Hunger: Native American Ministries Sunday
On any given morning, often before the sun comes up, a group of people stand, hands in pockets, on a small wooden deck outside the entrance to the Pine Ridge Retreat Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
On one particular bitterly-cold morning in January, I greeted the group, shaking hands with some men who looked far older than their years.
And I greeted a few women who mostly avoided my eyes, but smiled pleasantly as I reached for their hand.
And one man, in particular, whose name was Richard Bluebird, asked me why I was here, deep in the Lakota Native American Indian Reservation in what’s undoubtedly the harshest season of the year.
I explained that I came with a group of seminarians from around the country to try and better understand the Lakota culture and the challenges its people face.
He asked if I could help him out, and at that moment, the front door opened, and the retreat staff began handing out danishes and hot coffee.
This group of a dozen or so men and women, I found in my 10 days on the reservation, were a fair representation of the plight of the Lakota people, and Native Americans throughout the country.
They are hungry — and not just for food.
They are hungry for justice, for equality, for acknowledgment, for respect, for relevance, for belonging…
They are the Lakota Tribe — part of the Sioux Nation — who happens to be living on reservation land allotted to them by the United States government,
the very same government that today continues to force them off the land that their ancestors lived on for centuries before the European settlers came and intentionally tried to wipe them from the face of the earth.
Tucked into the ever-shrinking scrapland of southwestern South Dakota
— a place replete with hundreds of square miles of inhospitable canyons called the Badlands, rough, rolling terrain, and the best grazing land cordoned off by miles and miles of barbed wire strung by white ranchers.
It’s a place where the Lakota can live on the land, but can’t live off it.
The federal government owns the land, so there is no equity, no ability to borrow, and thus, no way to control their own destiny.
* It’s a place where the unemployment rate regularly surpasses 90 - even 95 — percent.
* A place where the average life span for a woman is 55 and for a man is 45.
The only higher mortality rate in western hemisphere is in Haiti.
* It’s place where drugs and alcohol are rampant, yet the poverty level so high, that the people make cocktails from non-aerosol hairspray and hand sanitizer, because they can’t afford alcohol, and even if they could, the reservation is dry,
and the drug lords have moved on after killing nearly two-dozen people who couldn’t afford to pay.
It just wasn’t a good business model…
* It’s a place where the teen suicide rate is double the national average, and where the children talk freely and openly — non-plussed, even — about their older sisters or aunts or cousins who had hanged themselves just before Christmas last.
* It’s a place where it’s not unusual for one- or two-dozen people to live in a small, rundown two-bedroom house or singlewide trailer.
* It’s a place where an alarmingly high rate of domestic violence, of disease, of mental illness and of post traumatic stress disorder occurs, again, more than double the national average.
These children of God are hungry for someone — anyone — to listen.
They are hungry for our help and solidarity,
and they are hungry to see — maybe just one time — that when we Christians say we embody Jesus Christ in this world,
it looks more like a friend, a brother or a sister rather than an enemy dressed in a three piece suit and a briefcase or a Bible
always wanting something and never giving nothing in return.
They are hungry for truth, and not how post-modern Western society defines it, but truth how Jesus embodies it.
On the essay I had to write before being accepted into the Lakota immersion program through Wesley Theological Seminary,
I wrote that I had a feeling that a good majority of what I knew and was taught about Native Americans was most likely wrong.
* I knew the white people had taken their land;
but I didn’t know that all those “battles” that we learn about in grade school were actually hideous one-sided massacres.
* I knew that Westerners used Magna Carta to claim all the land the European settlers wanted;
but I didn’t know the treaties were empty promises made to a trusting and welcoming people.
* I knew that the Indians were forcibly assimilated into Western culture;
but I didn’t know that children as young as five years old were removed from their homes and families and sent to boarding schools hundred of miles away — such as in Carlisle, Pennsylvania — where they were beaten and traumatized by the very people who claimed to be Christ’s church,
and where as many as half of those children died and many more never saw their families again.
Today, that trauma is still very much present in the eyes of many of the people I saw.
