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Words of Witness/Sermon

6th Sunday after Pentecost

John 3:5-8

Spirit Lake Mission Team

Download the Words of Witness and Sermon (mp3)

Pastor Stacey:

So this group of 13 left Ann Arbor on June 18th in the wee, wee hours of the morning and flew west to North Dakota, where we went to the Spirit Lake Reservation, which is part of the Sioux Nation, both Dakota and Lakota live on the reservation. We went to work with United Methodist missionaries who have a Ministry Center there on the reservation.

Many of us in our congregation have been trying over the last little while to study and learn about issues of race in our country and very connected to issues of race are issues of colonialism and our whole history as a nation and also how religion plays into all of that. And we’ve been trying to come to terms with what it means to have privilege, to not have privilege, and the many difficult, long-term embedded systemic issues in all of that.

This is the second time we’ve had a youth mission team go to a reservation, and it’s a very eye-opening experience when you begin to learn some of the history and see the ongoing effects of the history of our nation with respect to indigenous peoples. So we can give statistics and facts and figures about any particular reservation, knowing that that is really just a snapshot of a long story of abuse and oppression and difficulties, challenges.

Spirit Lake Nation, like most reservations, covers a lot of land area but has a small population, fewer than 7000 people. And because there are so few people on so much land, there’s a lot of isoloation. And yet they struggle with many of the same issues that you would find in the inner city, but without the sort of infrastructure and resources that you would have in a city. Also, the statistics of the sorts of things that they grapple with go beyond what you would see in the inner city. At Spirit Lake, they have an unemployment rate of around 43%. They have huge issues with domestic abuse, and child abuse. They have drug issues that have risen to such epidemic proportions that the tribe, two years ago, actually declared a state of emergency. Not just use and abuse of drugs and addiction but the trafficking of drugs. Poverty and I would say almost a societal depression is endemic on this reservation, and this reservation is not unique among the reservations in that respect.

So these were some of the issues that were at play, and are at play, on the reservation. We weren’t going in order to fix poverty, drug addiction, abuse, or the long history of colonialism, privilege, and how religion plays into that. We were going to work with these missionaries with open hearts and open minds and to try to learn and to try to be a light and to know that we were just trying to be available to God’s Spirit and to see God already at work where we were going.

And now we want to share a little bit about that experience….

Today we are going to tell you a story about wind.

Reader 1: Jesus talked about wind. Once, in the middle of the night, a religious leader named Nicodemus came to him with questions.

Max: He was challenged by the fact that Jesus’ teaching conflicted with a lot of what Nicodemus and the other leaders were doing and saying. He was trying to understand.

Lucy: Jesus talked to him about the power of the Spirit of God, which is not something that people – even the people who think they’re in charge – can control.

Mali: He compared the Spirit to the wind.

Isaac: He said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Jeanette: It’s the same way with God’s Spirit. God acts in the ways God chooses to act, even when it doesn’t conform to our previous understandings or our current expectations.

Charlie: You can’t control the wind. You can fight it, or you can move with it. You can go against it or you can go with it. You can fear it or you can enjoy it.

Zac: It’s the same with God.

Sam: In North Dakota, there is a lot of wind.

Sydney: It was colder than we expected, and colder than we’d prepared for.

ALL: The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

 Barb: We sang and prayed the words, “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders.”

Greg: This is a prayer to have no limits on our trust, and to be willing to go where the Spirit blows.

Stacey: So we went to North Dakota, praying and trusting that God would lead us, fill us, and use us.

And here is what we did:

Max – An elder in the community, Miss Gloria, had fallen on her deck a few months ago, because it had been painted with the wrong paint. It was too slick. So we stripped, sanded, and repainted her deck, in a color of her choosing, with a paint that had some texture in it. And when we were done, we prayed a blessing over the deck and for Miss Gloria.

Isaac – But we were the ones who felt blessed.

Sydney – Some of us helped out with kids’ camp. Each afternoon, about 25 kids, ages 5 to 17, came to the Mission Center for a hot lunch, crafts, a lesson, a snack, and games. For some of the kids, it’s the only hot meal they get in a day. For some of them, it’s the only meal of any kind they get in a day.

Rob – The kids camp was hard for us. We were surprised because the kids weren’t very friendly. A lot of them didn’t seem to want us there. It wasn’t a very warm and fuzzy experience.

