Friday, January 16, 2015

Eastward Bound...

I sit here in the Denver International Airport Frontier Airlines terminal waiting for my flight back to Washington, DC and am processing so much now that our immersion with the Lakota Nation at Pine Ridge has ended.  The view of the Rockies to my left are stunning, as I wish I had more time to explore Denver, but alas, there is work to do and a new semester on the horizon.  And it's a fresh canvas too, full of new possibilities, but also fresh vision of who I am and how I see others.  The one thing that has really been going through my mind these last two weeks is John Wesley's quote, "the world is my parish," as the Lakota and all who were native to this land are our neighbors and part of our parish too.  I have to admit that I feel more conflicted than ever as I go back to Washington, DC. Learning in history classes, we often get a one sided view.  Even as I recollect reading stories, watching cartoons, or in film, we have often grossly stereotyped the Native Americans as savage and dumb, treating many like animals something Pastor Robert talked about.  But in listening to stories from the different speakers we had, they are not dumb and they ARE our neighbors too.  They are just like us if we are willing to learn and listen. 

Sometimes I am ashamed of the history that we have taught, making the white man out as heroic and superior while relegating those who are not to an inferior status.  Yet today, we still struggle, especially with the escalation of racial tensions in the U.S. and religious battles that are happening around the world today. I know that this may read like this is white guilt, yet it is something that has gravely concerned me in how we treat people and construct differences in them.  While taking a course at Sacramento State, Multicultural America with Dr. Alyson Buckman, a lot of human differences were constructed and reinforced through how different groups were portrayed in film, literature, art, drama, and film.  In fact I remember watching a video clip of a documentary in that class and one of my classmates next to me kept saying "ignorance" under his breath in how one family with kids told their kids "say hi to the Indian." Most Native Americans do not even wear the feathers or war paint, nor go around swinging tomahawks or whooping like they are portrayed as doing.  Most of the traditional headwear is ceremonial and only worn during sacred ceremonies.  During a visit to the heritage center at Red Cloud Indian School, there was a Native American dressed in traditional ceremonial regalia, surrounded by images of cartoon depictions and was titled "I'm Not That Kind of Indian." And in all of our conversations with many of the Lakota locals, they are just like us and were happy to talk with us.  In fact, the worst thing we could do is try and be what they say in Neither Wolf nor Dog, "wannabe Indians." We cannot try to be something we are not, but we can certainly interact, talk, get to know, and learn the darker side of U.S. History from our Native American brothers and sisters.  Kelly Looking Horse and Basil Brave Heart also reinforced this, that we are all brothers and sisters, or the Lakota Phrase, Mitaukuye Oyasin, "we are all related."

I also think of the many children we engaged with during our two weeks at Pine Ridge, as it is a sacred time that Pastor Karen sets aside at the center for the children to come and play, simply being children.  The home lives of many of the children are not easy in any way, but the children show such joy when they are present.  They are eager to know us, engage with us, and put their struggles aside.  Hunger is also apparent, as Pastor Karen provides a meal for the children on Tuesday and Thursday every week.  For example, there were 38 children last night and 170 grilled cheese sandwiches made.  Not a sandwich was left.  The same thing Tuesday night.  Behavior is also not always perfect, even though there is a zero tolerance policy about bullying.  Many of the boys will act in an aggressive manner and try to establish a pecking order, and occasionally a pushing match might ensue.  But it is handled quickly, and Pastor Karen handles it with a stern grace.  Even one of the nights, one of the children had a rock in his pocket to protect himself while walking over.  Observing patterns of behavior was also illuminating, seeing signs of psychological trauma and other issues.  But, the most important part was that this is a safe place and a refuge. 

In the coming days, where do we go from here?  How do we repent for acts of violence and murder in the history of the American West, particularly Sand Creek and Wounded Knee?  How do we repent for taking away land that is sacred?  Some questions I am sure I and others on this immersion will be wrestling with in the days to come. 

Beauty is What You Make of it...

So at last, our time together has come to an end and here I am sitting in the Rapid City Regional Airport waiting for my flight to Denver, in which I will then switch to a different airline and fly to DC.  As I wait, figure I would have a chance to record some thoughts.  Yesterday was another full day of activity, as we went up to Christ Episcopal Church on Red Shirt Mountain and listened to their pastor, Robert talk about his life on the Pine Ridge Reservation and growing up Lakota.  Rev. Robert's talk was similar to that of Kelly Looking Horse's, as there is still a great deal of lingering pain through the generations from Wounded Knee and that there is still a great distrust of the U.S. government and rightfully so.  Promises have been made and broken time and again, land is given and taken away time and again.  So it is easy to see the frustration in the faces and hear it in the voices of the elders in the Lakota Nation.  But, there is a full trust in God among the population which is over 80% Christian and there is a strong sense of community and kinship among the people.  The church that we were at was once again taking a step back in time, no indoor plumbing and wood burning stoves.  But the views were quite spectacular, as Red Shirt Mountain is also the site of Taize that happens every few years.  We then had a nice lunch of soup with fry bread followed by Wojabe, which is a soup made from berries and choke cherries. 

