On a Sunday in September, morning light drifted through stained glass as churchgoers in Rock Springs raised their eyes to God.
In Basin, a congregation joined voices to sing an opening hymn. In Thermopolis, they bowed their heads, opened their hearts and asked for mercy.
Then the prayers — recited in each of those Episcopalian churches — became specific.
“God of Mercy, hear our prayer for ourselves, our friends and families who hold painful memories of loss, grief and suicide,” the priests read. “We ask for strength for today, courage for tomorrow and peace for the past.”
“Amen,” the congregations responded. Amen, they said, thinking of those they knew who died by suicide. Amen.
Not many Christian sects have a service specifically dedicated to suicide prevention. In many churches, suicide is taboo — something to be whispered about over after-service coffee but never mentioned from the pulpit. For some, suicide is a violation of the Fifth Commandment — thou shall not kill. For some, those who die by suicide are damned to hell.
But the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming doesn’t condemn those souls. Instead, the 49 parishes across the state are actively attempting to save them. They fight the stigma of suicide with efforts like the special liturgy and train their clergy and lay people to recognize the signs. Suicide prevention has been a priority for the Episcopal church in Wyoming for years. But after state lawmakers drastically cut funding for prevention earlier this year, the church’s efforts further intensified.
It’s an obligation, Bishop John Smylie said, especially in a state that consistently has one of the highest rates of suicide.
“It’s become the moral priority for the diocese,” he said.
In 2016, more than 130 people died by suicide in Wyoming. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data is available, the state had the highest rate of suicide in the nation — 28 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 residents. Wyoming consistently ranks in the top five states with the highest rates.
After lawmakers cut suicide prevention funding this year, the diocese pledged $100,000 for local churches to use toward that aim. Parishes across the state have held trainings and recruited speakers.
But Smylie wants one thing to be clear: This was a one-time gift. It’s the job of the Legislature to fund suicide prevention and awareness, not the diocese’s, he said.
“I don’t understand the thinking of the legislators and how they can choose not to care about this profound crisis,” he said. “This is their responsibility.”
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land.” — Jeremiah 8:18, as read in the suicide prevention liturgy
During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers voted to cut $2.1 million from the Wyoming Health Department’s $5.7 million budget for suicide and substance abuse prevention. Legislators reduced state spending by hundreds of millions earlier this year as they faced a major revenue decline due to the downturn in the energy sector.
That cut has deeply affected the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming, the nonprofit that the state contracts with to provide prevention services. The health department said in April that it would no longer contract out suicide prevention work and would instead manage the effort internally.
Because of those cuts, PMO had to eliminate 21 positions at both the local and statewide level, including the position that coordinated suicide prevention efforts in the state, CEO Keith Hotle said. The organization no longer has the money needed for informational campaigns, training materials or prevention efforts focused on specific at-risk communities and is only able to facilitate suicide intervention trainings with the help of the Episcopal diocese.
Local PMO staff partner with the Episcopal church in their area and request funding from the diocese’s foundation. The nonprofit can provide the trainer, but money for materials and space now comes from the church.
“It’s possible we would’ve been able to do intermittent training,” Hotle said. “But eventually that would’ve dwindled away all together.”
“It really was a saving grace. A blessing.”
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee, health department director Tom Forslund noted that suicide prevention funding took a “significant cut” last session. He explained that the health department changed how it pays for suicide and substance abuse prevention. Instead of a single contract to the PMO, the department broke the money into three smaller contracts.
Ultimately, Forslund said, the department chose to prioritize issues like smoking and substance abuse, which he said affect more people than suicide.
“I don’t want to send the message that suicide prevention or the suicide issue isn’t important or very devastating to the families or individuals who decide to end their lives,” he said. “The thought was to focus on the areas that affect the greatest number of people.”
But that decision meant less resources for the thousands of people affected by suicide every year in this state. Each death leaves behind loved ones — as many as 115 people per suicide death, one study found — to grapple with loss and bewilderment, anger and grief. During his inaugural suicide prevention symposium in 2016, Gov. Matt Mead estimated that half of all Wyomingites had been affected by suicide.
The Episcopal diocese first started working with the PMO on suicide prevention in 2014, but the relationship became more formal after lawmakers cut the budget. In July, the bishop sent a letter to legislators and the governor condemning the cuts.
“The Scripture says, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,’” he wrote. “Have you no heart for the individuals and families who suffer so greatly from suicide? Your budget would suggest this to be true.”
