Our media intern sat down with Director of Spiritual Programming and Development Sarah Iverson to discuss the 2019 Pine Ridge Reservation trip. Below is the full transcript of their conversation.
Can you tell me a little bit about the purpose of the trip and what it is?
Sarah Iverson: Many churches have mission trips and there’s lots of different ways people do missions but it’s a very complicated and loaded term in many faiths, especially in Christianity in terms of how it’s done, when it’s done, and where it’s done, and what is achieved. We do call it a mission trip just because it helps people … have a little more familiarity with that term. It would not be a mission trip in the sense of what a mission trip would look like 10 or 20 years ago. So, we kind of frame it up as a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage being a trip of encounter. It’ll be a trip where we encounter others, both those we travel with and those we travel to meet. It’s a trip of encounter where we’ll encounter ourselves in a new way as we step out of our familiar surroundings, habits and schedules. [On the] trip, we will encounter God in a new way as we set down some of our preoccupations as we see the wealth and the beauty of God’s creations both in a different geography and with the people who live differently than us. And so, we use the word mission trip, but we think of it more of a trip of encounter.
How is it tied to Good Shepherd’s guiding principles and guiding mission?
SI: We have a new mission statement now: “Welcome as we’ve been welcomed, forgive as we’ve been forgiven serve as we’ve been served.” Our old mission statement used to be “Transforming lives through Jesus’ love.” So that really latched on to what we do there. We want to transform lives, not that others’ lives need transforming by us, but we want it to be a vehicle of love in the spirit for transformation and God’s world in general. That transformation can be to and through us, that transformation can be to and through others, and it’s motivated for us out of our faith in Jesus Christ. Although that might not mean we go in yelling and screaming Jesus’ name. We just want to be a vessel of transformation so the world begins to look more like the kingdom that Jesus would like it to look. In terms of our new mission statement, “Welcome as we’ve been welcomed, forgive as we’ve been forgiven serve as we’ve been served,” what motivates us to serve others is both the blessings of our own life, for which we’re asked to give and live through, and also our tentative faith. If we’re going to follow Jesus, then we’re going to go to those who are in need. Need surrounds us in every place, so it’s not like we’re going to a group of people who we feel we have so much to offer. We may have an abundance of possessions in comparison but the abundance that they have is also to be shared. So, it’s a mutual encounter, we hope.
What has this trip looked like in the past?
SI: This is our tenth trip, eight of them have been parent-child. So, high school youth will go with either their blood parent or someone who is significant in their life and that’s [because] this may be a trip that might need unpacking for years to come. So, if you’re nowhere near Good Shepherd, then you’re near an adult. It’s also a chance for adults to step out of their comfort zone. Travel is a great equalizer, it’s a great way of shedding so much of what we carry. So, we’ve always paired it that way. And we have had two women’s group go to do women’s retreats. There, at Wings as Eagles, when we started it was through World Vision who was partnering with different organizations that were already doing good work rather than going in and duplicating or creating a competing ministry, they would accompany something that was already in existence. And so, they found Wings as Eagles on Pine Ridge and accompanying them. The first two years, it was a World Vision affiliate and then World Vision had to make different financial decisions around 2008 and so that part of their processing and programming was eliminated. But Wings as Eagles still obviously had been there for a long time and continued so we just continued to partner through them.
How about the actual work on the Reservation?
SI: There’s a lot of work that goes on, I can imagine on any reservation, but particularly at Pine Ridge in the summer with lots of people who, I would hope and pray have good intentions that want to go and do something for someone. There are lots of ministries that go out onto the reservation and do a lot of different things. Wings as Eagles are different because they’re there all year. They have a site; they have land on the reservation where kids come throughout the year. They do ministry throughout the year. They’ve been there for 18 years and have gained trust of people, so we really want to come in and show that we want to be a part of an organization that’s building relationships. And that it’s not a paint the house or decide that we know what someone else needs. But we want to be part of a ministry that’s already listening and responding to the needs of people and being in a mutual relationship with them. While many [approaches to travel and mission for churches] each year is to go to a different place each year so you grow your breadth of understanding, we’ve chosen to go to the same place every year and build upon those relationships. But because there’s time that passes, we do rely heavily [on Wings as Eagles] and we enjoy that we get to work with Wings as Eagles and come into the ministry that they’re already doing. We gain trust that way and we learn more that way.