Following our time at Christ Episcopal Church, we spent time driving through the badlands and while bad is in the title, it is a sight to behold, all of God's creation. It really amazes me how we have a diverse landscape in the United States.  While some people might think that South Dakota is bleak, dull, stark, and boring, it could not be further from the truth.  There is a beauty in the land and a diversity in the different landscapes, from plains, to rolling hills, plateaus, and mountains.  Each of these landforms are also a metaphor in how this immersion has been.  We could look at the poverty, the rickety modular homes all scattered around and feel sorry, or we can see through the eyes of our neighbors.  Yes, life is hard for many of them.  There is an exceptional unemployment rate.  There are numerous gangs that fight over territory, as well as high alcohol and drug use.  But there is also hope in their eyes and many do the best that they can and do not spend time feeling sorry for themselves.  Many sell their artwork, work in the stores in the different towns of the reservation, teach school, or receive assistance from the U.S. Government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  There have been peaks, there have been valleys, there have been plateaus, and rocky roads.  But the resilience of the Lakota people is amazing in my eyes, making the most of what they have.  But it has also been about what we make of beauty, and beauty is certainly what you make of it. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winding Down

These last two days have had so much happening and so much going on that it has been hard to keep up here in the blogosphere.  While we have had our share of down time to reflect and relax, we have had plenty to keep us busy.  Yesterday, after hearing stories from Norma, one of the residents of Pine Ridge, we headed up to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse up in the Black Hills.  Although I was excited to see Mount Rushmore (we were supposed to Saturday, but the van broke down), I had mixed feelings about it after seeing the movie "Skins" which was filmed at Pine Ridge in 2002.  To the Lakota people, the construction of Mount Rushmore, while an impressive feat, was akin to tearing a gash out of the Lakota people's land.  To some, it was more an act of desecration.  Land is sacred and much of the Black Hills is an integral part in the Lakota creation story.  In fact, I keep thinking of the end of "Skins" where red paint is thrown on George Washington's face.  Although we did not see any red paint, nor were there any crowds, as it was early in the week and in the off-season.  Plus the drive up was quite scenic and as I have pointed out, there is a beauty in the starkness of the land. 

Crazy Horse is also an impressive sight, as it is a sculpture that is still in progress since 1949 and nowhere near completion.  I first heard about this while finishing my BA at Sacramento State in Images of America with Dr. Jackie Donath.  Dr. Donath showed the series, "American Visions: Wilderness and the West" and saw a clip about Crazy Horse.  As described by one of our speakers, it is an antithesis to Mount Rushmore.  A more detailed description about Crazy Horse can be read here. However, I doubt it will be completed in my lifetime, but we shall see. 

Today, we mostly worked around the center and in the neighborhood, then headed out to Oglala Lakota College and visited the history center there.  It really hit home the impact of Wounded Knee and how much work we have to do to repent for the pain that was caused at Wounded Knee and in healing relationships, as the hurt still lingers through generations of our Lakota brothers and sisters.  But most of all, our time together is still winding down and to be very honest, I'm still trying to process everything, even to some degree why I am here, but it's obviously where God wanted me to go because had I not known of this immersion, I would have been oblivious to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota Nation.  At this time tomorrow, I'll be packed and ready to return to Washington, DC on Friday morning.  I am sure I will be processing this more as I reflect on my way back to Washington, DC on Friday night.  It really has been a roller coaster of feelings and emotions while here, but looking forward to expanding upon my observations and reflections very soon. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Teach Your Children Well

As I sit to write tonight, how has it already been a whole week since arriving to Pine Ridge?  While it has been a week, so much has happened and admit it has been a little overwhelming at times with all the information being presented to us and so much to process.  I feel tired, both physically and emotionally, my back and shoulders hurt (Ibuprofin is my best friend), but our time will be over before we know it and amidst these feelings, must persevere because it is important to have this exposure and see things that many people, including those in our government will not see, or even choose not to see.  After all, the Apostle Paul says that pain and suffering produce endurance, which is all part of this race of faith.  

