One cool Lubbock afternoon in 1979, Father Joe James made a kite. He nailed together a small wooden cross, glued paper across it, and on the long tail of twine tied streamers every five feet. Then he walked out of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, the energy-saving, below-ground house of worship he had designed, climbed up a modest slope, and launched the contraption above the church’s school and football field. Staring up at the fluttering streamers, he could gauge which way the wind was blowing and where it blew hardest.
This sort of project was not uncommon for James, a perpetual tinkerer convinced that simplicity was next to godliness. For a long time he had dreamed about creating wind-generated electricity to power his church in this perpetually windy corner of the state. Over the next few years, he bought five wind turbines from Jay Carter and Jay Carter Jr., a Wichita Falls–area father and son team of mechanical engineers. The turbines were taller than anything else around, and James planted four of them, each sixty feet tall, beside the football field’s end zones. The turbines were wired directly into the church and the church school, and in the evenings, when the lights were out and the air-conditioning was turned off, excess power could be fed to the city’s electric grid. The last turbine went in next to the church; it was called Big Bird, because it stood eighty feet tall. Anyone driving around Lubbock in the early eighties could see Big Bird from a mile off—and probably wondered what in God’s name it was.
James wasn’t the first Texan to try to harness the wind. Since the mid- to late 1800’s, rural Texans had been ordering windmills out of catalogs, and it was these iconic, creaky contraptions—first wooden and then steel—that sped the settlement of the Great Plains by pumping water up from the aquifers, enabling ranchers to keep cattle and the railroads to make steam. By the early twentieth century, companies were selling “wind chargers,” which farmers could erect if they wanted electricity in their homes—and they did, because kerosene was inconvenient and couldn’t power the radio. But rural electrification in the late thirties and forties killed the wind chargers; once the utilities extended wires into the countryside, farmers could get plenty of electricity whether it was windy or not.
James saw things differently. Why should he pay for electricity when it could be harnessed from the skies? His quixotic experiment ran for nearly a decade, supplying much of the energy needed to run his church and Sunday school. But in the late eighties, he became ensnared in a theological controversy after his parishioners reported receiving messages from the Virgin Mary. Floods of visitors arrived, claims of miracles proliferated, and a dubious Lubbock bishop eased James out. Several years later, the teetering turbines were winched down for the final time. “The priest who followed me couldn’t give a flip about them,” James says. “He said he couldn’t get anyone to repair them or cobble them together. If you want to do something badly enough, you will. If you don’t want to, the way is filled with excuses.”
Three decades after he first planted them in the ground, James’s turbines are long gone, and the way the church operates—keeping the lights on