The Mission Trip
(The following was written for the newsletter of the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato)
The Red Lake (Chippewa) Reservation is located in northwestern Minnesota. The lake is the largest in Minnesota (other than Lake Superior), and, as it turns out, is quite stunning to look out upon. The reservation was the destination for our just completed mission trip. Eleven of us (nine children and two adults) left church on Sunday morning (July 13), with only a vague notion of what was in store for us over the next week. Ostensibly, the idea was to help out the residents of the reservation, but it became much more than that.
To review briefly, we were able to go on this trip only because of the extreme generosity of the membership at the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato. Without your help, the trip would not have happened.
The first lesson occurred when Pam (the other chaperone) and I both discovered we could drive 15 foot vans. The second lesson we learned was that everyone needed to keep their shoes on their feet while we traveled. When we stopped for lunch, the kids all surrendered their electronic devices for the week. This was accompanied by shocked faces and bewildered expressions of protest. One would have thought they hadn't been told MANY times that this was going to happen. I believe that 'unplugging' for the week was the first, of many, significant events for the children.
We arrived at the Red Lake Middle School at 4:45 pm, and what do you know - it looked like a school! (which, I believe, was reassuring to the kids). We were the first of three different church groups to arrive, so we had first choice of sleeping quarters. Soon, however, the other two groups arrived. One group was from a Methodist church in Omaha. They consisted of 28 kids and eight adults. The second group of 12 kids and 2 adults came from a Lutheran church in central Wisconsin. All in all, we were quite ecumenical, and by the end of the week, a transition had occurred that changed the kids from three smaller groups into one large group. It is difficult to explain the significance of this transition, but it was emotionally powerful to watch the youth from our church embrace this change.
As to the work itself, we were kept plenty busy. The first two days, we did what are called 'work projects'. Among the tasks we accomplished were helping get the elementary school ready for the Fall, preparing a house for painting, applying a final coat of paint to another home. We also did a lot of weeding and window washing at the local assisted living and women's centers. The other two days we spent time with the local children at the reservation's Boys and Girls Club. We facilitated "Water Day" on Wednesday (where it will not surprise you to learn that everyone ended up wet!). On Thursday we organized reading, arts & crafts, and games for the children. Every task our youth were given was completed with good spirits (and only a minimal amount of whining - they are teenagers, after all!).
It's an interesting juxtaposition that the local children loved having our youth there to play with them, but also exhibited many challenging behaviors at the same time. This point, of course, serves to highlight many if the unique struggles of live on the Reservation. There are extreme levels of poverty and unemployment. There are also high levels of drug abuse, alcoholism, obesity, gang activity, teen pregnancy, and violence against women. There are also significant numbers of suicides and murders. The Reservation high school has an 8% graduation rate. The parish priest, Father Jerry, also describes a sense of lethargy and entitlement that exists among the people. He attributes this to the learned helplessness that accompanies the poverty that continues from one generation to the next.
But we also witnessed small glimpses of hope. I watched one twelve year-old boy, standing tall and proud, as he drummed and sang along with his uncle. It was easy to imagine him as a future leader. We had many conversations with the local folks, and they couldn't be more kind or generous. One of my favorite moments came when we were washing windows at the extended care center. A few of the residents were watching "The Price is Right" in the common room. We stopped working for the moment to watch if a woman was going to win a car. As silly as it sounds, it pointed out the many similarities that we share - we were all interested in how it would turn out. (She lost, and all of us derided her efforts - another commonality!). When a young child would climb in your lap with a book that he or she wanted read, it was hard for your heart to not melt a little bit.
Many of the problems that the people of Red Lake face can only be fixed from within. There is still a tangible sense of pride and a subtle suspicion of the 'outside' world. Whatever it is that will help fix things, it needs to come from the people themselves. However that does not mean there is nothing we can do. Our church alone supplied enough materials to stock one elementary school classroom for the entire year. Assistance like this allows the Red Lake District to focus on other important issues that face the children of the Reservation. It is also important for our own spiritual growth that we reach out to support these people. This is the type of work that Jesus Christ commanded us to do.
We arrived back home at 4:15 pm on Friday, July 18. We were tired, but pleasantly so. It is the fatigue that accompanies a job well done. The electronic devices had already been returned to the youth and they were already assimilating back into their 'normal' lives. If you ask them about the mission trip, many of them will probably say it was "OK" or "yeah, I had a good time" without a great deal of enthusiasm. I understand that - it is a teenager's defense against appearing 'uncool' (God forbid). But I was there, and I saw the positive changes that occurred in all of them. Some of these things are privileged, so I'll just ask for you to trust me. Please remember that experiences like this go a long way in developing an active spiritual life in our youth, the future of the church. It was a privilege to be with them in Red Lake.