God loves the Boonies: An Unexpected Experience in Middle America

A HNGR intern field report from Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Joe Saperstein | Freelance Contributor
November 17, 2020
Saperstein and his French conversation partner at a local park. Photo: Jacques M.

When I interviewed for my final Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) placement, my   current supervisor asked me incredulously, “You know the internship is in Fort Morgan, not Fort Collins, right?” I nodded my head and laughed. While even Fort Collins, a college town in view of the Rocky Mountains, isn’t a bustling metropolis like Chicago, it’s about ten times the size of Fort Morgan, a town of about 12,000 people in northeastern Colorado. Add this to my background with Wheaton in Chicago and the fact that the word “urban” crops up about half a dozen times in my resume, and I’m grateful for my supervisor’s desire to clear up any possible misconceptions about what I had signed up for.


Before COVID-19 changed my plans, I intended to plunge myself into the life-world of a North African city that is seen as an “urban village.” Instead, I wound up in an entirely different kind of village altogether, an American one that has been irreversibly shaped by the twin forces of industry and migration.  Furthermore, my initial placement and my current setting have more in common than you might think. Both are somewhat backcountry, the kind of dry and dusty places that Jesus knows well. Likewise, both are home to people who have experienced forced displacement. 


My initial placement in North Africa was home to many internally displaced people who had left their homes in search of a livelihood when subsistence agriculture could no longer sustain them in a rapidly desertifying landscape. Fort Morgan, on the other hand, hosts a small but significant population of East African refugees who have fled violence and persecution in their homelands. 


If you’re like me and you come from the city or the suburbs, you might know places like Fort Morgan as highway exits where you pull off to get gas on a long road trip, but there’s a world here filled with lives that are worth attending to.


After arriving in the United States, they migrated secondarily to Fort Morgan to work at local meat-packing plants that pay well and do not require proficiency in English. Though I cannot — and choose not to — spend too much time wondering about the alternatives, I know that both internships have something to say about places and people that are not within our normal scope of attention. These people and places matter to God, so they should matter to us, too. 


For my peers in the HNGR program, the story of how we arrived at our current placements is well-rehearsed. As soon as it became clear that our whole cohort would be transitioning to domestic internships, the process of securing new placements was a whirlwind for staff and students alike. At the end of it, I looked back and realized I had cycled through over a dozen internship possibilities! April, May and June swirled by, and potential placements drifted through my imagination: Vancouver, New Mexico, L.A., Georgia, upstate New York — or possibly no internship at all? I resisted dramatizing the uncertainty of the situation, feeling it would be out of character, as I usually try to appear suave and relaxed in the face of unusual circumstances.


For all my efforts at nonchalance, I was still caught unawares by the rather sudden confluence of events that brought me and fellow anthropology student Lucy Bruno here to Fort Morgan to work with International Association for Refugees (IAFR) in August. I had never heard of them before the HNGR office introduced us in July.

"What you picture when you think of Colorado." Taken on a bike ride between Breckenridge and Frisco. Photo: Lucy Bruno.

IAFR has eight sites throughout the U.S., Europe and Africa, in addition to IAFR Canada, which is technically a separate organization but works in close partnership. The stated aim of IAFR is to “help people survive and recover from forced displacement.” The organization was founded in 2009 and exists at the nexus between nonprofit work and Christian missions. The intersection could be seen as risky, but I am impressed by the ways in which IAFR is careful to maintain people’s dignity, stewarding the stories of Scripture and offering tangible help in ways that are never contingent on people’s response to Christian witness.


While I’m sure each IAFR site looks different, here in Fort Morgan the work of helping refugees entails being a steady networking presence in the community: trying to make sure the church knows what’s going on with their migrant brothers and sisters, supporting the existing efforts of nonprofits, connecting people with resources and simply being part of the ongoing conversation about migration in this town. 


Our office is nestled in the side of a Somali cafe, where employees regularly visit — coming in for tea and food before their second shift at Cargill, the local beef processing plant. 

My participation is largely research-focused. While Lucy focuses on networking with the local Hispanic community and churches, I interview pastors, local organizations and municipal leaders. Together we hope to share insights with our team and the community that will inform IAFR’s ongoing work here. My goal is to learn by asking questions: what is the current state of things? What responses to poverty and displacement are being offered, and do these line up with the more poignant needs that people are expressing? The anthropologist’s spin on it might be: how do people see themselves in relation to newcomers here? If I’m talking with a church or an organization, I ask them how they see their role in the community.


The process sometimes generates more questions than answers. I may never know what it will take to fully restore a broken immigration system, but the internship has shown me how to walk alongside people who are navigating the system we have. One of the more beautiful things to have come out of the whole process is the recognition, on my part, that small towns matter. 


No doubt, I am an urbanist at heart. I am in love with the lifeways of the city —  its rhythms, patterns and people. But love of the city, like all loves, is not automatic — it comes from cultivation. The same rings true for rural areas. It is my conviction that Jesus is concerned with the welfare of precisely those places that fall outside of the purview of our best strategies, our most self-important motives and our normal patterns of attention. 


It has been beautiful to see God’s care for this place through glimpses of faithful people who choose to root themselves in this town. I can tell God cares because there are people here who refuse to let things stay the same and instead advocate for those who still feel like outsiders after living here for years. 


Through the care and attentiveness of locals, the hospitality and steadfast work of my team and the welcome that even new arrivals have shown me, I have come to believe that small towns and out-of-the way places are not just “side projects” but are mysteriously crucial in what makes up the fabric of our nation and our world. 

Wheaton College, IL

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