Sunday, July 24, 2016

Loose Screws and the Love of God

Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation Mission Trip 2016 Reflections from Janet Stark

I'll admit - proud doesn't begin to describe how I felt when our small but mighty band of 8th graders from First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, Kansas completed two decks with stairs during our time on the Pine Ridge Reservation near Porcupine, South Dakota this week.  I have never taken middle schoolers on a construction trip before and these youth were not only eager participants, but really, really good with tools!

This deck pictured is the first one we built.  And as Brianna and I were standing on the deck watching more than 40 young people go up and down our new stairs to the bath house, she saw it.  "Oh no, Miss Janet.  Look."  She pointed my attention downward and we discovered a screw that was moving away from the structure.  Nails were beginning to push up from the pressure of continued use.  Our structure needed maintenance... and we were leaving.  All those feelings of accomplishment were dashed with the reality that we would not be here to continue to pour into the care and attention that was needed.

Isn't that the way it always is with short term missions?  This is the 9th trip I have been a part of with youth.  Zach, Edward, Brianna, Kati, Charles and I have been a family for the week. And I have seen them address challenges and grow in ways that make any momma proud.  There is no doubt that this experience has made its mark on us, but what of the people we leave behind?

The Lakota of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are a big-hearted people, who are intentional about honoring ancient ways in a time when progress slows for no one.  

Can teams of young people really have an impact on the residents of Pine Ridge, when even in the midst of loose screws, they leave?  Doubtful.

Enter Matt Hadden.  Matt and his wife, Amanda, are a young couple who moved here from Atlanta, Georgia, shortly after Matt had experienced this sacred place during a short term mission trip with Team Effort.  While he wasn't sure what would happen next, he knew he felt that tugging to not just do something for these people, but to be with them.  He has taken jobs here as a school librarian and a bus driver while pastoring Sharp's Corner Baptist Church.  

Matt spoke with us at the camp the second night of our stay.  He laid out the statistics:  80% high school drop out rate.  80% unemployment rate, alcoholism, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, and suicide.  We were buried by the weight of the challenges here.  "This place," he shared, "is similar to Haiti in the problems they face."  And then he urged us to consider why we are here.  "You really aren't here to build decks.  That may solve a short-term problem, but the deck you build will be in ruin in a year or two.  You are here to listen to where God is calling you.  God put it on my heart to return here, to live and to minister with these people.  Take time to listen to how God is using you and where God is calling you."  

Matt and Amanda invited our team to their home for dinner on Thursday night and we laughed and talked and enjoyed their family.  They told us more stories of their time here and our young people wowed them with recordings of their sermons from Youth Sunday :)  Matt told us that his favorite bible verse is Psalm 34:8 "Taste and see that the Lord is good."  He shared that if you want people to know who Jesus was you've got to present the "deliciousness of Jesus".   Our Christian history shows we haven't done a very good job at that with groups of people who are existing on the fringes.  Matt and Amanda work to present that life sustaining tastiness in all that they do.

This is long-term work.  This is in-each-others'-lives kind of work.  This is shared heartache and shared joy.  This is mission.  We left our loose screws with the knowledge that we are not a part of this place, not really, although I'm confident that we have left a small piece of us behind.  But someone else will maintain the work of living and loving here.

In Lakota there is no word for good-bye.  In Lakota they say, "See you later."  "Toksa Ake."  I hope so!

Pictured above: Our Mission Team plus Pastor Matt and Racheal, one of our TEAMEffort leaders.

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