Do You See Anything? Reflections with MDS in Pine Ridge, South Dakota

I was unable to shake the quotes staring back at me in icy silence. Various quotes, printed on white copy paper, were haphazardly tacked onto the unpainted walls of the unfinished house which temporarily served as the MDS dining hall. Each quote jolted its reader reminding the context in which they were volunteering.

The MDS kitchen and lodge trailers were stationed on the 2.8 million acres which comprised the Pine Ridge Reservation. This open prairie was home to some thirty-eight thousand residents of the Oglala Lakota tribe of the Sioux Nation.

Oglala Lakota County residents have a life expectancy of 66.8 years with a median annual income of $8,768. These two stats put Oglala Lakota County in last place in the United States.

Oglala Lakota County is ranked the “poorest” county in America. Hardly the realization of the American dream.

The county also ranks dead last in South Dakota for quality of life and health behaviors.

Context matters.

In 2015, and again in 2016, straight line winds, tornados, hailstorms and floods severely damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes. These losses only compounded an existing shortage of housing for Pine Ridge residents. Most of the work MDS provides is among those who are economically challenged which typically means these families live in the most vulnerable and least protected places when a storm or disaster strikes.

Twenty-two volunteers hailing from Manitoba, Alaska, New York, Kansas, Oregon, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, became community for the week. We labored, sweated, and teamed together under the hot South Dakota sun. True to “Mennonite tradition,” skilled and unskilled hands quickly found their niches. Not a slacker could be found. Everyone worked together and worked hard. Much progress was evidenced each day.

The volunteers were distributed between two construction sites—a family home destroyed by the storms, and a large community center which will provide a fallout shelter and house the Pine Ridge Fire Company.

At the bookends of our busy days, we gathered corporately for breakfast and supper in the dining hall, with its bare plywood floor and unpainted spackled drywall. It was here where we were briefed in the morning and debriefed in the evening. We shared devotions, sang, prayed, and ate together.

Throughout each meal, my eyes were continually pulled to the quotes which dotted the walls. I pondered the significance of the words.

One particular quote left me unsettled and restless with its stinging challenge.

“It is easy to blame the people of Pine Ridge for their current plight. It is easier on ourselves to blame them, we can avoid coming to terms with how they got there.”     Kevin Hancock

Twelve miles north of Pine Ridge, the memorial site of Wounded Knee tells of the infamous 1890 massacre, revealing a dark side and often untold narrative hidden in the pages of American history.

In the dining hall, I page through one lonely book placed there. It is a classic—Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I recall being introduced to this book in my English literature class in high school years earlier. It is a gut-wrenching read, certainly not intended for the faint of heart. The quotes tacked on the wall and the present realities of the community where we were serving began to connect.

As I attempted to reconcile the difficult story of American history alongside the pointed quotes which seemingly begged for a Christ-like response, I sensed the Holy Spirit stirring a simple yet pointed question within me.

“Do you see anything?”

The very words were spoken by Christ when healing the blind man from Bethsaida in Mark 8. The blind man’s appeal was to see. This healing is most unique. It is the only time Jesus healed a person in a two-step process.

What is this all about?

Perhaps there is a lesson here for me and for all who claim Christ as Lord and Savior.

Step one. Jesus took the man by the hand and led him out of town. He spit in his eyes, places His hands on him and asked the question, “Do you see anything?”

“I see men, they look like trees walking around” the man replied.

Stiff cold wooden people. This is not what God created, breathed life into, and made in His very image.

Step two. Unsatisfied, yet undeterred, a second time Jesus places His hands on the man’s eyes and asks the man to look up. As he does, the man’s sight was “restored and he saw everything clearly.” (Mark 8:25)

Do you see anything?

This is a fair and necessary question. The human default is to view life through our own spiritual, historical, or political lens, ofttimes quite unclear or lacking self-awareness of our blind spots. Indeed, marginal vision will result in one seeing persons, created in the very image of God as mere trees walking around.

Do I have desire and courage to answer the question Jesus asks? “Do you see anything?”

