We’d been prayed over by a couple hundred worshippers that Sunday morning and now I was sitting in the Mazda, packed to the brim. Our two precious children buckled up in the back seat for the only moving adventure they could remember. Joe would stay in Kansas City to move us out of the house, and I was headed to Odessa, Texas to get the kids enrolled in school ASAP. We waved goodbye for now and rolled out of the driveway.
Whew! So bittersweet.
As we drove, and drove, a completely new landscape rolled into view. Flat, drought-stricken West Texas began to beckon us. First, the wind turbines, which I explained to the kids. Then, the tumbleweeds! “DID YOU SEE THAT ONE?” became our car game. Finally, the fields of oil wells came into view, the pumpjacks nodded their heads in welcome, and we were at our new hometown.
A year later, here’s what I’ve been discovering about Odessa, Texas:
It is beautiful. Now I should tell you that everyone talks about how ugly it is, and the rumor is that when recruiters bring in potential new hires, they have their flights scheduled to land at night so their first impression isn’t so bad. Ha! Okay, it is not what you think of when you think of beautiful. But I have learned to look down for beauty, look down to the funky cactus and the silly rabbits and the brave desert flowers. And then, to look up, to the big sky, and the sights of sunrises and sunsets, moon views, and starlight that are unencumbered by well, anything. I have also fallen in love with the uniquely beautiful places just a short drive from Odessa: Monahans Sand Hills, the Davis Mountains, the New Mexico mountains, and the crown jewel of them all, Big Bend National Park.
The people are extraordinary. These are true grit people, people who know the ups and downs of an oil town, and who know that thriving means being in community with each other. The attitude of the city seems to be: if you can help us, please jump in with both feet. See, there always aren’t enough people around, enough teachers, or social workers, or construction workers, or so many other things, so if you are here to help, Odessa is glad to see you. This is the kind of community that still has local fundraisers for families in need on the front page of the newspaper. If I had to choose the one priority I have heard more about than any other since we’ve moved here, I would say it is getting kids graduated from high school and into college to give them a shot at contributing in ways the students and the community need. To me, that city-wide effort is a wow factor.
This place can be a roller coaster. When we moved here, oil was at $110 a barrel. Now, $45. Traffic has slowed, you don’t see UHauls coming in to town, and the hotels aren’t full. Not so a year ago, when the school district swelled to 32,000 students (including our own two newbies). It feels to me like this town, as I’m guessing is true of other oil towns, gets all the blessings and all the burdens of our world’s dependence on oil. I have never thought so much about oil in my life. As long as gas prices were okay, I never thought about oil! But now, I see people when I see those numbers go up and down. I see families who have lost jobs, and people who can’t find housing, and people who have made a lot of money, and given a lot of money to better this community— all of them on the same oil-fueled roller coaster.
Odessa has an arts scene. Our new hometown is not all cowboys and roughnecks, though we have enjoyed a few rodeos and there is never a time when I go out that I don’t see pickup trucks and cowboy hats. I like wearing boots occasionally myself! Yet we live across the street from a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, our daughter has a good orchestra system, our son is part of an “All Boy” piano recital every fall, he and my husband have been in a local musical production, and I’ve been to more artsy-cultury stuff in the last year than in the last five all together. Odessa is surprisingly nourishing for the spirit if you are looking in the right places.
Odessa struggles— with crime, poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, and poor health. We are among the leading cities per capita in these areas, and not in a good way. The gap between haves and have nots here is big enough for all of our truck traffic to fall into and then some. The needs are tremendous. A lot of people are living hopeless in Odessa, despite #1, 2, and 4 above, and partly because of #3. And when it comes down to it, this is why we are here. It’s why my family moved here, but more than that- it’s why First Christian Church is here. Because if the gospel of Jesus Christ creates and guides a church, then that church will be right there in the mix of the pain and promise of its community, offering gifts of grace.
That’s where we are seeking to be. So the adventure continues. . .I’m still buckled up and ready to ride!