, when I look back, I realize that there in that corner of the world where the stars shine brightly and you can see for miles sometimes innumerable, as my parents were growing crops and growing a family, God was there, growing proof of His love for us, a love that no hailstorm, no tornado, no blizzard could ever efface from our hearts that burn within us for Him. Northeastern Colorado taught me that indeed God really is good all the time. And even when the tempest would rage, in the midst of it, He never left us. All the time God is really good. Jesus, I Trust In You, here in Tornado Alley and everywhere I go. You are in control.