The city of Midland-once the mid-point between El Paso and Fort Worth on the Texas & Pacific Railroad-sits on the oil-rich plains of West Texas. The terrain, mostly sand and shrubbery, is flat and empty save for oil pumps, derricks, wind mills, and homes as horizontal as the ground.
Geologists describe the Midland region as a dead sea. Over millions of years the sea receded and became a desert. The vast oil deposits in Midland’s Permian Basin-the second largest oil reservoir in America after Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay-come from the fossils of sea animals and ancient marine life.
With few trees (Notrees, Texas, is not far from Midland) and no mountains to obstruct a view of it, the sky dominates the desert-and the mindset of Midlanders. They call Midland the “land of the high sky” and the “tall city.” The town’s motto is, “The sky is the limit.”
The setting is important to understanding Midland’s culture, say locals. The expansive land contributes to its expansive outlook. Surviving and succeeding in desolation worthy of a biblical city, they say, produces a culture of can-do Christianity. And there’s good reason to believe them: From this remote town of less than a 100,000 people has risen a number of leaders. Famous former Midlanders include George and Laura Bush, retired four-star general Tommy Franks, and secretary of commerce Don Evans.
Less well known is that Midland-the city, not just its famous former residents-is exerting an influence in international politics. True to their sky-is-the-limit ambition, Midlanders are playing a behind-the-scenes role in the Sudanese peace talks, conducting diplomacy directly with the government of Sudan.
The New York Times reported in October that evangelical Christians “sway White House on Human Rights issues abroad.” The Times gave Christians credit for spurring George Bush to intercede in Sudan’s civil war that has killed and displaced millions. (Bush’s 2001 appointment of former U.S. senator John Danforth as a special envoy to Sudan came after Christian groups called on the administration to make peace in the Sudan a priority.)
Not mentioned in the Times report was the influential advocacy of Christians in Bush’s hometown. In March 2003, Midlanders city-wide-from Methodist to Baptist ministers, from the Mayor and city councilmen to oil company executives and housewives, from the Catholic bishop to Lutheran and Episcopalian pastors-sent a letter to the government of Sudan, calling for a just peace in the 20-year war between Christians and Muslims.
“Ministerial Alliance of Midland, Texas,” read the letterhead. “Hometown of President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.” The letter’s underlying message to Khartoum: work towards a just peace or Bush’s hometown will put pressure on the U.S. government to enforce the Sudan Peace Act, legislation passed in 2002 which requires that the White House monitor negotiations between the Sudanese government and the rebels in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
The Midlanders’ letter got the attention of Khartoum. Khidir H. Ahmed, the Sudanese ambassador to the United States, told me that Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mustafa Osman Ismail encouraged him to talk with the Christians from the “village of George Bush” and invite them to visit Khartoum. “We have been talking since that time,” says Ahmed.
The Midland Ministerial Alliance, whose members include personal friends of President and Laura Bush, became active on Sudanese issues after the city hosted the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church in 2001. The event, which focused on the persecution of Christians in Sudan, shocked the city into action, say Midlanders. (What also accounts for the city’s interest in Sudanese peace is that several Midland churches have sister churches in Southern Sudan.)
Over the last two years Midland has become a stopping place for Sudanese exiles, who often note that West Texas looks like the Sudan. Basketball giant Manute Bol has visited Midland, as have a number of exiled Sudanese bishops. Twenty Sudanese exiles constructed a Sudanese village in Midland for a 2002 religious festival that attracted about 90,000 people.
Money and materials go from Midland to the Christians in Southern Sudan regularly. Midlanders financially support Radio Free Sudan, which broadcasts Christian radio in Southern Sudan. Children at a Christian school in Midland raised enough money to start two schools in Sudan, and continue to raise money to keep them going.
When the Sudan Peace Act was debated in Washington last year, Midlanders traveled to Washington to conduct a prayer vigil across the street from the State Department. When the act passed, the White House invited several members of the group to the Roosevelt Room in the White House for the signing.
Midlanders are significant enough participants in the Sudanese peace process that when the Sudanese foreign minister visited America in October, he placed a call to Dr. Jerry Hilton, the president of the Midland Ministerial Alliance and pastor of Bush’s childhood Presbyterian church.
AN IMPROBABLE VENUE FOR GLOBAL diplomacy, Midland is now known to all the parties in the peace negotiations. Sources say the Midland Ministerial Alliance has channels to the Sudanese rebels, peace mediators in Kenya (the site of the peace negotiations), the State Department and the White House.
