I like “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller. I like the just-released movie adaptation, too. I may even like Miller’s 2009 sort-of sequel “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” more. All three describe the elements of plot in a story; specifically, how God can use those elements in your life story. So does this sermon I gave in 2007 about the work I do with my nonprofit, Hope for the First Nations.
You can read more about this series here. And you can read the rest of it this week here. Here’s the climax.
By the time I started college, Lutheran High School had lost interest in continuing the Minnesota trip. At the same time, we were averaging more than 50 kids each day at VBS and had grown too big for the one-room church. For those of us who had spent all our last few summers on the reservation, there was no way we were not coming back. Not when the memory is fresh for so many elders on the reservation of being taken away from their families and forced into Christian boarding schools, where needles were jabbed into their tongues for speaking the Anishinaabe language. Not when the suicide rate among Native Americans is three times the national average. Not when prejudice against the Anishinaabe is so strong in the communities immediately surrounding the reservation. Not when Minnesota Public Radio reported an estimated 40 percent of White Earth tribal members are addicted to drugs or alcohol. From our experiences on the reservation, we’d even put that number much higher. Few people on the reservation escape the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Many of the kids we work with exhibit symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
The root cause of these problems is hopelessness.
And so, clinging to the Scripture in Matthew that says, “In His name, the nations will put their hope,” we decided to file the paperwork to officially become a nonprofit organization. Pretty soon, we had a name: Hope for the First Nations. We had a board of directors; At 20 years old, I was our secretary. And we had a mission. Our mission statement is, “Partnering with the people of the White Earth Reservation, Hope for the First Nations is building unity through relationships with individuals in the community and sharing the love of Christ in culturally relevant ways.”
And so we got out into the community, and we started building relationships.
We left Mt. Calvary Full Gospel Fellowship and moved VBS into the Old School, which is now the community center. We went to watch our kids dance at the powwow, which surprised them, because they’d been told by other Christians their cultural expressions were “of the devil.” We planned trips to the reservation throughout the year, not just in the summer. We helped find beds for one of our friends who lives on the reservation, who wanted to help start a Christian drug and alcohol treatment center there. And we started volunteering at the brand-new Boys & Girls Club at the Old School. Since then, we have been given the blessing of White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor.
Our VBS is the same as it ever was, only now many of the oldest kids we taught in years past have come back to help us lead, and we’ve added a community outreach event at the end of the week. We make a big dinner, and the kids sing songs and recite Bible verses and show their friends and families what they’ve been up to all week. One year we had a little girl at VBS named Vickie who was deaf, and we were determined that she was going to be able to recite her Bible verses just like everyone else. So a couple of team members and I sat up late every night with a sign language dictionary, and I’d spend the next day signing verses at Vickie while the other kids read them. She had to correct me a lot. But I think it was one of the proudest moment of my life when she stood up with the rest of the kids at the community outreach and signed the Bible verses along with them.
Hope for the First Nations has also been invited to start Vacation Bible Schools in other communities across the reservation. Until 2006, we worked exclusively at the south of the reservation in a community called Pine Point. That year, we led another VBS at the north of the reservation in Rice Lake and trained a team from a church youth group in Nebraska to take it over. Since then, we’ve planted another in the town of White Earth with a youth group from Springfield, Ill.
We’re not sure what the next chapter in the story of Hope for the First Nations will bring. We know love is making a difference, and we have plans: We’d like to see a children’s home built on the reservation for the kids who get passed from house to house. But we surrendered the pen to the Author of Life a long time ago. We trust, from what He’s done in the past, that God has a plan for our future. We’re turning the pages as eagerly as everyone else.
Read all posts in the “How God can use your life story” series here.
Photo credit: Hope for the First Nations. Arrows divider via IROCKSOWHAT.