It is tempting, when thinking about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Wanblee, SD, which was the site of our mission trip this past week, to see only statistics. Things like:
- Unemployment is 85%
- Per capita income is $4,500
- Suicide rate is twice the national average, and teen suicide is FOUR times the national average
- Alcoholism rate is estimated to be 80%
- Life expectancy is the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only Haiti has a lower rate.
- Diabetes is eight times the national average and for heart disease, it is double the rate nationally.
- Many homes are the size of a small trailer from a trailer court and many don’t have electricity or running water.
Sometimes, we only see the statistics, which are so stark, grave, and disturbing.
But this is what I saw:
- I saw little kids from Wanblee run up to our youth and others and give hugs, ask for piggy back rides, and smile.
- I saw kids who just wanted to be loved and who gave love in return.
- I saw a girl, Jean, who is three, whose smile was so bright it would melt the polar ice caps.
- I saw someone who was so grateful for our help getting their trailer repaired that they brought a note and a cake as a thank you. He will put his other seven family members into that trailer.
- I saw a man who was successful off the reservation who came back to make a difference in the lives of his people, one person at a time.
- I saw youth who, despite bitterly cold showers and sleeping on air mattresses in crowded rooms, gave their hearts and their strength to the people and who never whined and complained.
- I saw youth who, despite not all being in the same social circles, treat each other with respect and reach out to people different than themselves.
- I saw looks and smiles of gratitude from adults who were thankful we were there.
- I saw a Youthworks staff member break down because she was so thankful for our work, our attitude, and our faith that it reminded her why she was doing what she was doing.
- I saw amazing countryside, amazing sunsets and sunrises, and the beauty of a rainbow.
- I saw youth who didn’t want to leave, whose hearts were breaking when they left the people and kids of Wanblee.
- I saw Jesus. I saw Jesus everywhere.
There are times in life, even for a person like me, when an experience cannot be summed up in words. It can’t be summed in pictures. It cannot be adequately expressed, it can only be felt and lived. Our time in Wanblee was one of those times. The shared experiences I had with our amazing youth and adults are something that I will carry with me every day. It is something they will carry with them every day as well.
But mostly, I will remember all the ways I saw Jesus at work in and through our youth, in and around that community, in and through the adults present. And for that, I will always be thankful. Because despite the statistics, despite the harshness and pain that exists there, God is there. And God is doing good things. Thanks be to God!