Taking a stand
Local man spreads awareness, message of hope to homeless from street corner

Jim Sanderson talks about having the courage to reject drugs and alcohol on Sunday in front of a small but receptive audience during the weekly prayer service he and his wife hold at Schneider Park for homeless people./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

We’ve all seen him: the guy with the signs like “Boycott Low Wages” and “A Living Wage for All.” Most recently, he’s been in front of McDonald’s with a cardboard sign that reads, “Please Help.”

So what’s his story?

Jim Sanderson is a 16-year Durango resident and part-time employee at Mercy Medical Center. He also believes love can change the world. Seven years ago, he and his wife, Nancy, started a lay ministry with the poor and homeless of Durango. It involves sleeping in Horse Gulch with the homeless so they don’t feel alone, volunteering at the community shelter and Manna Soup Kitchen, holding church services each Sunday in Schneider Park, leading a 12-step group, and of course, raising public awareness with his infamous signs.

Sanderson says he started the sign campaign a few years ago to try to raise wages at places like McDonald’s.

“They’re just notorious for low wages and high turnover and no benefits,” he says.

During his latest crusade, Sanderson says he has had people yell and throw drinks on him. But he keeps returning because he feels it is important not only to experience what it is like on the streets, but to keep the issue on people’s minds.

“The need for living wages is not just in Durango – a lot of people are hurting,” he says. “Statistics show that 5 million people slept in the streets last night. If I have to stand in the cold for two hours bearing witness, that’s a small price to pay.”

A familiar sight, Sanderson campaigns for livable wages in Durango at his most recent post at McDonald’s./Photo by Jen Reeder.

Sanderson says he replaced his “Boycott Low Wages” sign with the “Please Help” one to make a statement that if businesses won’t pay a living wage, people will be forced to beg for money. He explains it by offering a twist on a common parable: “Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat till the fish are gone. Teach a man to beg, and he’ll beg for life,” he says.

“Essentially, if you’re not going to allow us to fish in this community, we’ll be forced to beg. Is that what you want in your community?”

He says his experience as a “panhandler” (he usually refuses handouts unless it’s a donation to the ministry) has shown him how oppression happens and has been a valuable learning experience.

“Really, for us, it’s not grandstanding or anything – it’s trying to convey, to communicate the needs of the poor. Sometimes I feel like I’m invisible,” he says. “We feel that’s what Jesus did: He took a stand with the poor and downtrodden.”

Sanderson has been working with the poor for years. For a long time, he and Nancy took annual trips as missionaries to places like Mexico, Nicaragua and Romania. However, about seven years ago, a neighbor asked them why they were always going elsewhere to help people. “What about Durango?” he asked.

Sanderson says at the time, he hadn’t thought there was much of a poverty problem in Durango, but he soon changed his mind after a little investigation.

“We were astonished to see how many poor people there were in a town this wealthy,” he says.

The couple resolved to increase their local involvement and a first step was volunteering at Manna Soup Kitchen, where they met a woman named Donna, who was living in a cave in Horse Gulch.

“When I first met her in February she was cold and wet and in her 50s,” Sanderson says. “I asked her, ‘What’s it like up there?’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you come and find out yourself?’”

Camp chairs and a picnic tables are the only amenities in Jim and Nancy Sanderson’s weekly services./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

So he took his sleeping bag up there to see what it was like and get to know Donna. He learned that she had had an abusive husband, which led to her homelessness.

“Her self esteem was so low that it challenged my beliefs: Could Christianity really have an effect?”

Then one night, sitting around the fire in Horse Gulch, Sanderson decided to open up about his faith. After that, he and Nancy started holding Sunday church services in Horse Gulch and regularly sleeping up there, “Just to be with the people, particularly Donna.” After 21/2 years, Donna moved into a mobile home in Ignacio and, Sanderson says, is changed for the better.

“If you saw her today, she’s like a totally different person,” he says happily. “We basically saw a miracle happen.”

He says a big part of Donna’s change came from not feeling alone.

“It was mostly that she knew that someone did care about her,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s bearing witness that there are people out here at night in the cold.”

Sanderson says his lay ministry is now an integral part of his and Nancy’s life.

“Overseas missionary work is just so much easier,” he smiles. “When you’re in the thick of it out here, you’re always in demand. It’s a 24-7 kind of thing rather than two weeks a year.”

Indeed, Sanderson says he tries to keep his free time open for the local disenfranchised.

“I go where I think the most need is,” he says. “It’s just part of our lifestyle.”

Sanderson is quick to credit his wife Nancy and their friend Sandra as well. Though Sanderson has to work two Sundays a month, Nancy is in Schneider Park every Sunday at 11 a.m. to lead music or a service, and to make sure everything remains peaceful, he says.

“She stands up to these guys when they’re drunk or crazy,” he says. “She’s every bit as tough as I am when it comes to taking a stand.”

Sanderson has written a book about his ministry in Durango, Called to Love: A Book About Christian Love to be published later this year. He hopes it will inspire people to try to help others.

“If you take the suffering upon yourself instead of inflicting it on others, you can begin to improve the world around you,” Sanderson says. “It seems so obvious.”






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