We had three speakers today, but the common thread has been going away for a time and returning to the reservation because each speaker felt like they were needed, even though it meant being in the midst of poverty, 75-80% unemployment, less than adequate or overcrowded housing which can lead to conflict, and high rates of drug use and alcoholism.  Just so much to process, but amidst all the hardships, there is a sense of purpose and a sense of hope that runs through each of them, especially for the next generation. 

Our first speaker, Pinky talked about a program that teaches saving money and financial planning and how it will help teenagers and young adults in the long run.  Following Pinky's talk, we headed to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center where Henry Red Cloud has been using solar power and finding ways to harness renewable energy sources in buildings and efficient building materials.  I look forward to sharing a little more, but you can read a little more here at http://www.lakotasolarenterprises.com/RCREC/RCREC.htm

Then tonight, Will Peters, his daughter, and oldest grandson joined us for a discussion and I think the most poignant part was talking about being there for our children and future generations.  We need to teach our children by being good role models ourselves.  According to Will, teenage suicide is a problem, plus overcrowded living conditions do not help.  So, these are some small snippets from today, but heading to bed and look forward to expanding more soon!! 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Of Buffalo Calf Woman and Where Two or Three Are Gathered

 "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18: 20, NRSV)

Yesterday and today have been a day of contrasts, as we have made it through one week of our immersion with the Lakota people at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  Yesterday morning started off uneventful with our usual breakfast and devotion before heading off to feed buffalo and hear the legend of the white buffalo calf woman.  The white buffalo calf woman is one of the legends of Lakota culture and our guide, Darren told us that when a white buffalo calf is born, it is a sign of prosperity in which his family was lucky to have two born at his ranch, although both have since died (Rainbow was still a calf when she died, but has been preserved to share the legend).  Before hearing the legend of the white buffalo calf woman, we were invited to a circle and Darren and his daughter came around with a smoldering sage brush to smudge each of us, in which we wafted the smoke over us to lift the bad spirits from us then told us the legend, which can also be read about here at http://kstrom.net/isk/arvol/buffpipe.html.  It was one of the most fascinating tales, but also shows how sacred the buffalo is to the Lakota culture.  The buffalo themselves were quite a sight to behold, such strong and powerful animals, although never bend down in front of one (that's a challenge to them) or turn your back on them either.

 Following our return to the retreat center, we then made a quick turnaround to go out to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, but things didn't quite work out with the van breaking down about 20 miles from the retreat center.  Thankfully, we were in front of the Oglala General Store and had good fellowship while waiting for the van from Wartburg and Pastor Karen to arrive to pick us up.  Instead, we watched the 2002 film, Skins which was also filmed at Pine Ridge and highlighted many of the problems the Lakota face then had book discussion and talking circle.  Plus dinner was an interesting experience with Indian tacos, which used fry bread instead of tortillas and was beyond filling! 

Today was church day, so we had multiple options to attend.  I decided to go this afternoon with Pastor Karen and several others to St. John Episcopal, a very rural and quaint little church where Pastor Karen preaches at every other week.  The church had no running water inside, but a pump outside and had two outhouses instead of indoor plumbing, so does not get more rural than that.  The service was a traditional Episcopal Eucharist Rite II, but began with smudging and burning sage, much the same way the Catholic mass uses incense.  Although there were eight of us present, God was still present.  "Where two or three are gathered" kept going through my mind.  Although many of the Lakota people present would have their heads down, they were attentive, as this is their way of paying attention.  Eye contact is also something that is not practiced in Lakota culture, something Basil Brave Heart pointed out Friday morning.  The church was also like taking a step back in time, as it was built in the 1800's, although was moved to its present location from Wounded Knee.  No sound system or video system to deal with, but just a warm, wood burning stove, a desolate prairie, and our presence was good enough.  Today, it was about being part of the community and we were warmly welcomed by the members of the church, and appreciated the hospitality and simplicity.  And even though the landscape is stark and barren, there certainly is a beauty in it.  

Friday, January 9, 2015

A No Longer Relevant Gospel????

