In Trona, California, I see a sign that says PRAYER CHANGES THINGS. I wonder about that. I walk out into the desert not too far from Searles Lake hoping to find out more about faith. It is nearly dark; I am alone except for the Milky Way that slowly appears as the sky darkens. I stop and sense a safe place. I am “running on empty.” Hope and expectation cease. I wait. It is silent except for a whisper of cooling wind through the brush. Is it a still, small voice I hear inside? It speaks beyond words and slowly I have a growing faith that I can get through one more day here in the desert at the edge of Death Valley.
Trona is a mining town nestled on the shores of Searles Salt Lake. For 100 years, the industrial plants in various incarnations, owned by several different companies, have taken brine from the lake and extracted several valuable mineral products including borax, potash, lithium, soda ash and trona. When the first churches were being established in the 1920s, the economy was going strong. This was a company town, but many things began to erode the safe feeling of being taken care of by The Company.
Everyone has an opinion about why Trona started downhill. Some people think it was when they tore down Austin Hall, the center of town since 1914. Todd Owens tells me it began with the 400-man layoff in 1981. Delores Hudson says it was when they closed the large, company-supported town pool called Valley Wells that the heart went out of the town. Lit Brush, the “Mayor” and head of the Searles Valley Historical Society, states with confidence it was when they brought in television. That’s when the town started to die. Many outside think Trona is dying today, but the stalwart residents who remain living in Trona have faith, both in God and the future. They say Trona is “a town just too tough to die.” In fact, several say the “spirit is moving in town,” and a revival has begun.
The desert has always been a sacred testing ground, a source of spiritual searching and a place where human contact with the Divine happens. Three major world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) were shaped by their origins in deserts. Is there a connection between the desert and faith? A simple definition of faith, in the sense we mean it here, is “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
Here apprehension means the grasp or understanding of something without proof or inductive reasoning. It is more through intuition or some subtle sense of knowing. The New Bible Dictionary explains, “Faith means abandoning one’s own resources. Faith means casting oneself unreservedly on the mercy of God…Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God.” (413).
Jesus was led by the Spirit to go out into the desert and fast for 40 days. There, Satan tempted him. A long tradition of Desert Fathers also resides with the Christian religion. The sense of the desert as a real physical location, an area of contrition, fasting and soul-searching is balanced by a symbolic and archetypal meaning for the desert. Put another way, Gabriel Marcel wrote, “An individual is not distinct from his place; he is that place.”
In this essay, we are looking at faith active in the lives of people living in a place most today might not associate with a spiritual or sacred landscape. Our examination is anecdotal in nature. It uses the words and experiences of a sampling of the people of Trona.
In all fairness I must admit I am crossing my own personal desert as well, and recent times have greatly tested my faith. My wife, my friend, my partner, the mother of my children, the person whose wise counsel constantly guided me through the real Mojave Desert we lived in for more than 40 years died in January. As I write about faith and the desert, it is difficult for me to separate my autobiography from the stories of these wonderful people I met in Trona. My collaborator, Osceola Refetoff, has wondered if the desert calls to certain kinds of people to live there. The emptiness, the sense of intense quiet, the ever-present possible solitude are at the center of our experience of the desert and the testing and developing of a deep, abiding faith.
Octogenarian June Sayre has been a lifelong communicant at St. Madeleine’s Catholic Church, but now, because of a dropping population, the congregation only has one service a month. There is St. Anne’s in Ridgecrest, but she prefers the Catholic Mass held on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, in the chapel.
Her father died of a stroke at 49. As a girl, June had two friends, and together they took the rituals, Lent sacrifices, and religious ceremonies of the church very seriously.
June stayed in Trona when her siblings moved away. She married her husband there. She says she has never regretted her decision. She is still active, leading a Bible study. She and her husband raised four girls and a boy. Her son died at 56 of cancer. The priest and her faith helped her through this very difficult time.
She loves Trona, and she loves the desert. June takes a walk every morning to check in with God and to see what kind of day it is going to be. Her faith is linked to the desert and the aridlandscape setting of her town. Belden C. Lane writes in Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, “Ordinary social constructions of daily life and passing moments of extraordinary mystery are, in truth, continuously intersecting realities in human experience. The one often slides into the other.”