Barb – Later we learned more about the deep distrust that many people on the reservation have of white people. We knew that their tribe had suffered a lot at the hands of the American government over the centuries. What we didn’t know was that these sufferings are not just distant memories. There are people still on the reservation today who tell stories of the abuse they endured at boarding school. The boarding schools were run by churches, so the abuse they suffered wasn’t just from white people, it was from white religious people.

Zac – Like us.

Sam – We learned that it takes a long time to build trust when so much pain has been caused for so long. And five days in the community is not enough time for us to gain people’s trust.

Jeanette – In fact, Mike and Libby Flowers, the missionaries at the Spirit Lake Ministry Center, have been there nine years now, just developing relationships and offering help and support in any way they could. And it was only just last year that people from the tribe started coming to worship services there at the Ministry Center. It took eight years of Mike and Libby just trying to listen, to learn, and to love, before they had built that kind of trust.

Mali – So our presence at kids camp wasn’t about how it felt to us to be there, or about whether or not the kids there liked us. It was about help Mike and Libby continue to make a long-term investment in those relationships.

Greg – Even though the kids didn’t always act like they were happy we were there, I was surprised at how grateful the adults seemed to be to have us there. To me, it’s strange, given the history. For me, I don’t know if I would’ve been that welcoming. Especially given the level of neglect and disrespect our government has shown to them. I would be very bitter and I don’t know if I would be as welcoming.

Mali – But the community did welcome us.

Syd – And Miss Gloria was so kind and so grateful for our work.

Zac – I learned that some of the people there are not what people say they are. Miss Gloria. We showed her and her community that we really care about them, by doing this work for them. We showed them that Jesus loves them through our actions.

Sam – And we were reminded over and over again that Jesus loves us, too.

Barb: I saw the love of God in all the other people we met at the Ministry Center, who had come to help out. Everyone was just so kind.

Isaac: I saw the love of God in the determination of people to get work done.

Max: And in the trust the people had in letting us help them.

Sydney: I saw the love of God in the bison.

Rob: And in the horses.

Charlie: In nature, everywhere.

Lucy: I saw God at work in the strengthening of friendships among our youth.

Jeanette: And the adults!

Greg: I loved listening to the kids’ conversations while they were working.

Barb: I loved watching them talk at the end of the day.

Sam: God’s love for us – for all of us – came through in so many ways.

Stacey: Every day there – and every day here! – there is an invitation for us to experience God’s love and to look for how God is working and to follow God’s Spirit in the direction of that love.

ALL: The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Greg – On our last day, Pastor Mike took us to Mr. Joseph’s house. Mr. Joseph used to be on the tribal council that helped make the decision about who in the community needed help. He was the one that was in charge of getting the supplies to do the work for the people who needed help.

Lucy – But now, Mr. Joseph is the one who needs help.

Charlie – A few years ago, he discovered that the family members who were living with him were dealing drugs out of his house. He told them they couldn’t do that there and made them leave. Later, he had a series of strokes. His family did not come see about him. They abandoned him. Living alone, he has not been able to take care of his property. Junk has piled up in the yard. One of the teams spent the week making the long ramp into his house sturdier, and building railings along it to keep him from falling.

Sydney – Our team went to his house and loaded up all the junk from his yard. Lots and lots of junk – a treadmill, big car parts, broken windows. We hauled it away for him, and took it to the dump.

Mali – It was really windy there.

Zac – Sometimes when the Spirit of God blows, it pushes you into places you’ve never been before – like the dump – to do things you’ve never done before – like haul trash.

Charlie – When the Spirit of God blows, sometimes you discover that you are stronger than you knew.

Isaac – When the Spirit of God blows, even taking out the trash can be an act of love and kindness.

ALL: The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

 Sydney: I felt like it was really sad that Mr. Joseph’s whole family abandoned him. He stood up to them when they were selling drugs, but the consequences were that they weren’t there for him when he needed them. He did the right thing, but he didn’t know what the future would be.

Stacey: We were all really struck by this. That sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel good. Sometimes sad and difficult things happen because we chose to do the right thing.

Barb: It was the right thing for us to spend time with children, to simply be an attentive and loving presence, even when they acted like they didn’t want us there. It was the right thing, even though it didn’t feel good.

Jeanette: We were just playing our small role as part of a much larger mission.

Max: We don’t get to see what good things will happen in the lives of those children. We simply trust that, when we do the right thing, God uses our efforts in ways beyond what we can see.

