Churches build buildings, relationships at Pine RidgeHundreds of volunteers congregated on the reservation the week of July 4, roofing houses, repairing siding, mowing lawns and hosting Bible studies around Kyle, Manderson, Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge village.
By: RUTH MOON, The Rapid City Journal
PINE RIDGE (AP) — Sarah Hunter took her first work trip to the Pine Ridge reservation when she was 13 and has come back every year since to help repair houses and do needed construction projects.
“The clouds looked like ‘Toy Story.’ I had never seen so much sky,” said Hunter, who lives in Virginia. “Plus, I had never seen so much poverty.”
Hunter, now 18, recently helped lay out lumber to create a ramp to the front door at a tiny home with a crumbling concrete porch in Pine Ridge village. She was one of 28 people who had traveled to the reservation on an eight-day Pine Ridge work trip organized by Vienna, Va.-based Church of the Good Shepherd.
That church is one of dozens of organizations from throughout the country that take work trips to Pine Ridge every summer, said Emma Clifford, executive director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing, which coordinates many of the faith-based trips.
Hundreds of volunteers congregated on the reservation the week of July 4, roofing houses, repairing siding, mowing lawns and hosting Bible studies around Kyle, Manderson, Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge village.
“They’re a godsend for people like me,” said Ben Leonard, an unemployed resident of Pine Ridge village. Earlier this summer, a volunteer group renovated his bathroom with new tile and paint.
“These people just come and get it done,” he said. “It’s quite a blessing to all of us.”
Hunter’s group hopes to accomplish more than just putting new roofs on houses and building better front porches. Each trip member must raise $1,000 above expenses for the trip, and leftover funds support several endowments at Oglala Lakota College. They also send postcard updates throughout the week to a long list of donors.
“If (our goal) were only to get work done efficiently on the reservation, it would probably be more efficient to send a check,” trip leader Paul Speek said. “It’s through getting the word out that we feel we contribute a lot.”
Silverdale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., sends church groups on mission trips to Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Zambia, India and other locations worldwide.
“It’s not just a go-and-feel-good trip — ‘We’ve done our little Peace Corps thing and we can go home,’” said Chuck Patrick, a pastor at the church who has been to Pine Ridge three times.
During their week on the reservation, volunteers with the church ran a Bible camp for children and hosted Bible study groups for men and women. As he talked, a handful of women from his group threaded handles through goodie bags they would hand out to children at Vacation Bible School later that day.
A couple from the church hopes to move to the reservation soon with church support.
“We didn’t want to go in for a week, pat them on the back, feed them and leave,” Patrick said.
Emma Clifford coordinates many church trips to the reservation. Her involvement with the groups started nearly two decades ago, on a cold, rainy June morning when a man named Paul Bertelson walked into Pinky’s store in Manderson with a group of hungry teens. Bertelson, who had just started YouthWorks, a nonprofit organization that coordinates faith-based work trips for youths to locations throughout the U.S., had brought a group of teens from his church to Pine Ridge to help some personal friends with projects.
Since then, YouthWorks has spread to 77 communities around the U.S. but still coordinates more than a dozen trips to the Pine Ridge reservation each summer. Over 10 weeks of the summer, 300 older teens will camp out at Wounded Knee District School to host kids’ clubs and help local children learn how to read.
Trip leaders hope students coming to Pine Ridge form relationships with the children they meet.
“I think it’s important as a youth growing up that you’re exposed to other cultures,” Katie Heefner, a 24-year-old trip leader said.
Though trips typically only last one or two weeks out of the year, some visitors do form lasting relationships. Community member Tim Little Dog has been going to a men’s group hosted by the Tennessee churches since it started about a decade ago.
“They’re better than friends, actually. Many of us older people prayed and prayed for many years for something like this,” he said. “Some of us count the months and days to the time they’ll be here.”