Today was an involved day with talking time and an inspiring talk by Basil Brave Heart, one of the Lakota elders who came to visit with us.  Basil's talk focused more on the spiritual life that he experiences, but one thing that really caught my attention and something I have been wrestling with was how he mentioned that "the Gospel is no longer relevant." While this might ruffle some feathers, Basil said it was not a statement of disrespect, but was pointing more to the Western culture and how people, both young and middle aged no longer embrace or live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as they "are walking away from the Gospel in droves." As Western culture becomes increasingly secularized, I can see Basil's point.  In fact, ten years ago when I was taking the class, "Images of America" with Dr. Jackie Donath at Sacramento State, we would watch a series called "Primal Mind" which juxtaposed Native American culture with Western culture and the topic of religion happened to be one of the episodes.  The narrator, Jamake Highwater would talk about how Native Americans have a deep spirituality and that there is a divinity in everything, something I saw in our discussion with Basil.  He would take a glass of water and before drinking a drop, would consecrate the water.  However, he also talked a lot about finding the center of divinity in all that we look at, something I'm not entirely sure we do as much of in Western culture.  But the best way to bring the Gospel back to relevancy is how we live it, how we take care of those who are the least of these, whether it is a listening ear, offering someone food or coffee on the street, as he said we could easily be handing that cup of coffee to Jesus.  I look forward to sharing more about Basil's presentation and expanding on this soon!!

We then went to the Red Cloud Indian School just outside of the township Pine Ridge, although still on the reservation.  The school was founded by Chief Red Cloud and the Jesuits in 1877 and was originally a boarding school, but is no longer today.  The campus also included an art gallery which had a number of artifacts and paintings by local artists.  However, I did fall in love with the chapel, Holy Rosary Catholic Church which offers a daily mass and is a building of natural light and knotted pine.  The building was re-constructed in 1997 after fire destroyed the original chapel, although the baptismal font and mantle in the front survived and are a part of the current building.

Then this evening, most of the group attended the basketball game between Pine Ridge High School and Red Cloud High School.  It was quite a sight seeing so many people, probably around 1,000 at the game and with so much energy.  We watch the freshman, JV, and Varsity squads, which most people stayed for all three games.  The display of sportsmanship was also impressive, although Pastor Karen told us when we returned that it was not always the case.

As bed awaits, we will be feeding buffalo tomorrow, then heading to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.  It is hard to believe that almost one week has already flown by, with more adventures that await. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Art and Hope in the Midst of Poverty

After a whirlwind first couple days, these last two days have been relatively low-key compared to Monday.  Tuesday was spent mostly working around the center on projects, playtime and worship with the kids, dinner, then talking time.  Our work included offloading three pallets of coats, blankets, and other supplies, then a new pool table for the rec room where the kids play.  The old pool table was getting worn and wobbly, becoming a safety hazard.  Meanwhile, two teams went out to houses on the reservation to help put plastic over windows or help put sheet rock over a hole in a wall of another house.  I helped around the center and assembled the new pool table and clean/organize.  Cleaning/organizing will be an ongoing project, although Pastor Karen also said the relationship building was more important than the work itself and she is right.  I also got the keyboard out and then found out at 2pm, I would be playing for an impromptu wedding, which ended up being very beautiful and simple with many of us being the witnesses.  The couple had already been to the tribal office and after a quick meeting with Pastor Karen, the wedding was underway, followed by a short reception with cake.

We also got to meet a number of people who came by the center throughout the day, as the center is also a place to grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich, a coat, gloves, and blankets.  It is a valuable mission site for the people of Pine Ridge, as the level of poverty here is alarming.  Many residents are on a fixed income and lucky to get $150/month.  Gas, propane, heat, and food are all expensive here, which drives the poverty level up.  But time and again, the children show us a great time and such joy when they come to the center, yet the center is a refuge for them too, as they kids embrace all who stay here and love Pastor Karen too.  It is an escape for them for an hour to escape impoverished lives, yet they do not show it when they are here.

The evening presentation was a demonstration by Valery Brown Eyes on quilling, which involves making bracelets out of buck skin and porcupine quills.  However, unlike Kelly Looking Horse, Valery had a much more optimistic and positive tone in her talk, as she really enjoys sharing her story.  Like many others in the Native American community, she escaped alcoholism and has been using her art of quilling as a means of income and as a spiritual practice.  But, she also had a lot more optimistic view of life, not dwelling on the fact that she too lives in poverty and shared her faith story.  She did not dwell as much on Wounded Knee, although acknowledged the tragedy that took place in 1890 and the standoffs between the American Indian Movement and FBI in the 1970's.  Instead, she talked of how her art gave her peace and a sense of hope and a strong faith despite setbacks.  However, it was pointed out that drug use, alcohol, and gang activity on the reservation contribute to the poverty level and dim outlook shared by many.  Due to connectivity issues, I was unable to post about yesterday, so this ends up being a double blog posting.

