On October 3rd, 2015 ten of us landed in the tiny airport of Rapid City, SD. Four more were making the long drive from Virginia to South Dakota, and our group of 14 would be spending the week working on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Who knew so much could happen in one week?
This is part one. To read part two, click here.
Why Pine Ridge?
Five months ago I knew little about Pine Ridge Reservation or the Oglala Lakota that call it home. Very little.
I had read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee years ago, and vaguely remember hearing about the plight of the North American Plains Indian at an Indigo Girls concert back in my college days. But beyond that I couldn’t tell you much. What I was oblivious to five months ago is now what consumes much of my thoughts and has taken up permanent residence in my heart.
Pine Ridge Reservation encompasses about 2 million acres along the southern border of South Dakota — it is roughly the size of Connecticut. Home to the Oglala Lakota, one of the seven bands of Lakota tribe within the Sioux Nation, Pine Ridge has roughly 32,000 people living within its borders.
Oglala Lakota County, which encompasses most of the reservation, is the second poorest county (based on per capita income) within the United States. The unemployment rate is estimated between 80-90%, with very little businesses or jobs available on the reservation.
The alcoholism rate is estimated at 80% and 1 in 4 infants are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or related effects. But perhaps the worst epidemic within Pine Ridge is the rate of suicides. A reported 30 suicides have occurred within the last year, and between December 2014-March 2015 there were 103 reported attempts. Most of these attempts were made by teens and young adults, with the teen suicide rate in Pine Ridge being four times the national average.
Life expectancy in Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States, and the second lowest in the entire Western Hemisphere, only after Haiti.
Once you learn something like this, you can never unlearn it. Now that I know this — know that there is a forgotten place smack in the middle of the U.S. with a forgotten people who are struggling to survive, struggling to find hope — everything has changed for me.
Five months ago when a man I had never met stood up in front of our church one Sunday and shared these statistics and some of the stories behind them, all I could think was “I have to go.”
Getting there and getting to work
Making the decision to go was an easy one. Getting there proved a bit harder. The weeks leading up to the trip were full of challenges and I felt a full-on attack from the enemy. I thought about cancelling. My presence wasn’t really needed that much, I reasoned, the team would get along fine without me. Of course, what I didn’t consider was how much I needed to be there.
Within three hours of landing in South Dakota I sprained my ankle. I’ll share more about that story in Part Two, but let’s just say that I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel at that point. Thankfully, God is steadfast and merciful, even when I am missing the big picture and wavering in my faith.
The mission we were coming to support is called Restoration Church, led by missionary Wade M. Wade and his family, who also served as missionaries in West Africa for many years, have been working with the people of Pine Ridge for about four years. The original Restoration Church is located in the capital of the reservation, also called Pine Ridge. The heart of the ministry is to love and serve the people of Pine Ridge the way Jesus loved and served. They offer a food pantry, emergency assistance, counseling, a prison ministry, and do work to improve living conditions on the reservation, such as home repairs.
While driving through the reservation you will see a number of church buildings, most of them are relics left over from when the reservation was first established over 130 years ago and assimilation was the primary goal. I won’t go into politics here, as is my general policy with this blog, but no matter what you believe about the history of our country and decisions made, the bottom-line is within the reservation Christianity is largely associated with the government and government actions from the last 130 years, and therefore there is a general sentiment of mistrust when it comes to the church.
The approach of Wade and the rest of the team at Restoration to serve within the community has earned respect, and a reputation for being genuine and honorable. In large part due to this, just three weeks before our team arrived Wade and team were granted use of a second location, in the town of Kyle, about 55 minutes drive from the location in Pine Ridge. The building had sat unused for years following a bad experience with a previous church in residence. Getting approval for use of the building from the council leader, who is not a Christian, was significant. And the timing of our arrival was providential.
We attended church service in Kyle, their third service since securing the building, the day after our arrival. As we took inventory of what needed to be done, the list seemed endless. The floor was a bare concrete slab; only one bathroom worked and was in bad shape; lights were out, walls needed patched, and a mountain of boxes of left-behind items filled the room that needed to become a nursery; the kitchenette where we helped prepare lunch that day was the kind of dirty that only a paint scraper, a gallon of vinegar and several hours of work could fix; the yard was overgrown, screens were torn and the front door didn’t lock. That’s just what we saw on the first day. As the week continued we also uncovered HVAC, electrical and plumbing issues.
We had 14 people of varying skill level, and only five working days to get as much accomplished as possible. Like the loaves and fishes, God somehow managed to multiply our time and resources and when we left, I say with no ounce of pride, it was a completely transformed building.
Healing in Pine Ridge
The day we left Pine Ridge a special event called the “Wiping of Tears” was going to take place at the building in Kyle. One of the elders, explained that the Wiping of Tears was an ancient condolence ceremony practiced by many Native American tribes, (it is done every year in Pine Ridge on the anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre) and is seen as a time to move on from grief and suffering. This particular event was for anyone who had been impacted by or lost someone to suicide. They provided a hot meal and then prayed over those who were hurting and mourning.
We were boarding our flight in Rapid City before the event took place, but Wade has since told me that everyone that came that day was amazed by the transformation of the building. Even the council leader, who four weeks earlier had granted use of the building, could not believe the transformation. She was especially drawn to the nursery and said she wanted to bring her grandchildren there to play in that room.
The work we did in Kyle is not really about a building. It’s not about laying tile or painting walls or cleaning a kitchen. I know that a fixed-up building will not solve the problems plaguing the people of Pine Ridge.
But God can.
On the surface it may just look like a safe, clean, nice place to receive a hot meal, be prayed over, and receive the love of Jesus. But my God can do more. He can use this building to heal hearts, provide hope to the lost, and even save lives. I’ve seen what He’s doing and I can tell you healing is happening in Pine Ridge.
To hear the rest of the story, read Healing in Pine Ridge: Part 2.
If you’ve been convicted by what you’ve read and feel led to do something, here are four things you can do right now to help the people of Pine Ridge and the mission of Restoration Church:
- Watch this video and then go and tell people about the healing that is happening in Pine Ridge! Creating awareness is key to solving this problem.
- Pray for the people of Pine Ridge, for the team at Restoration Church, for Pastor Wade and his family.
- Go and serve. Grace Community Church in Winchester, VA is planning another trip in May. If you are local and would like more information, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Give financially. If you feel led to give financially, you can mail a check to:
938 Walnut Ave.
Hot Springs, SD 57747
Restoration Church has a 501c3 status and donations are tax deductible.
UPDATE: About 12 hours after I finished this blog post and hit “publish” I got an update from Wade. Included was a link to this video he put together documenting the transformation of the building in Kyle. He also let us know that one of the women we met while we were there decided to give her life to Jesus and was baptized since we left. God is good!