Do I have the desire and courage to invite Jesus to touch my eyes a second time to see fully and completely as Jesus does?

Might I see people, not as trees, but with the dignity, compassion, and love as God created them?      

I grieve how deeply polarized and politicized our nation is with race, ethnicity, and immigration. Merely naming this risks being mislabeled politically, being judged, or as news feeds regularly testify, can quickly result in an involuntary career change.

While immigration and national security are very complex issues, refugee asylum and immigration are neither synonymous nor equal. How quickly one’s vision and Christian witness can be quickly skewed as the lenses which one peers through sees humans, created in God’s very image, as trees walking around. The God of the Old and New Testament has much to say about responding to the plight of the fatherless, the widow, and the refugee. It is this very intersection where faith and nationalism collided in the Scriptures, collided at Wounded Knee in 1890, and collides yet today.

Following a hard day’s work, I sat together with my Canadian brothers and sisters from Manitoba. We were enjoying a stunning Dakota sunset. The Canadians shared their experience of entering the States several days earlier. Despite a preexisting appointment with US Customs and having their passports and paperwork in order, which included personal reference letters from MDS, these ten Canadian Christ-followers were escorted to a small room and endured a five-hour process before receiving clearance to enter the United States.

The Americans sitting with me listened intently. We hung our heads and collectively offered a weak apology for the border experience the group bore in order to join us in the work at Pine Ridge. I found myself pondering the story of Wounded Knee while reflecting on the tragic statistics of Pine Ridge and the ongoing racial and ethnic polarization reflected at our borders. In so many ways, it seemed little has changed…even among a nation of immigrants.

Two additional quotes from a Sioux man and woman continued to beg for my attention.

“The Great Spirit has made us both…he made you white and clothed you. When He made us, He made us with red skins and poor. When you first came, we were many and you were few. Now, you are many and we are few. If we had more land to give, we would give it, but we have no more. We are driven into a very small island. We do not want riches—riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us into the other world. We do not want riches; we want peace and love.”                            Red Cloud

“It’s just about being worn down generation after generation. The cavalry, the missionaries, the government, the boarding schools—you wake up one day and its all been internalized. When you have been oppressed over generations and generations, it finally takes hold within you. Once it takes hold within you it is perpetuated from within and we act out the oppression on ourselves. We perpetuate the oppression on ourselves. That’s how deeply it has been ingrained.”   Catherine

Do you see anything?

Our national history, brief as it is, has so much to teach us, particularly in the mistreatment of other human beings made in the very image of God.

Praise be to God however; we serve a redeeming God who continues to delight in redeeming our stories and restoring our sight.

One of the joys of MDS is hosting a home dedication whenever a project is complete. We left our job site early as our team leader desired everyone to be present for this special event. Though we had no sweat equity on this site, we were honored to participate in the dedication to celebrate the efforts of volunteers before us. The site was an hour north, located at the very edge of Badland National Park. Tammy, one of twelve children, was joined by her elderly wheelchair bound mother. Unbeknownst to us, Tammy invited the Sioux priest who served the area to offer a blessing. A nervous pause hung in the home as we awaited what this might be. What a thrill it was to observe the priest anointing each room and praying aloud. He passionately and boldly dedicated the home in the name of Jesus Christ.

Do you see anything?

Yes! I see the presence of God being visibly manifest when one may least expect it.

Yes! I see the mystery of God desiring to be redemptively weaved into the broken story of humanity.

Just as I had the privilege of sharing in the joy of dedicating a home that resulted from the sweat and labors of those before me, others, also, will dedicate the labors of my hands and the faith community with whom I served.

So it is in the mission of God, we stand on the shoulders of those who go before us. Sometimes, we reap what we did not sow; and, sometimes, others will reap for what we labored and sowed…all to the glory of God.

Just as it was in Jesus time, political complexities and the resulting polarization will always be. However, may we have the courage to continue to seek Jesus boldly, inviting a second touch so that we see people, not as trees, but with eyes completely restored.

Might we see clearly as does Jesus.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. (Mark 8:22 NIV)