Wrangled by faith

Meet ‘Cowboy John,’ a man transformed by Christ

Aaron Lambert

He stands against the orange-stained horizon, donned in a cowboy hat and spurred boots. Beside him, a horse grazes in the grass, wearing a saddle that’s ripe for riding. It’s easy to see that this man and horse share a bond; one that could only be shared between a cowboy and his trusty steed.

Meet John Calderon, a cowboy and Catholic convert whose life has radically been changed by Christ.

Calderon, better known as “Cowboy John” to some in the community, has spent the last 28 years in Glenwood Springs, a town revered for its beautiful mountain scenery and natural hot springs. The rapid growth of Glenwood over the past several years has enabled Calderon to make a decent living as a tile and stone contractor.

After encountering Christ in the Catholic Church, John Calderon (left) began seeing people differently. He felt compelled to begin helping homeless people in Glenwood Springs, and is lovingly called an “angel” by some, including David and Diane Whitlock (right), a homeless couple he’s been helping. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Though Glenwood Springs is a largely affluent community, the reality is that with large influxes of people comes an increase in the number of homeless. Ten years ago, Calderon wouldn’t have turned a blind eye to a beggar on the street; today, he calls some of those beggars friends, and does much more than just give them the occasional handout.

“I started noticing people. I feel like when I look at people around us,” Calderon said, pointing to a woman across the street, “I see God’s children everywhere.”

After his conversion, Calderon felt compelled to speak to homeless people in the area. It all started when he pulled up to McDonald’s in his truck, grabbed a Big Mac and parked in the parking lot to eat.

“I’d seen a lot of homeless people in the area, and I just decided to start joining them for lunch,” he said. “Talking to them, asking them where they were from and who they were. It got to where I enjoyed it.”

Angel in a cowboy hat

From there, it grew naturally. Calderon would get to know some of the homeless people he interacted with and would gradually offer them more and more help. Calderon connected with one homeless couple in particular, David and Diane Whitlock, and eventually began inviting them to his home, allowing them to do laundry and take a hot shower.

“Everybody else turns their back on us, but John is the only one who actually helped and said what he was going to do,” David said.

The sad reality of being homeless isn’t just the difficult living conditions people find themselves in. The Whitlocks recounted stories of being spit on, being called expletives, being told to get a job and worse. Many people who drive by treat them as less than human, but not Calderon.

I see God’s children everywhere.”

“John is an angel sent from heaven, I’m telling you,” Diane said. “He is an inspiration to all of us homeless. He not only buys us food, or provides for what we need, he gets out here and talks with us like we’re human.

“A true Christian is not going to be afraid to get dirty, and he’s not.”

Living on the streets can lead to a rough appearance, Calderon said, which not only makes it hard to get a job, but is also a big reason why there seems to be fear among people when approaching a homeless person.

“I hate that word, ‘homeless,’ it puts a label over someone’s head. They don’t look like you or I, and because of that appearance, it freaks people out,” he said. “But in reality, there’s a child of God underneath all of that.”

Tricks of the trade

The Whitlocks have been homeless for several years, drifting about the country, but always end up back in Glenwood Springs. They believe it’s because God wanted them to meet Calderon. They have both been having a tough time finding employment, and as a married couple of 28 years, they’d like to be able to do something together.

Calderon was an answer to this prayer, as well.

“He actually made us comfortable before he told us he owned a business and was willing to hire us on and teach us a trade,” Diane said. “That’s what we’ve been looking for, something we could do together as a husband and wife team.”

As a successful business owner, Calderon doesn’t just seek to give handouts to his homeless friends; he wants to empower them and teach them the skills to help them stand on their own two feet.

I hate that word, ‘homeless,’ it puts a label over someone’s head. They don’t look like you or I, and because of that appearance, it freaks people out. But in reality, there’s a child of God underneath all of that.”

“There’s a lot of people who really want to get out of their current situation, but with their appearance and sometimes looking rough, it’s hard to get a job,” Calderon explained.

“I try and make a point to offer laboring positions as much as I can. When I have a project going on somewhere around this area, I will go pick up someone that I’ve talked to that doesn’t have a job and I’ll put them to work. There’s a need for it.”

It’s a need that has spurred Calderon into action. He has plans to start a nonprofit organization that houses homeless people and teaches them a trade, thereby equipping them to enter the workforce. He’s already in touch with companies across the nation who would be willing to offer employment to people who went through his program.

Calderon would like to someday start a non-profit organization that houses homeless people and teaches them a trade, thereby equipping them to enter the workforce. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

“It’s important for people to try and help, not by just handing cash so they go away, but to actually take that person and teach them a trade,” Calderon said.

Calderon, an unassuming and humble man, was resistant to share his story at first; he didn’t want any recognition for his acts of charity, and doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. However, hopes that by his actions, he can spur others to break down the walls that stand between society and the homeless population and show true Christian love to those in need. In doing so, he insists the rewards are great.

“I feel like I get rewards that I can’t even speak of, and it [all] comes from God,” Calderon said. “I want people to come to realize that there are people who really care in the Catholic Church, and we’re inviting them to join us.”

COMING UP: Cowboy John — Living out his faith

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