Sunday, July 21, 2013

At the Feet of Jesus, on the Reservation

[Sermon from Sunday, July 21, 2013]
Two weeks ago today, five of our youth, Dr. Terri Long, and I met behind HJ’s Youth Center while the good people on the other side of the street were getting ready for the 8:00 service.  We piled into a rental van and drove 10 hours across the prairie in order to spend a week on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.  Now, you may be wondering, “Why in the name of God would you want to do that?”  And after 10 hours in the van and coming to a place of huge social problems, we might have been wondering the same thing. 
I’d like to take a shot at answering that question and share with you a few things I learned from our time together.  The real treat comes next Sunday – reflections about the experience from the youth who made the trip.  (They’re finishing up another mission experience, Missionpalooza, this morning.)
Terri and I had both done our homework, reading up on the Rosebud Reservation.  We’d reminded ourselves of the terrible history of the intersection between the U.S. government and native peoples as European Americans spread west.  We’d done a little reading specifically about the Lakota, or Sioux, peoples on the Great Plains – how they’d defeated U.S. forces in 1868 and negotiated a settlement that gave them half of what’s now South Dakota, everything west of the Missouri River.  Over time, particularly with the discovery of gold in the sacred Black Hills, that original reservation was whittled down to smaller and smaller parcels of land – land from which the buffalo, the key to their way of life, had been nearly wiped out.  We talked a little with the kids about this difficult history during that 10-hour drive across the Plains, and we described in abstract terms what we knew we were heading into: a place of serious poverty where we hoped we might be able to make a difference through our mission trip. 
As usually happens with mission trips, most of us in the van had a sense that we were going to the Rosebud to help people and fix things.  That certainly seemed to be the plan.  The group organizing this trip, YouthWorks, had scheduled two kinds of activities across the four working days:  The kids would spend two days in hands-on work to build or clean or fix things, and they’d spend two days working with reservation kids, putting on a vacation Bible school for them.  So the seven of us made our way to the Rosebud ready to be useful in improving people’s lives, albeit in the small chunks of work you can do in a short amount of time.
And the work got done.  We painted the community center in the village of St. Francis, and we did a fair amount of cleaning and painting in the St. Francis elementary school, where the 60 youth and adults stayed.  And the youth planned and put on a vacation Bible school.  So what we did mattered.  The community-center painting was done so well that one of the tribal leaders asked a YouthWorks staffer to come and be recognized at a tribal council meeting.  And the VBS was a welcome moment of fun, love, and hope for the reservation kids.  So, in the context of the Gospel reading we heard this morning, the Martha in each of us was feeling pretty good, having worked hard and gotten our hands dirty.  It’s the same feeling we came away with yesterday from the workday at Southwest High School.
But as it turned out, we really weren’t in South Dakota to satisfy the Martha in each of us.  Oddly enough, the mission trip was much more of a Mary experience.  And as Jesus says, the time when we weren’t “worried and distracted” by our many tasks was actually the richest part of our trip there – definitely the “one thing” he wants us to focus on, the “better part” he asks us to choose (Luke 10:41-42).
That “better part” of our trip had begun long before we got there.  It began years ago, when the people from YouthWorks came to the Rosebud and began getting to know the community.  YouthWorks has been hosting mission trips to the Rosebud for more than a decade; so when a bunch of white kids show up on the reservation, the Lakota people know why they’re there.  In addition, earlier this summer, the four 20-somethings who ran the mission experience spent time themselves getting to know people in the community.  In fact, the young man in charge this summer is a teacher at the St. Francis high school, so he’s there year-round.  That “one thing,” that “better part” Jesus mentions in the Gospel reading, is what we were really on the Rosebud to do: to begin building relationships with the people there and, through them, deepening our relationship with Christ. 
That was the subtext of everything we did on this trip, but it was especially evident one day.  On the second workday for our group, after we’d painted the community center, we traveled 20 miles to the village of Mission.  There, we spent the day in a fascinating place, a combination restaurant and youth center called Buffalo Jump.  This operation is run by a woman named Noella Red Hawk.  Noella is a true entrepreneur, both in terms of her restaurant (I didn’t expect to find a coffee bar with Italian ices on the reservation) and especially in terms of being what’s called a social entrepreneur.  Buffalo Jump offers reservation youth a place they can experience a contrast reality to the despair they see all around them.  The Rosebud is an incredibly difficult place to live.  The unemployment rate there is 83 percent.1  Alcoholism is rampant, estimated by people on the ground to run at about 80 percent of adults.  There is little hope in this environment; and as a result, the Rosebud has literally the highest rate of teen suicide in the nation.2  This is a place where it’s unbelievably hard to grow up.
So Noella Red Hawk – when she isn’t raising her daughter or running her restaurant – runs the Sicangu Lakota Youth Center at Buffalo Jump, her own 501(c)(3).3  There she provides suicide intervention.  She offers tutoring with school work and help in getting youth ready to enter the workforce.  She provides a “free teen store” where young people can pick up necessities like clothes and toilet paper and toothpaste – things our kids would never imagine going without at home.  And she offers programs to preserve the Lakota culture among the youth.  The day we were there, we helped prepare the supplies kids would need for a week-long horse camp that she and her husband, Shane, were about to put on for local kids, teaching them about the Lakota people’s connection to the land and the way of life they knew for centuries. 
So seven Marthas headed out across the Plains two weeks ago looking for work.  Instead, what we really found was relationship.  The best part of the trip was sitting at the feet of Jesus, in the person of this Lakota powerhouse named Noella, and learning the “one thing” that Mary chose in the Gospel reading – relationship that changes lives.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Every time we go to Haiti, we live out the same truth.  As Chris Nazar said in a testimony one Sunday a few months ago, he doesn’t go to Maniche every year just to paint the school or take pictures of kids for the Advent cards.  He goes because the teachers, the headmaster, and our partner priest have become his friends. 
It’s the same truth we remembered in an outward and visible way yesterday, at Southwest High School.  It’s great to go paint and clean and garden, getting the place ready for the new school year.  But what really matters is that St. Andrew’s people gather every month with people from other neighborhood churches and people from the school as the Southwest Faith-Based Coalition, finding ways to support the teachers and staff, and trying to enhance learning for the students.  What really matters is that our people know people there, and that the principal, Ed Richardson, isn’t just a colleague but a friend – and a parishioner.
You’ll hear more about the trip to South Dakota next Sunday from the rest of the group, and I’ll be as interested as you are to hear what the youth took away from the experience.  But you’ll also be hearing more about this as the year goes on, because I think it’s a pretty safe bet that our youth will continue to build a relationship with Noella and the Sicangu Lakota Youth Center.  I think that may well be why God sent us to the Rosebud this summer.  Just as we have partners in Haiti, I think the youth may have found a partner on the reservation. 
I am very proud of our kids.  They went to a place where it would have been easy to become worried and distracted by the many things that need to be done.  But instead, they’ve chosen the better part – not just being volunteer tourists but being sent into a partner relationship.  And sitting with Mary at the feet of our Lord and Savior, I would dare to say:  That makes Jesus smile.

1.  U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs.  “Rosebud Agency.”  Available at:  Accessed July 18, 2013.
2.  “Suicide Rate Among Tribal Youth Twice National Average.”  U.S. Medicine: The Voice of Federal Medicine, April 2009.  Available at:  Accessed July 18, 2013.
3.  “Sicangu Lakota Youth Center – Commitment to our youth!”  Available at:  Accessed July 18, 2013.