In the letter, he explained that the diocese’s foundation would set aside $100,000 for suicide prevention. However, he made it clear that the money was a one-time contribution. He didn’t want lawmakers to think that the private sector would provide a long-term solution for the reduced funding.
“This omission of funding for suicide prevention is an embarrassment, one that I trust you will remedy at your next session,” the letter ended.
In the meantime, the bishop and his diocese took matters into their own hands.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” — Psalm 34, as read in the suicide prevention liturgy
Once a month, Rev. Tom Fiske gathers families grieving a loved one who died by suicide. They meet in a room in Gillette College’s technical education center and discuss their loss, their bewilderment, their healing. Talking doesn’t always ease the pain, but at least they know they’re not alone.
Facilitating the support group is separate from his role as an Episcopalian priest, Fiske said. His work with people affected by suicide predates the church’s decision to prioritize the issue. It’s personal.
“With the survivors of suicide loss, I can wear that t-shirt,” he said. “I know where they’ve been.”
Fiske still grieves the death of his sister, Betsy. She killed herself nearly 50 years ago. His father also died by suicide, 12 years earlier.
Sorrow comes in waves: on Christmas, on New Year’s, on Betsy’s birthday. It gets better over time, he said, but the loss is too profound to ever truly dissipate.
“It still leaves a pit in my stomach,” he said.
In his work, he has become especially interested in “postvention“ — or the care of people whose loved ones died by suicide. How can someone support a family while they heal from such a loss? How can he guide his community to embrace those who are hurting?
In 2015, the church’s foundation approved a $23,000 grant for suicide prevention work at Fiske’s church. Most of that money was spent on a two-day training so that people in northeast Wyoming could better help those affected by suicide. After the training, the church had about $7,000 left over.
The parish put that money in a savings account. Later, it would be used to help families affected by suicide. Not just for counseling, but also for cleanup of the physical mess left behind.
“Since we live in Wyoming, most of the suicides that do occur are by a middle-aged man with a gun,” Fiske said. “Often there’s biohazard material to take care of.”
The cleanup and repair can be expensive. Walls have to be mended. Carpets cleaned. The money can help pay for motel rooms for the family while their home is fixed.
So far, the fund has helped four families recover in the wake of a suicide, Fiske said. Donors have helped replenish the money as it is spent. As Fiske sees it, the church is obligated to prevent suicide and care for those left behind.
“Whatever it takes,” he said. “The church is called to affirm life.”
On the other side of the Bighorn Mountains, Rev. Lin Davenport has held multiple QPR — Question, Persuade, Refer — trainings at Thermopolis’ Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. The two-hour sessions teach participants to recognize the signs of a suicide crisis, persuade that person to seek help and to refer them to resources.
Davenport’s own training has made her better able to recognize the symptoms of suicide. She’s no longer afraid to ask the difficult questions, she said.
“I don’t believe there is one member of my church who isn’t aware of suicide prevention and the need for it,” she said of her congregation of about 60 people.
Churches in other parts of the state are tailoring the funding to their own needs, said Rev. Bernadine Craft, a priest and a member of the diocese’s Episcopal Suicide Prevention Connection. In Fremont County, churches are requesting money to train law enforcement to better respond to people in crisis. In Sweetwater County, the three churches are pooling their money to bring in a man who survived an attempt to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and now tours the country to educate audiences about suicide.
Craft, a psychotherapist and a former state senator, said the diocese chose to focus on suicide prevention out of a number of potential social priorities because it seemed to be the most underfunded.
“We said, ‘This is a void,’” she said. “This is something where we as a faith community can step in.”
Partnering with a church and its clergy has a number of benefits, said Hotle, the PMO chief executive. Priests and deacons are often the first person to whom someone might admit depression or suicidal thoughts. Making sure the clergy are educated about suicide and equipped to handle those conversations is crucial, he said.
That is even more true in small, rural communities where there aren’t formal mental health practitioners, he added. Clergy often act as counselors when professionals are not available — there is nobody to refer the person in crisis to.
“Those priests think, ‘I’m it,’” Craft said. “That can scare them to death.”
The bishop himself is trained in QPR and ASIST, which is described as “suicide first aid” by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Most of the diocese’s 94 clergy have also been certified in one of the courses, Smylie said. Both QPR and ASIST trainings are mandatory in the diocese’s training for prospective priests and deacons.
“We can’t say we’re Christians and then turn our back on issues that our impacting our population,” Craft said.