ALL: The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Stacey – When we went to Mr. Joseph’s house, we got to spend time talking with him. Because of his strokes, he is not able to speak very clearly, and it can be hard to understand what he’s saying. But he was undeterred. He really wanted to talk with us, and specifically to know more about each of us. He asked us about our heritage – wanted to know our native roots. We were calling out our basic Anglo backgrounds, “Scottish, Irish, English, German,” and one, “Thai and Burmese.” And I told Mr. Joseph that most of us in the group, like many white Americans, had family stories of Native American ancestry in our background, but that most of us didn’t have details and or really any proof. And Mr. Joseph said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Indian is in your heart.” And he pointed to his heart. He said Indian is like God. God is everywhere, but God can also be in your heart, if you choose. And I was so struck by the power and grace he was sharing with us. It’s so easy for white Americans to have romantic notions of Native Americans, and to wish that we could lay claim to some of their mystique, without having had to suffer the horrors of the history. Instead of condemning that, Mr. Joseph offered this beautiful testimony to kinship, and to the reality that we can make the choice to belong to each other, in our hearts, and in our actions.

Isaac – If being Native American is a matter of internal attitude and outward choices, then the question is: what does it mean to be Native American?

Rob – There are lots of answers to that, of course. But one thing we saw that it means at Spirit Lake is community.

Max – We saw it in how the tribal council makes sure the most vulnerable in the community are taken care of. We saw it in how they passed this care on. When Joseph was strong, he was the one helping take care of the weak. Now that he is weak and vulnerable, others are making sure he is taken care of, and we got to be a part of that.

Sam – One night, we had a “culture night.” An elder came and spoke with our group, and drummers and dancers from the tribe performed. Drumming is a form of prayer, and so is the dancing. And they shared their prayer and their community with us.

Lucy – Afterwards, I talked with one of the dancers. She is in college, studying environmental science. She told me her goal when she is done is to come back to Spirit Lake and focus her work on protecting the bison herd there. She said, “I want to do something that’s important and lasting in my community.” In the same way, the drummers were also working on something lasting in their community. The drummers – all men – had their children up there with them, some very young. And they invite the kids to come and sit with them and hold the instruments and help sing and they teach the boys the songs. They did all this while they were actually performing. I felt like that’s not something we do. If we’re going to have a performance as adults, the kids are not going to be up there, they would be sitting quietly and watching. But at Spirit Lake it was, “We’re going to perform for you but we’re going to be teaching our kids at the same time.” They were working to take care of the future in their community.

Stacey: On our last night at Spirit Lake, we had a worship service with the other teams who had come to help. Pastor Mike preached, and he told us the story of a work project he and a team had done a previous summer. They had gone to a particularly troubled part of the reservation, a small community with a lot of drug and crime problems, and they had put together a playground.

Jeanette: It was a challenging project, with a very small team of people working on it, and it almost didn’t get completed.

Mali: As the team completed it, a lot of the children in the area began coming out of the homes to see the new playground equipment.

Zac: It had six big slides and lots of towers and places to climb.

Charlie: When the team had finished the playset, a boy came up to Libby. He had saggy pants, a baseball cap on sideways, and he walked with a swagger.

Rob: And the boy said to Libby, “Why are you doing this? We’re just Indians.”

Greg: The pain beneath the problems, and the history behind the problems Native American communities currently face is more than we can fix or even comprehend.

Barb: But the good we can do when we follow God’s Spirit is also more than we can comprehend or imagine.

Lucy: This isn’t true just for special mission trips. It’s for every day, right where we are.

Stacey: There is so much pain in the world. But there is so much power, too. That power is the power of God’s Spirit, to do good, to do love, to do justice, to do kindness, to do more than we can imagine, through you and me.

ALL: The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Stacey: The Dakota people have a beautiful prayer we’d like to close with. It goes like this:

Grandfather, Great Spirit, you have been always, and before you nothing has been, there is no one to pray to but you. The star nations all over the heavens are yours, and yours are the grasses of the earth. You are older than all need, older than all pain and prayer.

Grandfather, Great Spirit, look upon your children,… that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.

Grandfather, Great Spirit, fill us with the light. Give us with the light. Give us the strength to understand and eyes to see. Teach us to walk the soft earth, as relatives to all that live.

Help us, for without you we are nothing.