“Transformation can be to and through us, that transformation can be to and through others, and it’s motivated for us out of our faith in Jesus Christ.”
People are already sharing their stories with them and so a lot of the work is working with kids. Lori and Gary, who are the pastors of Wings as Eagles ministry, decided after a lot of years working in Pine Ridge and other reservations that the only way forward was to change the lives of young people and to instill hope in young people. Their focus of their ministry is with children and teenagers and getting them daily resources, meals, and food. Also giving them educational opportunities, safe community, those kinds of those. A lot of our work is hanging out with young kids, it looks like a Vacation Bible School at Good Shepherd but only with a lot less organization behind it and a lot more chaos. We’re going in there for a week and the Dream Center – which is Wings as Eagles – is really owned by those kids. Lori and Gary make it very clear that this is their Dream Center. So, we play a weird role of both host and guest. We are hosting them for this week, but we are guests in their Dream Center.
We play and make food, we run around, we give a lot of piggy back rides, we do a lot of arts and crafts [during] the day. We spend a lot of time in the evening processing as our group because this is a chance for parents and kids get away and have conversations that they may not have at home often. [This is] a chance for our congregation to get to know each other in a different way. We also do barbecues in the communities. Pine Ridge Reservation has a number of villages and communities within it and so one night we go out in the community and take grills and hot dogs and everything and just host a barbecue. Wings as Eagles does this every week, so it’s something that’s a pattern for people. They look forward to it, they know it’s coming, but it’s a chance to see not only these kids again that are in that particular community, but also the elders and the adults. They are fun and they are funny, and they love to mess with you a little bit. They’re grateful but you are their guest. So, it’s a really weird and lovely way to walk in terms of what hospitality looks like when you’re providing and being given to at the same time.
We have had trips where we’ve built things. When we first went to Wings as Eagles, it was nothing but a kitchenette with outdoor seating and a pole shed. And we slept in that pole shed. Over the years that pole shed has developed into the Dream Center … a space for kids, some offices and storage. There’s a bunk house now, there’s some staff housing as they’ve looked to staff this ministry further. So, we participated in some of that building but it’s not really Good Shepherd’s forte in terms of some of the groups where we’ve left our mark. … Church school kids have provided money for the swing sets that are there, which is always a highlight.
The suicide rate is ridiculously and horribly high for teenagers. Lori and Gary have walked the cycle over and over with both kids that they’ve loved and their families. Our first year there, a young man who we really enjoyed having in kids club actually killed himself that evening and it was some really hard processing for our group, but also seeing what Gary and Lori live in and how they continue with that. So Lori asked – they had nothing but a pole shed – that if up on this hill we could build an alter that can become this sacred space in the midst of all of this and so we built an alter on this hill and that’s still there, still standing. We go up there each year and remember that we are part of a continuum of Good Shepherd communities that continue to pour out and pour into. But we’re also part of continuum of others that walk in this space and love in this space. So yeah, there’s some building but not necessarily the skill set we recruit for. And feeding, lots of feeding. The food is not fancy, but it’s good. We can do that.
What are some things that you have personally learned?