“Where there is despair, let us sow hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” — Prayer of St. Francis, as read in the suicide prevention liturgy
Clergy, like others who work in suicide prevention, constantly battle damaging cultural myths about suicide and mental illness. Depression is not a weakness, they have to repeat, it’s a health condition. Discussing suicide with someone will not cause that person to kill themself, they teach.
But within the Christian community, clergy and churchgoers have to combat a deeper theological issue. Among the faithful, there is often a belief that those who die by suicide are condemned to hell, the bishop said. The act of suicide is compared to homicide — the active taking of a life. For many years, some Christian churches would not allow a person who died by suicide to be buried in their cemeteries.
Smylie, along with the larger Episcopalian church, rejects that interpretation. Smylie believes that God’s love extends to everyone who is repentant.
“There needs to be a consistent message” that suicide does not equate damnation, he said. “We want folks to know that they’re going to be heard, loved, listened to.”
At the Episcopal Church’s national convention in 2000, church leaders adopted a formal resolution on suicide prevention. In that decision, church members committed to educating themselves on suicide prevention methods and how to best minister to those who have suicidal ideation and to those who lost a loved one to suicide.
In the resolution, the church cited a Bible verse from Romans: “Nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Fiske, the priest in Gillette, was more blunt.
“We don’t condemn to hell the person who has died of cancer, or in a car wreck, or in a car wreck while they were talking on the telephone,” he said. “Nor should we condemn the person who has long suffered from depression.”
Craft, with the help of others, wrote a prayer for suicide prevention to help battle that belief. Later, others expanded on that prayer and created the Liturgy for Suicide Prevention — the church service that was performed across the state in September. She hoped that the liturgy would help church members know that they would not be judged for their struggles with suicide.
“We are called to be the face and hands of God in the world,” Craft said. “God, as we see him, is loving and giving and compassionate.”
Three years ago, a coalition of Sweetwater County organizations and the diocese commissioned a Rock Springs writer to create a one-act play about suicide. His work, “Chimes,” is a stark portrayal of suicide, Craft said, and has been performed in Rock Springs for the past three years. The play follows a character who is contemplating killing himself. It’s not easy to watch, Craft said, but ultimately carries a message of hope.
This year, the play was performed for the first time in a church. The actors recited their lines in front of a large mural of a blazing light, their words rising to the vaulted ceiling like incense.
After the performance, a stranger approached Craft in the dim light. With tears in her eyes, the woman told the priest that her dad died by suicide more than 20 years ago. For all that time, the woman believed that her father was barred from heaven because of the way he died. For all that time, she bore two burdens: that of loss and that of torment.
But that night, for the first time, the woman was able to believe her father wasn’t in hell.
Finally, she said, she could believe her dad had found peace.
When coal was king and Wyoming was churning out 400 million tons a year, it would have been unheard of for two Powder River Basin mines to flip ownership with little to no cash changing hands. It’s the kind of deal that happens with distressed assets, underperforming or idled operations heavy with debt. Not crown jewels.
But Contura Energy, a spinoff from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources, announced Monday that it is moving out of Wyoming. A little-known company called Blackjewel is acquiring its two mines and the 500 miners that work them, for the low price of picking up Contura’s Wyoming liabilities.
The coal sector has improved gradually since Contura was formed to take Alpha’s key Wyoming assets. The Powder River Basin, responsible for about 40 percent of the country’s coal production, has been settling into a new normal. The sector is bracing for long-term declines, but many remain hopeful for at least near-term stability.
That’s why the selloff of Contura’s assets came as a bit of surprise.
Some say the transfer of these two mines, once considered the best assets in Alpha Natural Resources’ portfolio, is heralding a period of heightened risk in the Powder River Basin. Others say it could simply be one more way the Wyoming coal market is adapting to the new normal.
Though the news of the Contura sale was unexpected in Wyoming, it’s not that unusual given the circumstances, some say.
Over the first nine months of 2017, Contura lost money at Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr.
Most of Contura’s income was generated at its metallurgical mines in Appalachia. Met coal, used in steel production, is strong right now, said Chiza Vitta, coal analyst for Standard and Poor’s
By divesting the Powder River Basin mines, Contura will likely be less diverse, but more profitable going forward, he said.
The question for many is not why Contura wants out, but why Blackjewel is buying.
Few coal experts in Wyoming are familiar with Jeff Hoops or his new company Blackjewel, formed in the summer to acquire Appalachian coal assets from Hoops’ other company, Revelation Energy. Hoops is also the founder of Lexington Coal Company. He has a long history in eastern coal, but his firms have a checkered past in Kentucky and West Virginia. Revelation is currently facing multiple environmental violations from state regulators, according to federal records.
