Check out this transcript of a Facebook conversation with a student that I had Tuesday afternoon after returning from the high school mission trip we took to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota:
ME: My mind has just been swimming ever since we got back from SD...I think God began something special last week, and I'm trying to wrap my brain around exactly what it may be.
THEM: Yeah... I've had this feeling like something is different.. I just haven't been able to figure out what exactly it is though... Though I will say... I don't find myself wanting a new phone or a new laptop as much as I used to... every time I think of wanting something that I don't really need... I find myself thinking about how fortunate I am to have what I've got already. This trip has helped me in so many ways... My faith had been dwindling and a lot of confusion in what I was meant to do in life.... I now find myself stronger in my faith then ever... That and I will never forget the kids in Wanblee...
My friends, God was at work last week! Two adult sponsors and I drove three minivans with thirteen students to Kadoka, SD on Sunday. We were there with three other church groups—from Iowa, Minnesota, and New York City. From Monday through Thursday, these youth (and adult sponsors) painted over gang graffiti; picked up entire vanloads of garbage; led the children of Wanblee, a reservation town, in Kid’s Club; visited a nursing home; refinished a deck; and built relationships with the residents of the reservation; all while sleeping on a church basement floor; taking turns making meals for the whole group of 72; worshipping together; having 45 minutes of daily devotion time each morning; and making new friends from all around the country!
In short, it was an amazing experience, and God’s hand was everywhere throughout the week:
- We saw the face of Jesus in kids like Marguerite, who was 4, had fetal alcohol syndrome, and could barely talk or control her bladder. She had fits of rage and liked to run away…but she craved attention and love. And the reward of her smile, when it came…it was beautiful.
- We saw the face of Jesus in the grandmother whose house we painted, who had raised 3 kids of her own and now had taken in 3 foster children whose parents were in jail for meth distribution. She makes gorgeous quilts, and lots of clothes for her neighbors, family, and friends…but told us she’s too busy making it all to have time to actually sell any of it. She gives it all away.
- We saw the face of Jesus in Brian, Y-Vo, Evan, and Kaylene, the college-aged YouthWorks staff who gave their summer to stay in South Dakota and minister to both the people there, and the high schoolers who come in week after week.
- We saw the face of Jesus in the other groups who served alongside us—people from different cultural, geographical, and denominational backgrounds, but who became close friends through our time together during the week.
And I saw the face of Jesus in the youth of the church I serve. Day after day, these high school youth worked hard, gave of themselves without regard for what they might get out of it, and showed selfless love for a community and a people desperately in need of it. To the people they encountered, there is no doubt in my mind that they were the face of Jesus. They preached the good news of God’s love through every blister, every paint splatter, every kick or punch from a kid, every drop of sweat and sunburn, every act of love that they showed. They lived out, in many unexpected but exciting ways, God’s call to them through their baptisms. I was proud to be there with them.
Why Pine Ridge? Why were we there? Here are some sobering statistics. On the reservation, the unemployment rate is 85%. 97% live below the poverty level. 22% of homes have no telephone. Per capita income is $3,700 per year. The adolescent suicide rate is 4 times the national average. With the kids we saw at Kid’s Club, easily 1 in 4 had some measure of fetal alcohol syndrome or developmental delay due to in utero drug use. The town of Wanblee, where we served, is best described as an urban inner-city experience in the middle of a rural setting. Gang graffiti, boarded-up houses, and vacant lots make up much of the town, and there’s very little in the way of infrastructure. This is a place in desperate need of God’s hope and God’s healing, where those who follow Christ are called to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” in the words of Micah 6:8.
Before we left, I had four different people come to me individually to tell me that they thought this might be the beginning of something bigger than just a one week service trip. While we were there, I challenged our youth to look for ways to bring this week of service home. God’s got some ideas brewing in our youth right now…and so I've passed the same invitation and challenge on to the rest of my congregation. Are there ways that we are being called to live out Matthew 25 (“when you did it to the least of these…”) or Micah 6:8 on the Pine Ridge reservation?
I can't wait to see what God's up to!!!