This makes them “a constructive player in the Sudanese peace process,” says a U.S. government official familiar with the group.
“They have channels to both sides in the dispute,” he says. “They are perceived to have useful contacts with the Bush administration and other Christian groups. I certainly pass on their views to other government officials.”
“Don’t mess with Midland,” says a Washington insider who has worked with the Ministerial Alliance of Midland (the group has joined a coalition of human rights groups in Washington, D.C.). “All four parties to the peace negotiations-the government of Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the Kenyan mediator, and the U.S. government-have felt the pressure of the Ministerial Alliance of Midland. It has been remarkable.”
The Midlanders, according to this source impressed with their “savvy,” have communicated with both the Sudanese government and SPLA leader John Garang at critical moments in the peace talks, telling both sides that if they abandon the peace process Midlanders will cause political fallout for them in the U.S.
“Along with millions of Americans associated with churches, synagogues and human rights groups, we intend to forcefully press our elected representatives, including the President, to bring the sanctions provisions of the Sudan Peace Act into full effect if no peace agreement is reached,” they have written to the Sudanese government.
They recently sent the same message to Garang: “If the SPLM leaves itself open to blame for the failure of the peace negotiations, our ability to ensure immediate invocation of the Sudan Peace Act or to take other steps to hold the government of Sudan accountable or to cause the United States to take the side of the SPLM in any resumed military conflict will be enormously, perhaps impossibly compromised.” (Garang was scheduled to visit Midland and meet with the Midland Ministerial Alliance in November.)
The Midland group has also influenced the State Department, according to this source. “Their level of commitment has allowed me to say to people at the State Department: ‘Listen you guys if you treat Sudan as just another piece of business, if there is anything wanting in your effort, you are going to wake up and find the people of Midland coming en masse to Washington and the President will scratch his head wanting to know why people he knows are demonstrating and maybe even getting arrested in protest. I wouldn’t want to be you trying to explain your failure of effort to the president,'” he says.
Every day in Midland Christians gather to pray for “Midland’s Rising Son,” President Bush. They also frequently engage in fasting. Nina Shea of Freedom House says that a “group of hundred people or so” met in Midland recently to pray for her “at the exact moment I was meeting with Bush” to discuss Sudanese and human rights issues. The Midlanders are “a powerful addition to our human rights coalition,” she says. “They can reach Bush on a cultural level many people can’t… I think they played a key role in keeping President Bush personally engaged in this.”
And perhaps Laura Bush too. Shea says that at a White House event last year she had an opportunity to encourage Bush to press hard for peace in the Sudan. As she spoke to him, Laura Bush entered the conversation, saying that Sudan was in a “horrible” state. Shea heard later that Laura Bush’s mother Jenna Welch, who lives in Midland and knows members of the Midland Ministerial Alliance, had attended a speech an exiled Sudanese bishop delivered in Midland.
John Miller, the State Department’s director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, traveled to Midland earlier this year. He spoke before friends and members of the Ministerial Alliance of Midland at the downtown Petroleum Club and attended one of its prayer services. “It was the first time this Jew had been in the middle of a prayer session like that,” he says. The meeting was “exhilarating.” The Midlanders are the “spiritual descendants of the Church abolitionists of the nineteenth century,” he says. “The Midland Ministerial Alliance is picking up where they left off.” Miller recalls the group meeting with Senator Sam Brownback at the Monocle restaurant in Washington, D.C. for so long Miller had to call it a night.
Brownback recalls the evening. “These are beautiful and quite humble people,” he says. “They represent the best of American moral interest.” Asked what specific role they played in the Sudan Peace Act he spearheaded in the Senate, he said, “They were consulted on that.” He says drafts of the legislation were “discussed with them” to see if “it was something they would support.” “I am trying to go down and meet with them in the next few months,” he says, calling them a “study in grass-roots faith-based diplomacy.”
Deborah Fikes, a self-described “housewife” and “rancher’s daughter,” serves as the publicity director for the Midland Ministerial Alliance. Asked about the influence of the group, she acknowledges that its concerns are “forwarded to the top leaders in the Government of Sudan,” but disclaims any influence on Bush. “We simply mirror the President’s passion and determination to use our influence and empowerment to help those being persecuted and victimized around the world,” she says.