June speaks quietly of the desert and her relationship with God after a few moments of quiet contemplation. “The desert has so much of God around us. In the area in which we live, I see God in the birds, and animals, and bushes, and the mountains…everywhere. He is always in my heart and I have never wanted to leave because I love Trona and the people in it.”
In terms of the culture and history of the settlers and now the residents of Trona, this essay is examining this phenomenon of faith as basic to understanding how and why many live in this desert, endure the psychological challenges and harsh conditions through relying on their faith.
Further, it is argued that the conditions of living in the desert create a kind of self-knowledge and bonding with the land that is both powerful and a component of having faith so strong that the landscape of Trona defines who these people are. Ortega y Gasset wrote, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”
For me, the condition of emptiness in the desert brings forth a spiritual self-examination, a contemplation of who I am, why I am here, and what is the meaning of it all. When this happens, a self-examination always leaves me a feeling of want. That in turns drives me to confront the existential dread that the same emptiness without also lies within. It is only through grace, the free and unmerited favor of the Divine that I can accept myself, learn to love myself, and in turn love all that is around me. Walking in the desert, in every small thing I see a Divine presence. Perhaps it is the same for June.
The Christian Fellowship is a very active church: one of the five that have fullime pastors living in Trona. Chris and Lynne Darling didn’t know they would be spending most of their lives founding an independent Christian church. When Chris was hired on at the plant, he and Lynne were definitely NOT Christian. It was due to the “witnessing” of their next-door neighbor about Jesus that brought Lynne to be born again.
They decided to seek out a church. Although she was raised a Catholic, they went to the Baptist Church. Chris says, when he put his hand on the doorknob, he definitely heard an audible voice say, “Welcome home, son,” even though he was the only one around. That ultimately led to founding their church, followed by 30-plus years of miracles and happenings that bolstered and supported his and Lynne’s faith. He had a ruptured disk problem and was on his way to surgery when he was healed. Chris and Lynne have founded an ecumenical movement in Trona, with a formal council and a monthly community dinner.
The harshness of the desert, the terrible winds, the dry desiccating sun, the intense heat, and yes, the equally intense dry cold, strip me of pretense and preciousness, and push me to get down to the basics of living. In the desert there are few, if any, man-made distractions like we find in a small peaceful town, a busy self-important city, or an intense, vibrating metropolis. Like a soporific drug, our business dulls us. We crave that resulting numbness. In the desert you are alone with yourself; ultimately you finally accept that you are there to create meaning. I like to think I share a responsibility that the desert has shown me. I am to play a small part in redeeming my home, my land, my planet and all those who I come in contact with. Walking out into the desert reminds me, teaches me, forces me to experience this truth.
Gary Cartwell of the New Hope Foursquare Church knows where he’s at now. There is certainty in his voice when he states emphatically, yet gently, “God is on the move here.”
Gary has a large presence, his beard announcing a patriarchal, almost Biblical, confidence that he knows about faith and God. He leans against the old wall of the now leveled Austin Hall in downtown Trona.
Gary is feeling gregarious. A loquacious person by nature, he doesn’t mind talking about his life these days. He is ready to testify to how he “once was lost but now is found,” to quote the old popular hymn. Back when he was a hard-working, hard-drinking, philandering man here in this company town, he was lost. During his first marriage, he lived with another woman for 23 of the 30 years. He was either working at the Westend plant or drinking and carousing at the local bars in town. Finally, he found religion.
How God crashes unbidden into peoples’ lives is a mystery. Theologians say that you cannot even create a space for God in your soul because that means the eternal and infinite Divine must fit into a small human-made “box” within a lost soul. Psychologists and sociologists offer tepid explanations of “reaching bottom” and sudden “psycho-spiritual” transformations of human personality.
Gary, along with millions of other Christians, places faith at the center of becoming saved. The mystery then involves faith or belief in something through apprehension rather than proof. That is counter to how our modern rational world is supposed to work.
