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The Good, the Ugly, and the Bad(lands)

Overlooking the beauty that is Badlands National Park this summer, I remember feeling at peace. Our group of 50 spread across the breathtaking landscape and took about 15 minutes to just sit in silence, take in the sights, and reflect on our expectations for the week ahead.

Yet this time of reflection and awe came at a price—a price that I was not aware of until later that evening.

That night, our group listened as a Lakota Native American shared his people’s troubling story.

He told us how the  Pine Ridge Indian reservation that we would be serving that week had one of the highest poverty rates in all of the U.S.

...How for the third week in a row, the tribal celebration had been canceled because a teenaged member of the tribe had committed suicide.

...How not long ago he tried to take just 10 children to the Badlands and the ranger made him and the group of children feel unwelcome because of their race. He added that if he had taken a group our size there, they would have been turned away with no hesitation.

That hit me hard. Never before had I been so aware of the benefits I am receiving at the cost of someone else. Where else am I benefiting without even realizing it?

I spent every day that week learning more about Lakota culture. We visited a few of the trailers on the reservation and put skirting around them for insulation. A different speaker joined us every evening to share a new aspect of the people’s story.

We visited sites of historical trauma too. We heard about the horrors that took place during the Wounded Knee massacre at the very site where this tragedy occurred. We visited a Christian boarding school and heard how children were forced to learn English and abandon everything from their own culture. Even more importantly, we learned how Native Americans are suffering still today.

As I wrestled with all of this troubling information, I asked myself what role God played in these Christian boarding schools—a mission opportunity gone horribly wrong. How could he be present among this racism and greed?

I found part of my answer a few months after leaving the reservation. Wanting to explore the topic further, I read “My Walk of Faith,” the story of Ernest Benally and how he left his Navajo home for a Christian school similar to the one that I visited.

This method of mission work understandably makes a lot of Native Americans bitter toward the Christian faith still today. I met some of these people on my trip. Yet, for Ernest, God used frustrating encounters with prejudice to (SPOILER ALERT) eventually help Ernest discover his role in the CRC—a role that challenged the role of missionaries.

Reading about and experiencing just a small glimpse into Lakota culture opened up a flood of new thoughts and ideas about the history of the US as I’ve known it. It made me think more about the choices I make and the consequences that come from those choices. Yet I’ve also learned the mystery of God's action even in the midst of these bad choices.

What about you? I intentionally waited a few months to write this post to see which lessons have stuck with me after this short mission trip. What have the people that you have served taught you?


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