On Sunday March 9, our seminarian Lindy Bunch presented a forum on her trip to Pine Ridge, SD in January.
During my time in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, I was privileged to learn from and build relationships with folks from the Oglala tribe who live on the reservation. The county holds the dubious honor of being the poorest county in America. As such, it is wracked with the problems common to chronic poverty, such as addiction, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, abuse, and hunger. I had never been to a Native American reservation, but was excited and open to the experience. However, nothing in my previous work prepared me for what happened at our retreat center nearly everyday at 4pm.
Children’s time occurred 6 days a week. Every Tuesday and Thursday, included a dinner and worship time. This meant that the pastor (and us) had to prepare food for anywhere between 10-40 kids, somehow fit them all into the retreat center (the dining space is nowhere near big enough for 40 kids), and then also plan worship and participate in play time. For me, this was the most challenging aspect of the immersion.
I don’t enjoy being around kids. I like them, but I don’t feel called to be a youth minister. Large groups of kids stress me out and I often find them tedious and tiring. (Not saying this is right, but just how I feel). When I found out that this was part of our daily responsibility while at the center, I was horrified. While some of my classmates waxed on about how they saw Jesus in the face of the children, all I could think about was how loud they were and how they somehow always end up being sticky.
It was really the last day with the kids that moved me the most. Up until this point, I didn’t feel that I was connecting all that much with them (certainly not as much as some of my other classmates), so I was surprised when a few of them really clung to me. One girl in particular had been hanging around me for several days. We played ping pong, talked about her stuffed animal, and whatever else she felt compelled to play. As we said goodbye to them for the last time, she hugged me and just stayed put. Suddenly, I was aware of how much my attention might have meant to her. I found myself asking, “When was the last time she was hugged by a safe adult?” Her affection touched me. My only regret from the trip is that I didn’t tell her how smart and beautiful she is—I worry that people won’t say that to her enough as she grows up on the reservation.
What about these children? What of the young people who don’t get hugged enough or loved enough? Where will they go to find a safe place, and how will they grow to understand the love God has for them? Because these young people grow into adults, and then the cycle is at high risk of repeating itself. As Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Thus, in spite of my reticence to engage with the youth at the reservation, they were a powerful reminder to me of the importance of children’s ministry. How we value our children now must be very close to the heart of God, to the heart of Jesus who said “Let the little children come to me.” I must continue to remind myself of this when I feel frustrated or stressed by children’s ministry.