A Change of Perspective

February 16, 2017

When she learned that a requirement for her theological degree was an immersion in a culture that would challenge her perspectives on herself, on God, and the church, Galilee ministry intern Geitra Mickelson’s mind went to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The great German pastor said, “Discipleship is not limited to what you can understand. It must transcend all comprehension. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. Thus Abraham went forth from his father not knowing whither he went.”

On the road in snowy South Dakota.

“If I were paying closer attention, I might have noticed the warning in Bonhoeffer’s words,” Geitra says.  “But in truth, nothing in the readings we had prior to our immersion could have prepared me for what I experienced while I was among the Lakota.”

“I can close my eyes and see the faces of the people I spoke with at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Part of my discipleship is telling their story.”

Lakota tribe members and friends at Pine Ridge.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, is the second largest Indian Reservation in the United States. Over 2 million acres, it boasts an estimated tribal enrollment of 46,000 members and the fewest number of Black or Caucasian Americans anywhere in the USA. It is home to the Great Plains Oglala Sioux tribe, commonly known as Lakota.

“An immersion isn’t a vacation. It isn’t a mission trip either. Our stay at Pine Ridge Retreat Center was designed to create within us a different perspective on ministry than we would ever receive in the safe and somewhat predictable routines of our own culture. That began with a serious and intentional look at the Lakota culture.”

Wind Cave National Park.

“The program took us to hear Lakota flute and drum song, see Lakota dance, and examine traditional handicrafts. Art is important to the Lakota, since it is a way to pass on tradition, foster pride, and generate income. We attended a ceremonial Pow Wow, which is a highly developed community event that shares news, tells stories, and celebrates happenings far more effectively than any social media feed. We also learned about native faith from the elders and visited extraordinary places like Wind Cave National Park. Lakota wisdom says that at Creation, man and buffalo emerged from this cave.”

“The exposure to Lakota culture and beliefs was amazing. Just being on the Great Plains, which are so silent…the only noise is the wind…was amazing. I had experiences that I will never forget. I even fed a buffalo!”

A solitary buffalo knows how to stay warm in a South Dakota January.

“As I mentioned, though, this was not a vacation. The most important part of the experience was witnessing the historical pain and present struggles of the Lakota. Visiting the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee was sad and sobering. I don’t think you realize the extent of Native American suffering until you hear it from the people themselves. Their grief is real and ongoing, and it forms a background for continuing difficulties.”

“Each day it seemed we heard stories about how past tragedies brought Native Americans and the Lakota in particular to the place of extreme poverty that they find themselves in today. We heard the statistics of depression and suicide, and alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome. We cared for children who were being raised by their grandparents because their parents were in jail. We saw the effects of poor medical and dental care and inadequate housing. And we knew for a time what it was like to live in a “food desert”—where only the unhealthiest options were affordably priced and fresh fruits and vegetables were severely limited.”

“With each story, I felt the burden of this knowledge and the guilt of belonging to the privileged culture that had allowed it to happen, and worse, benefitted from it. I knew I was going to have to preach soon after I returned to Galilee, and I could hardly imagine how, so raw and exposed were my emotions.”

A woman twines traditional medicines about a Lakota ornament.

“When I asked God for help in preparing my sermon, the scripture that stood out for me was Colossians 3:15: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called to one body.” This verse sums up the goal of peacemaking, and the reason for embracing virtues like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love—so that Christ’s peace rules in our hearts and in our relationships with others.”

“In a way that only God could orchestrate, Colossians 3:15 reminded me of a Lakota expression we heard while we were at Pine Ridge: “Mitakuye Oyasin.” It means “we are all related.” For me, having been immersed in this culture for two weeks, the scripture and the expression seem to reinforce each other. Ultimately, this was a peacemaking mission between cultures, and I came away with a deep acknowledgement that there is more that unites us than could ever divide us.”

“This is part of the story that I am called to tell.”

Dancing at a Pow Wow, the original social media.

“I’m inspired by the work that is being done through kindness and compassion on the reservation. Two great organizations stand out: Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. is working to solve the housing problem and create economic solutions for the residents of the reservation. The Red Cloud Indian School works with Lakota youth to increase graduation rates and send Lakota to college while educating the mind and the spirit. Both organizations are worthy of your support.”

Geitra will present her thoughts and findings from her immersion experience to her teachers at seminary. She plans also to share this talk with those who are interested at Lansdowne Woods and Galilee. If you’re interested in hearing more about Geitra’s trip to South Dakota, email her here. She’s eager to share her new perspective.