Summer is nearly here and for gardeners, at least in the north, we’re starting to think about and plan which seeds we will plant and dream about the harvests that will fill our tables.
At Lutheran Indian Ministries, we’re planning and dreaming about seeds as well, seeds of faith planted and nurtured in the hearts of our Native brothers and sisters.
Jesus told the disciples, to be his witnesses, “In Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) While this verse was a geographical instruction to Jesus’ disciples to share the Good News of Jesus’ live, death, and resurrection, it could also be instructions to step out of our comfort zone. If Jerusalem is what we know, our local community, the end of the earth is foreign and unknown but still desperately needing salvation through Jesus Christ.
This summer, volunteers from all over the United States will travel to the end of the earth, in a way. The reservations of the United States and the rural villages of Alaska, though the same political country, might as well be the other side of the world. Many of these volunteers will experience a very foreign lifestyle: no running water or indoor plumbing, no local grocery stores, and, as is the case in rural Alaska, no cars and no nights!
Their job, in this “foreign” land, is to plant seeds, both physical and spiritual.
Illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, have risen sharply in Native communities due to the “Western Diet” introduced to the historically self-sufficient groups. Typically, the cheapest foods in the villages are those that are highly processed to increase shelf life. Basic commodities and fresh food are very expensive, and even then, they are not very fresh.
In years past, volunteers have been instrumental in planting community gardens and training Native communities on the importance of fresh, healthy food.
Volunteers in rural Alaska have held gardening workshops and demonstrations. They addressed issues related to the short growing season, planted vegetables for a local nursing home, and distributed thousands of seed packets.
Staff on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington assisted a local elder by building a raised garden in her yard that would be used to provide fresh vegetables for herself and her neighbors and provided training on how to store and preserve the food that is grown and gathered.
And in both cases, the leaders in the communities carried on these projects after the volunteers had left.
More community garden plots popped up, and neighbors helped each other store and can seasonal foods.
While trends in food consumption and the health of the Native people as a whole are problems, they pale in comparison to the spiritual illness in many communities.
One staff member explained: “I’d have to say the most pervasive illnesses I encounter, by far, are trauma and grief. The more I get to know the incredible people in our communities, the more I hear of devastating loss and abuse. I have yet to meet a person, of any age, that does not have a terrible story of tragic death, domestic violence, or substance abuse. I don’t say this to downplay the tragedies that happen everywhere, every day, but what is astounding is the sheer number of traumas that occur in each Native person’s life.”
By caring for the physical needs of the Native people first, we allow them a moment to breathe, to open their eyes and their hearts to the love and grace of Jesus, and for the spiritual seeds to be planted. But, unlike the vegetables planted outside the nursing home or in the elder’s backyard, these seeds are still ripening. Often volunteers may come and go and never know if the work they have done made a difference. However, every once in a while, we see the seeds they planted begin to sprout.
Every summer, Julie’s church group travels to a Native reservation 16 hours from her home church. Once the initial shock of life on a reservation wore off, Julie and her group began to build relationships with the people of the tribe. They now accept her as a friend and look forward to her return each year.
For that one, busy week each summer, Julie acts as teacher, song leader, crafter, recreational director, and whatever else life throws at her.
Last summer, she was called to act as a grief counselor.
One afternoon, Julie went for a walk along the river. Along the banks, she noticed one of the local elder’s, known to stay away from the church group when they visited, sitting alone and looking distraught. Julie respectfully asked the man if she could sit and enjoy the peacefulness of the surroundings with him.
After some time, the elder divulged the reason for his sadness. His niece had just committed suicide. When Julie found him, he was waiting for his sister to pick him up to travel to the young woman’s funeral.
“I just hope it rains tomorrow so people won’t be able to tell that I’m crying,” he confided while struggling to hold back the tears.
Torn by the knowledge that this man, in the past, wanted little to do with her and the need to reach out to him with the reassurance that Jesus is with us in our grief, she eventually, hesitantly, asked the man if she could pray with him before he left.
To her surprise, he nodded.
Julie bowed her head prayed for peace and strength for the man and his family as they grieved the loss of such a young member of the community. To close the prayer, she recited Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall in the heart of the sea.”
When Julie finished, she paused for a moment before lifting her head, worried that perhaps she had been to “church-y” for the man. But instead, the man looked her straight in the eye and said, “I’m glad you come here every year to share God’s love with my children.”