SI: I have learned what has become the mantra for this trip: To have a light touch. It’s something that I struggled to learn for the first years and now is the mantra under which we travel. We, especially as adults, don’t realize how much control we like to have under our own circumstances and our daily schedule. Even when we do events at Good Shepherd, it’s very organized, I know what’s next, I can plan out, I can produce results. This is a different experience. Whatever my expectations might be may be scrapped in the moment. Every time that happened, I realized that’s where I met the Spirit. That was what was supposed to happen. So, I’ve learned how much lighter of an approach to the overall plan and the day and my goal is to create an experience where our travelers feel safe and provided for, but where they also learn to encounter the Spirit and opportunities that they would miss when we hold on too tightly to our own agendas or expectations. So I have learned how to have a very light touch and I’ve learned just wonderful things about the members of our congregation as you walk across the prairie to take a shower or to go to breakfast, you have conversations that you don’t have in the church building. You learn about people’s past, their hopes, and their hurts. And you see a group of very nervous teenagers and adults become a community that loves and embraces and has a set of memories, yes. But [you] also come to see what they share in common even when they return, as well. It’s been a really rich part of my work here, for sure.
What are some of the cultural ties that you’ve made?
SI: It’s interesting because after eight years, we do have kids who we’ve seen go from the littles to the teenagers which is awesome and also heartbreaking when you read about the realities and know the realities of teenage life on Pine Ridge and the amount of gang activity and suicide and things like that. So, we have kids who we see each year, there are some people who are there every year, obviously me. Even if they don’t know our names, they know “Oh you’re those people, you’re that place. You’re the ones who make the fruit pizza, you’re the ones who do these things.” We have seen relationships built. … Everyone has that one kid that grabs your heart in this way that you can’t let go of. … I know one gentleman [who has been several times] in particular has a list of names of the kids in his wallet and looks at the names every day. Even though daily communication or staying in those relationships is difficult, there is some kind of continued concern and care. Our woman’s group, God’s Hands and Feet, a group of those women there have really taken on making a connection with some of the elders and so there’s some families that they are in contact with throughout the year, providing needs, heat in the winter and things like that but just being in that relationship of women raising children and that’s complicated no matter what cultural context you’re in. So they share those stories and they share those griefs and joys.
“I’ve learned how much lighter of an approach to the overall plan and the day and my goal is to create an experience where our travelers feel safe and provided for, but where they also learn to encounter the Spirit and opportunities that they would miss when we hold on too tightly to our own agendas or expectations.”
Obviously, our relationship with Lori and Gary is rich and they have one or two staff members that have become really dear to us. Some 20 or 30-year-old Lakota men who just love when we come and share their story. They think we’re a little loud, we’re a little weird, we’re a little different than any other group that comes, but it seems to be embraced, which I think is because we do so much work before we go. We want to come in as a community that is set to work and that people that can be welcomed into. Not, we go in there to figure out who we are. We go in there as a community so we can serve so we can be a vessel so that our relationships aren’t a hindrance to what God is trying to do through us. We try to be very clear and joyful with each other and this goes for when we travel for other youth things too, but it always seems to be received very well, as it’s very fun to be around your group because you’re already having fun with each other.
Anything else you want to share?
SI: It’s interesting to watch high school kids and their understanding of the world and as they move into college and how different cultures relate to one another and the mess that Christianity has made of missions for so long and watch them process and navigate that. Even as we have those conversations to check our intentions and to be educated about what’s going on. To carry all of that weight and to just be in the moment with that kid who wants to get a piggy back ride and to not miss the encounters and what can happen in those individual encounters. But then also to come back and say, “It can’t just be that encounter. Now that I know, now that I’ve seen, what will I do?” Whether that turns into advocacy or whether that turns into even finding other gifts or skills that they have to serve in the world. But it’s also been rich to watch adults shake their control issues and become a different version of themselves than what I get to see here. It’s been great to watch kids take the lead in front of adults and watch their confidence grow as they lead, as they embrace, as they do all of these things. I just think there’s so much that’s rich in travel and what it does to us. So, the more different ways we can go away – and this is just one of many ways to go away. But to change your geography and see what kind of change is in your heart. We spend a lot of time talking about the geography, the physical geography of where we’re at, because it’s the main player in the history that we’re walking into of what is land, what is ownership, what is sacred, what is space. There’s a lot of those conversations that come up. I told the group this is one of the hardest weeks I do out of any week of the year. This is absolutely the hardest week of work and it’s also my favorite.