He and his second wife Janice now live on the outskirts of Ridgecrest. They faithfully come back to Trona on Sundays for church. They return on Tuesdays to have lunch at the Senior Center. He now dedicates his life to one of service, helping other seniors in any way he can, including picking up their trash.
Gary’s life divides neatly between a self-centered, dissolute one and the later one of faith, service and loving his fellow man. He remains the living incarnate of God on the move here. Whatever doubts about his faith he might have, he is steadfast and sure of God’s love. He is also certain he is part of God’s simple calling to do good for others less fortunate. He knows he is a very fortunate man to have survived his first life.
I walk out into the desert, often bringing my own personal desert with me, and I am very small. I read somewhere once that I am minute, halfway between a sub-atomic particle and the universe in size. I look up and see countless stars, and know there are a hundred or more times as many that I can’t see. My heart is broken because of my loss, my grieving grinds me down. Then I think there are a million forms of life out there that are grieving at this same moment. The pain is overwhelming, yet we are not alone in it. We actually have each other. In our smallness and our solitude, in our singularity, at a time when we are totally alone, in fact we are not. I am broken-hearted with a pain I didn’t even know existed in the human heart, but actually I am not at all alone. Across this world, and even across our universe, there are so many of us who have lost someone we loved; it is the human condition. The desert teaches me I am very small, but I am not alone.
Todd Owens is a man of quiet faith. Todd came back to Jesus, he explains, during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. He candidly admits he said he would come to Jesus if the high he got was better than the one from drugs. It was. When his daughter was two weeks old, she had a heart transplant. She is now 25 and being monitored for a replacement heart. His second daughter has stage 3 cancer in Washington, D.C., where his wife is spending most of her time. Then, Todd tore two tendons. He is a month after surgery, on crutches, and cannot drive or sit comfortably.
I ask him if he doesn’t feel like Job. He pauses thoughtfully and then replies with a determined look, “I know I have God’s love on my side. He is with me and will give me the strength to get through this.” As he speaks, his faith is palpable.
Faith takes different shapes and serves different purposes in peoples’ day-to-day lives. It also wavers, strong at some points, weak or unseen in others. Even for the most faithful, it can be a struggle as faith is challenged by events, both natural and accidental. In the desert, faith grows, matures and is singled out in the emptiness, silence and solitude. The acknowledged role of God and grace depends on the human context. Fr. Brad Karelius, in his book Encounters with the World Religions: The Numinous on Highway 395, quotes the prophet Hosea, “I will draw you out to the desert and I will speak to your heart.” HOSEA 2:14. Many are still responding to that call.
Visit KCET Artbound’s High & Dry feature for more dispatches from this collaboration.
Christopher Langley, a lifelong educator, has lived in and studied the Mojave Desert for more than 40 years. Working as a film historian, founder of the Lone Pine Film History Museum, and the Inyo County Film Commission, he focuses on the desert’s complex relationship with cinema, history and culture. His collaborative project with photographer Osceola Refetoff, High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain, can be found at desertdispatches.com. His professional writing includes three books on California’s arid landscape. His work appears on diverse platforms including KCET Artbound, The Sun Runner, Palm Springs Life and The Inyo Register. Feature stories about his work have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and BBC Magazine. His environmental advocacy has won several awards, including a National Conservation Cooperation Award and a Sierra Business Council 20/20 Vision Award.
Osceola Refetoff’s interest is in documenting humanity’s impact on the world—both the intersection of nature and industry, and the narratives of the people living at those crossroads. He holds an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Film Program, where he earned the Paulette Goddard and Warner Brothers Fellowships. Refetoff’s photography is featured in The Los Angeles Times, Hemispheres and WhiteHot, amongst other publications. He earned the 2015 OWAC Award for “Best Outdoor Feature Photograph,” and has exhibited at numerous solo and group exhibitions including Photo LA and the San Diego Art Institute. Refetoff’s parallel careers as an editorial and fine art photographer are characterized by an evocative, cinematic understanding of how scale, point of view, architecture and motion can be expressed as both information about and experience of a given place. His current focus is an expansive set of portfolios surveying the human presence in the deserts of the American West at ospix.com.