But does Sudan’s Ambassador Ahmed feel like he is speaking to the president through this group? “In a sense, yes,” he says. “It helps to talk to people from his village,” because “I would say that their relationship with Bush would not be a political one but a religious one.” He believes they connect with Bush on a deeper level than most groups, sharing the same roots and faith with him. That “gives them an edge,” he says. He also believes they can influence other Christian organizations with whom they are in contact, both domestically and in Sudan. If peace is achieved in the Sudan, the group could play a role in the reconciliation and reconstruction of the country, he says.
IT STANDS TO REASON THAT THE Midland Ministerial Alliance can influence Bush; the city of Midland certainly did. “I would say people — if they want to understand me — need to understand Midland, and the attitude of Midland,” he told reporters before he became president. “The values Midland holds near to its heart are the same ones I hold near to my heart.…The slogan ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ was meant for everyone, not just a select few. Midlanders believed if you work hard and believe it will happen, anything can happen. That ethic of hard work and outlook of optimism has stayed with me my whole life.”
Bush’s “first memories” are of Midland, he writes in his autobiography A Charge to Keep. He was two years old when his parents moved to West Texas. He attended Sam Houston elementary school and San Jacinto junior high in Midland — he recalls having to “brush a fine coating of sand off the desks every morning.” It was in Midland that he remembers playing with his sister Robin who died of leukemia. Bush returned to Midland as an oil entrepreneur in the 1970s. He married, started his family, and renewed his Christian faith there.
“Midland was a small town, with small-town values. We learned to respect our elders, to do what they said, and to be good neighbors. We went to church,” he writes. “The town’s leading citizens worked hard to attract the best teachers to our schools. No one locked their doors because you could trust your friends and neighbors.”
“Everyone’s parents watched out for everyone else’s kids. Midland was a place where other people’s mothers felt it was not only their right, but also their duty, to lecture you when you did something wrong, just as your own mother did,” he writes. Bush remembered a friend’s mom “running out of her house to yell at me for running out into the street without looking. She got my attention, and I never did it again.”
Midland is still the small town Christian America of Bush’s memory. Visitors to Midland will see the inevitable Starbucks and the usual American food and clothing chains. But they will also see the marks of open Christianity that have long been erased from most American towns.
Hence the left’s hostility to Midland. Author Michael Lind calls Midland one of the most “reactionary” cities in America. Texas columnist Molly Ivins quotes approvingly Larry L. King’s description of Midland as a city of “oillionaires and Neanderthal Republicans with low, sloping foreheads.”
In downtown Midland “Satan Is Defeated” appears on the window of the House of Refuge Ministries building. (The sign is close enough to the downtown Hilton where reporters stay that it has appeared in stories. Reporters can stumble out of bed, walk a few steps, see “Satan Is Defeated,” then use it to insinuate that Midlanders are unbalanced Christians. GQ‘s September story, which morphed Bush into Jesus Christ in a photo, fastened on the “Satan Is Defeated” sign.) Painted on the curb outside of Bush’s modest boyhood home is a cross and dove of the Holy Spirit. “Park and pray” signs appear alongside roads overlooking oil fields.
The first successful oil well in Midland, which dates to the 1920s, was called Santa Rita No. 1. The name, say Midlanders, came from East Coast Catholic investors who gave money to Texas oil men after speaking to their priest about whether or not to invest in Texas oil. The priest told them to make the investment, provided the oil well was dedicated to St. Rita, the saint of the impossible. The well became the gusher that spawned the oil industry in Midland.
Midlanders mention miracles and prayer in conversation. They also speak of duty. The Boy Scouts of America — this also no doubt gets the Linds red-faced about Midland — have a strong presence in Midland. In front of the Midland courthouse, for example, stands a memorial to the statue of liberty that the Boy Scouts built.
Pictured on the front page of the Midland Reporter-Telegram on the second day of my visit was a boy scout awarding the Distinguished Citizen Award to Tommy Franks. To a crowd in “high cotton,” the paper reported, Franks said, “It’s just a durned hoot to be here…I always get a warm glow when I return to Midland America.” Franks told the crowd that he belonged to Boy Scout Troop 158 in Midland where he learned “what leadership is about.”
A Boy Scout spirit of helpfulness and friendliness pervades the town. When you pass Midlanders on the road, they actually wave. One Midlander said that to measure the friendliness of the town’s citizens all one would need to do is drive to the side of the road and open up the hood. “I would be surprised if three people passed you without stopping,” she said.