Volunteers have been traveling to Jacob’s village for four years. For the first three years, they worked to pursue a relationship with the troubled boy, talking to him, including him in all their activities, and cheering him on. But each year, Jacob clung to his anger and isolation.
Until last year.
Jacob began to notice that, despite his attempts to block out these visitors, they kept coming back, year after year, and they kept on trying to be his friend. He noticed that they were generous and giving without expecting anything in return. He noticed that as strange as it seemed, these strangers loved him, and he decided to give their Bible Study a genuine try.
By the end of their visit, he decided to give their Jesus a try, and his attitude began to change.
Jacob did not profess any great insights of faith, but it became evident to all of the volunteers that he was finally starting to “get it.”
“All of a sudden,” one volunteer explained, “this grumpy, angry boy was asking to help run activities and volunteering to act out scenes. It was like someone just turned him on!”
Jacob still had a long way to go. He had the daily temptations of life in a rural, Alaska village, but now he also had Jesus and group of fellow Christians he could rely on him to guide him.
Jo & Anita
Jo spotted Anita sitting in the corner while the other children busied themselves the day’s craft.
“I thought maybe she had arrived late and was afraid to join in, but as I got closer, I saw that she was crying,” she recalls. “I went over and knelt beside her. She was so beautiful with golden brown skin and black hair pulled neatly away from her face. Yet, her gentle eyes held such a profound sadness for such a little girl.”
Jo sat and talked with Anita for a few minutes before asking the reason for her tears. The little girl paused before she spoke and finally answered, “I miss my brothers.”
“Are they away for a job?” Jo asked.
Anita shook her head. “They hanged themselves last year,” she whispered through sniffles and more tears.
Sometimes, letting someone cry is all the response they need. So the volunteer wrapped the little girl in her arms and let her cry for her lost brothers.
As the week progressed, Anita’s smile began to emerge, and when it did it lit up the whole room.
When the day came for the volunteer group to leave, Anita approached Jo.
“Thank you for coming to visit us,” she started. “I’m sad that you are leaving, and I still miss my brothers, a lot. But you helped me make a new friend, Jesus, and he makes my heart not hurt so bad. And I know he’ll still be here when you leave.”
Planting the seeds
The work LIM volunteers do in Native communities is priceless.
They, along with the ministry staff of Lutheran Indian Ministries, touch countless lives with the love and grace of Jesus. They work as His hands and feet here on earth, in remote villages and on reservations. They plant and nurture the seeds of faith with the joyful expectation that the Holy Spirit will provide the growth.
It is stories like these, that they retell, that motivate us to reach more Native American’s with the love and hope of Jesus!
Meet the need, Plant the Seed
The needs of Native communities are wide and deep, but one of the biggest issues is the intergenerational trauma that plagues the Native people.
Grandparents were stripped of their culture and land, turning to alcohol to dull their pain leaving their children parentless and abused. In turn, those children had their own children and only knew how to parent as their parents had. This leaves of with a generation of children and young adults, burdened by the grief of their parents and grandparents, who also turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide to fix their situation. A generation without hope and without Jesus.
This April, numerous LIM ministry staff will be traveling to Anchorage to be trained in the Beauty for Ashes program, a program that provides a safe place for Native people to begin to talk about the abuses that occurred as a child and to begin to change the messages they tell themselves. It works to rebuild the family systems from the inside out. God tells us he can take the ashes of our lives, the damaged pieces, and bring beauty out of it. (Beauty for Ashes was the basis for the Safe Places Meetings in Navajo last fall.)
In addition to Beauty for Ashes, multiple LIM staff members are also be trained as Celebrate Recovery leaders, a Christ-centered recovery program that helps people dealing with all types of hurts, hang-ups, and habits.
With these two programs, LIM is able to pick up where our volunteers leave off. We are able to build upon the relationships and ties volunteers make, to reach out to the community exactly where they need it. We are able to assist in the healing of individuals, all the while pointing to Jesus Christ as our reason for hope and watering the seeds that have already been planted.
When Julie comes to us and tells us of the youth suicide, we are able to send a trained individual to help the family and community work through their grief.
When a group tells us about Jacob and his incredible transformation, we are able to invite him to Teen Camp where we can teach him how to deal with the stresses of village life and find strength in Jesus.
When Jo tells us the story of Anita, we are able to reach out to that community and begin the process of healing at its very core and find resources for the family as they move forward.