Today was also rather low-key, as the weather was "warm" in the 30's before plummeting back down.  Pastor Karen was called away to perform a funeral at 2pm, although I ended up spending the day writing, as I am contributing a couple articles to Worship Arts Magazine for the March/April edition.  I was also in a lot of pain from my shoulders and back, as the cold weather is not kind on joints, nor are the beds.  Now I know how Jacob felt using a stone for his pillow, although try sleeping on a stone.  The highlight was bonding with some of the locals who joined us for breakfast and coffee, playtime and worship with the kids, as I got to help lead worship and singing tonight.  The kids are such enthusiastic participants too, especially as we talked about baptism with them.  Following dinner, Kevin Poor Bear gave us a demonstration and talk, sharing his story of overcoming alcoholism and turning his life to God and using the artistic talents God gave him to mentor children and teach them in art.  He also did not dwell too much on Wounded Knee but instead talked about the need to move on from Wounded Knee.  Although he did talk a lot about people's struggle and the need for positive influences (i.e. the art) and turning lives to Jesus Christ.  He did remind me of and even reference the late painter Bob Ross as he created three pastel drawings. 

As my friend Carrie and I walked through the local grocery store to get food for Friday night's dinner (as we are cooking lasagna), the prices were outrageous and is what is one of the factors driving poverty here, as fixed income, high prices for basic needs, limited supply, and no money coming back into the reservation are all factors.  It is also mentioned in each presentation we have heard and in the artists coming by in hopes we would consider buying their goods, which is their livelihood for the most part.  In seeing the work that the center does, it also makes me wonder what we in the church can do better to help others deal with poverty in our own neighborhoods.  How can we show hospitality to our neighbors and welcome them in just like Jesus did?  How can we be hope in a place whose people do not always share a sense of hope? 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The First Days

As part of Wesley Theological Seminary's requirement for graduation, we are required to take part in an intercultural immersion to experience Christianity from another viewpoint/perspective.  A lot of people may wonder why it is necessary, but I believe there is a purpose somewhere behind it, as it is a matter of keeping an open mind and objectivity, as well as being open to the Holy Spirit and God's work.  For my immersion, I chose to go on the immersion with the Lakota at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota at the Lutheran/Presbyterian Shared Ministry led by Rev. Karen Rupp. 

Although today is only the second day of the ten day immersion, it feels like it has been much longer because so much has already happened.  Although yesterday was low-key with a scenic drive to the reservation from the airport, we did have a great orientation with fourteen of us altogether, seven from Wesley and seven from Wartburg Seminary in Iowa.  From the get-go, everyone has a story, I am grateful for each person here and what they bring to this experience.  We ended our first night together watching the film, Thunderheart which was filmed at Pine Ridge and based around events that happened in the 1970's between the American Indian Movement and FBI. 

Today was a very powerful day, as we were with Kelly and Suzie Looking Horse.  Kelly is one of the few remaining full-blooded Lakota and it was fascinating listening to his stories and his experiences.  After breakfast and morning devotions, we joined Kelly on a walk down the main drag to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office and met superintendent Cleve Her Many Horses, then went to the tribal office of the Oglala Tribal Nation and met with the tribal president.  Throughout the day, we heard three different viewpoints, although the relationship between the BIA and tribal council can be on the contentious side, then add Kelly's perspective and you get a whole other viewpoint.  Kelly pointed out the many broken promises by the U.S. government and how the tribal council and BIA do not do as much as they can to help the Oglala and Lakota people.  Kelly was quite passionate at many times, which amplifies my empathy and helplessness that I cannot do more to help alleviate the poverty that we are witnessing. 

The cemetery where the mass grave of those killed int he Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890 was overwhelming.  Especially poignant was the prayer that Kelly led, which also included an offering of tobacco to the deceased.  The bitter cold and bleak day made things even more poignant and reflected the somber mood.  The hardest thing was also seeing people come to try and sell goods, which is their livelihood and feeling bad that I really cannot buy anything because I don't have much to give myself.  We then proceeded to KIRI radio, which is the main radio station at the reservation and each got a chance to talk on air and why we were here, thanking the people and Pastor Karen for welcoming us. 

As I write this, I am still continue to process everything that has happened so far.  One highlight has been welcoming children from Pine Ridge to the retreat center for playtime, ranging from 3-13 so far.  They have embraced us all and amidst the hardship they may face, they have so much joy and energy.  I look forward to sharing more along the way with all of you.  Thank you all for the prayers and financial contributions so far. 

"Sky - Dominion & Exploitation" from "Season of Creation," Sermon, September 16, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy “Season of Creation: Sky – Dominion & Exploitation” Rev. Andrew Davis September 16, 2018 Psalm 19   ...