Few people move away from Midland, I was told, and those who do often return after longing for its strong community life. More than one Midlander told me that they arrived in this “dust bowl of a city” thinking they could never live in such a bleak place and now think they could never leave it. “We don’t have mountains and trees,” said one. “We just have each other and our churches.”
LIKE BUSH, THE CITY WEARS ITS wealth lightly. Though it once was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in America, its downtown buildings and neighborhoods are unpretentious. The sprawling mansions of Houston and Dallas are nowhere to be seen. Midland’s wealth is similar to the land — the riches are hidden below the surface.
The city betrays a few traces of the Ivy League oil investors who descended on Midland during the last century — avenue names include Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton — but for the most part it is a Bible Belt city. Its politics are conservative — Republicans get up to 80 percent of the vote (“This is probably the most conservative town in America,” said one Midlander) — and Midlanders are justifiably wary of the liberal media. (One Midlander hoped that I wouldn’t portray them as “dumb asses in the desert.”) Homeschooling is popular with parents here, as are Christian schools. I saw at least three Christian high schools, a significant number for such a small town.
Faith-based charities also thrive in Midland. The city offers teens education for free at Midland’s community college if they perform charitable deeds for a certain number of hours.
Midland’s Christianity seems like Bush’s, at once direct and affable, evangelical and ecumenical, salt-of-the-earth and perhaps a bit salty — not surprising given its frontier atmosphere through which “roughnecks,” “wildcatters,” and “bombardiers” (Midland Army Air Field was the center for the largest bombardier training base of World War II) have passed. The churches in town seem to represent the traditional branches of their respective denominations. Midland’s Episcopalians, for example, are considering a break from the American Episcopalian church that recently ordained a homosexual bishop.
Bush’s return to religion, I was told, occurred at a time when many other oil men in Midland turned to God. It was in the 1980s after oil plunged from $40 a barrel to as low as $10. The town had been riding high — there was even talk that it might become the next San Antonio — but OPEC politics caused it to stumble. The largest bank in town, which had lent money on the assumption oil prices would remain high, folded. Bush, at the encouragement of Don Evans, joined a Community Bible Study class where he studied the Gospels and New Testament intensely.
Kelly Coleman, active in the Midland Ministerial Alliance, worked in the oil business then and recalls the town’s religious revival . “It was an extraordinary time that God ordained,” he says. “After the oil shakeup some of us became ministers or part-time ministers.” Another Midlander said the turbulent time convinced oil men that “there was more to life than the oil business. Your hope was not in oil and gas but in the Lord.”
Don Poage attended Community Bible Study classes with Bush. He remembers him as “just a regular guy” who asked “good questions.” He also remembers oil executives once worth millions of dollars showing up to class with their bibles. “Look who is here,” people in the class would turn around and remark, says Poage. Bill Holmes, another CBS student, says oil executives “and plumbers” would study the bible side by side.
During the oil downturn, Midlanders didn’t lose their salty sense of humor. They would be seen driving around town with the bumper sticker, “God, if you give us another oil boom, we won’t this piss one away,” says a Midlander.
Christianity in a oil town like Midland takes on some of the industry’s qualities, say Midlanders. The hardheaded, optimistic, pioneering skills one needs in the oil business translate well to faith. A boom-and-bust business breeds a character that combines risk-taking with reliance on God. To move to a harsh climate like West Texas with the expectation of success, they say, requires an independence from men but a dependence on God.
Chan Driscoll, who taught Bush’s Sunday School class at First Presbyterian church, isn’t surprised that Midland served as a stimulus to Bush’s religious renewal. “West Texas prairie life gets you that way,” she says. It is easier to become a “serious Christian in a place like this than in New York.”
Its culture of prayer and fasting (as president, Bush reportedly fasted at times during the Iraq war), faith-based charities, Boy Scout moral clarity, and mixture of evangelical and ecumenical Christianity (“Catholics and Baptists don’t usually work together,” said a Midlander. “But they will here”) helps to explain Bush.
After he became governor of Texas, Bush placed on the wall of his office a painting he received from friends in Midland that captures the striving Christianity typical of it. As he relates in A Charge to Keep, Bush sent a memo to his staff encouraging them to stop by his office and “take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.”
This is the sky-is-the-limit Christianity of Midland, preached from the deserts of West Texas and now heard in the deserts of Sudan.