Hooper declined an interview for this story, but said in an earlier email that Revelation and Blackjewel were separate entities and that the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines still have high potential.
Indeed, Revelation spent the last year picking up challenged assets from Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. In the Alpha case, Revelation was essentially paid to take Alpha’s coal leases.
Clark Williams-Derry, a coal analyst for the Sightline Institute, a think tank promoting a move away from fossil fuels, said the Blackjewel deal signifies a troubling trend for Wyoming.
“The new reality is that the PRB now attracts small companies and risk-hungry investors,” he said. “It’s a far cry from the old days, when large, well-capitalized businesses dominated Wyoming’s coal trade.”
Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming, said he’s not yet convinced that the Blackjewel buyout represents a fundamental shift in Wyoming coal.
Though smaller companies like Blackjewel bring unique risks, they may also be flexible in a way that the major players are not, he said.
The large, publicly traded firms like Peabody and Arch are responsible to shareholders and have just emerged from bankruptcies that taught them caution. Blackjewel doesn’t necessarily have those restraints, he said.
“These companies may be more nimble,” Godby said. “We’ll have to see if that’s a risk or if that’s going to help the PRB.”
Wyoming coal has been in a holding pattern for more than a year. It’s emerged from the dark days of bankruptcies and layoffs, but uncertainties remain about the coal market long term.
Much has been made of recent coal plant closures that erased large clients for Powder River Basin mines. Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy lost customers this year from early plant retirements, and both face a number of closures in the years to come.
The firms have said they are anticipating the smaller market and can adjust production accordingly.
Blackjewel’s new asset, Belle Ayr, is facing this same predicament. Its largest customer last year was Comanche Generating Station, a coal-fired plant that recently announced plans to retire two of its coal unites early, to be supplanted by new wind development. It is waiting regulatory for approval.
It’s unclear how the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte transfer fits into a diminished coal sector. They produce a low-heat coal that many firms in the Powder River Basin have struggled to sell.
Low-heat coal is a particularly soft market, at a time when the Wyoming coal sector as a whole is adjusting to contractions, said Godby. In the case of larger firms, they can focus on their high-heat assets at other mines, blend or slow production of 8400 coal.
For Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte, that’s not an option, he said. That low-heat product is all they have.
Travis Deti of the Wyoming Mining Association said it’s impossible to predict how 8400 coal will fit into the fuel mix going forward.
But the coal in the Powder River Basin remains a dependable source of energy across the country despite challenges, he said.
“I think we are in a better place than some of the other mining basins,” he said. “As the long glide away from coal over the next century evolves, the last shovel of coal is going to be mined out of the PRB”.
Given the challenges to coal, and particularly to these two mines, some are watching the transfer to Blackjewel carefully.
For Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, the CEO’s environmental violations back East are concerning. The firm simply seems too willing to jump into a risky environment.
“They seem to be speculating, and they don’t have a proven track record,” she said.
State regulators have yet to approve the new ownership, which requires a transfer of permits and reclamation responsibilities. Those liabilities have been a chief concern of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which lobbied during the bankruptcy period for stricter bonding on coal mines.
But even with bonding in place, the group doesn’t want Wyoming to end up responsible for a huge clean up effort if a company should fold.
“We think there needs to be a realistic, honest conversation with the community and workers,” she said. “This isn’t monopoly money to Wyoming. These are important assets.”
Suppose a lawyer represents his client in a highly contested divorce hearing in Natrona County District Court. After arguing the case, he walks across the street to Casper Municipal Court, dons judges’ robes and takes his seat on the bench.
A few weeks later, a man enters the judge’s courtroom on a DUI charge. He realizes the judge who will decide his fate is also the attorney who represented his wife in the divorce hearing. Will the divorcee feel like he received a fair hearing?
City Councilman Dallas Laird thinks not.
Laird is not alone. He, along with Casper’s mayor, the county’s top prosecutor and a prominent local defense attorney are asking for changes to Casper Municipal Court, arguing the existing situation could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The municipal court handles violations of city law, including public intoxication citations, some drunk driving cases and contested parking tickets. The court does not hear felonies. Other misdemeanor cases are heard in Natrona County Circuit Court and felonies are handled in Natrona County District Court — where municipal judges are free to work as private attorneys.
Laird said he is concerned that Casper’s part-time municipal court judges are able to work in private law practices on the side. The judge might listen to a police officer’s testimony in municipal court and enter Natrona County Circuit Court as a lawyer to cross-examine the same officer.
Although Laird said he does not believe judges conduct themselves in an improper manner, he thinks practicing as an attorney in one court and sitting as a judge in another court may raise eyebrows.
“I don’t think that it’s unethical, I just don’t like the procedure,” Laird said. “I want people to go into court and feel like they got a fair hearing, a fair shake.”
None of the municipal court judges agreed to speak with the Star-Tribune for this story. When asked about the possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest, municipal court manager Fleur Tremel said “I never thought about it like that.”
She compared the municipal court judges to federal magistrates, who also are free to work in law outside of their appointments.
Judges have been known to recuse themselves from cases in municipal court. Tremel didn’t know how often that had occurred. But that hasn’t quelled the concerns of the lawyers and council members.
A City Council work meeting on the matter is tentatively set for Jan. 9.
District Attorney Michael Blonigen wrote a letter dated Nov. 20 to City Manager Carter Napier, which broadly decries the use of part-time judges in the criminal justice system. Blonigen wrote that hiring judges part-time means they will seek outside work, undermining confidence in the municipal court.
“Especially if a private criminal practice is retained,” Blonigen wrote. “It creates an impression that outcomes may be based on considerations other than the law and facts.”
Blonigen stated that hiring part-time judges “necessarily” means those judges will take other legal legal work.
Casper’s municipal judges make about $54,000 a year, according to the city’s human resources department. Substitute judges are paid $80 an hour.
The prosecutor called for judges to be seated on a full-time basis, in order to avoid “the appearance of impropriety.”
“The municipal court is often the only judicial experience a citizen will ever have,” the letter states. “Confidence in that system is best established by prosecutors and judges who have made their duties a full-time obligation.”
Blonigen did not respond to request for comment for this story.
Ian Sandefer, a criminal defense lawyer who practices locally, wrote a Nov. 8 letter to Casper City Council mainly focused on the municipal court’s alcohol-offense docket. The letter pertains in large part to fixed punishments meted out to defendants on the docket, which is known colloquially as “alcohol court.” Among Sandefer’s suggestions for the docket is a request for a full-time judge. The specialized docket is currently governed by one judge who works part-time.
Sandefer wrote that a full-time judge would be “insulated from politics and would have some independence on the bench.” Sandefer does not specify why such insulation is necessary.
Sandefer did not respond to request for comment for this story.
In Rock Springs, meanwhile, the municipal judge is free to work in private practice, but Richard Beckwith, Rock Springs city attorney, said it is accepted practice to not do so in the city. The full-time municipal judge has enough to do, Beckwith said.
“Working full time for the city means you work full time for the city,” he said.
Beckwith went on to say that he did not see an issue with part-time judges in Casper working in private law practice.
“I don’t see how that’s a problem,” he said. “You can certainly easily avoid the conflicts if you’re mindful ... You just have to recuse yourself.”
Of Cheyenne’s two judges, one works for the city full time and one handles the juvenile docket on a part-time basis. Silvia Hackl, Cheyenne’s city attorney, said neither judge works elsewhere, as that is prohibited by the city.
Wyoming Statutes spell out the qualifying requirements for municipal judges in 27 words, requiring only that judges be appointed by the city council and be eligible to vote in Wyoming. Otherwise, qualifications are left up to city ordinance.
Casper’s two judges work a month at a time, switching out every month. A substitute, or provisional, judge steps in to cover cases in the case of a full-time judge’s “absence, inability or disqualification,” according to city ordinance. If a judge is on vacation or determines that he or she has a conflict of interest, the substitute will take the bench.
A third judge works solely on cases for alcohol court, also on a part-time basis.
Two of the judges, Rob Hand and Nichole Collier, did not respond to request for comment.
Keith Nachbar, the alcohol court judge, declined to comment.
City Manager Carter Napier said he was weighing the advantages and disadvantages of switching to a full-time judge. He said it was unclear to him what the financial impact of such a move would be, but that it would likely cost the city more money than it is spending now.
As part of that calculation, Napier said he would like to keep a substitute judge to cover for conflicts of interest and vacation time. Covering a relatively homogeneous docket full time might be emotionally weary for a judge, making a back-up essentially.
“With one judge,” Napier said, “you could run into the notion of burning a judge out.”
Mayor Kenyne Humphrey said she’s doubtful a full-time judge would end up costing the city more than three part-time judges.
Either way, it’s worth it, she said.
“Can we really put a price tag on justice?”