Many of whom I shook hands with.
Many of whom I broke bread with.
Just like Richard Bluebird, who, a couple of days after our first meeting on the front steps, met me for coffee at a nearby convenience store.
As we sat there, I asked about his tattoos.
On one arm, a tattoo read Oglala, the name of his tribe, but, also code for the gang he was in.
On his other arm was the words “God Forgive Me.”
I find it disturbingly paradoxical that Richard Bluebird is asking for forgiveness, as is permanently etched into his body,
while we, the ones, who at the very least, contributed toward, and at most, forced him and hundreds of thousands of others into the very situations in which they believe they have to ask for forgiveness.
They are hungry for the truth.
Not our truth.
But God’s truth.
And what is that truth?
What is it that we really believe as Christians?
I mean, just three weeks ago, we proclaimed the Resurrection:
“Christ has risen, indeed!”
But what does Christ’s Resurrection mean, other than a chance to celebrate in church on Easter Sunday?
Well, we can look to the disciples, who stood stunned as Jesus appeared to them while breaking bread in Emmaus, as we read in Luke 24.
Now in Jerusalem, Jesus appears to the disciples again, offering peace.
They were terrified and afraid, Luke tells us.
But Jesus gives them his hands, and lets them touch his body to see that he is indeed flesh and blood.
It’s not enough.
So Jesus takes and eats a piece of fish in front of them, because, you know, ghosts and angels don’t eat food…
In Emmaus, Jesus breaks bread with them, and it is only then that they see who is before them.
And again, it’s only when Jesus sits down at a table to eat fish that they understand Jesus is really alive.
Is Jesus really hungry?
Well, we don’t know.
But Jesus is hungry for something:
* He’s hungry for the disciples to understand the resurrection means all of the Scriptures have been fulfilled because he’s alive.
* That all of what the prophets and the psalmists claimed is true.
* And all that Jesus told the disciples about what would happen on both sides of the cross in fact happened.
But what is Jesus’s true hunger, what is his urgency to get them to that table?
Luke tells us beginning in Verse 47:
“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised;
so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
What did the Father promise?
God’s Spirit to be upon them so they could do exactly what Luke writes:
spread the Good News and expand God’s kingdom here on earth.
The embodied life
We have to emphasize that God’s command is to preach the Good News to all nations (Verse 46).
To preach the Good News to all nations means all people.
To preach forgiveness and repentance doesn’t mean just standing up and proclaiming it;
it means embodying it.
Jesus shows us that resurrected life is embodied life.
Resurrected life is embodied existence.
That to live into that embodied existence is to speak embodied life to all people.
No matter the color of skin, their gender, their age, their race, their preferences, their beliefs, their past or their present or their futures, their economic status, their geography or their nation…
* To live into the resurrected life means to speak boldly the Good News and to embody the Good News.
* The same Good News that Jesus came to share and place within our hearts;
* The good news of all the things that we hunger for:
Justice, equality, acknowledgment, respect, relevance, belonging…
A place at this table!
Where Jesus breaks the bread and invites us to become one with him and one with each other.
* To not metaphorically become the Body of Christ;
but to truly be Christ’s body.
* To be Christ.
* To give voice to the “least of these,” as Christ did.
* To care for the poor and suffering first, as Christ did.
* To bring justice and fairness, as Christ did.
* To love others, as Christ first did.
* And to offer everyone — all people — a place at this table, as Christ did.
If we are truly living the Resurrected life,
if we are truly embodying Christ,
then we cannot ignore the urgency to invite to the table all of God’s people.
We cannot ignore the hunger pangs of others, as we feast in the belief that it’s enough for us to simply show up at this table.
And it’s certainly not enough to throw our table scraps to our very own brothers and sisters,
who cry “Why doesn’t God love me, too?”
Richard Bluebird didn’t really need a cup of coffee.
He really didn’t come and sit down with me at the coffee shop to get a few bucks for his next fix.
That’s not really what he was hungry for.
What he came for is to is to show me that he is here.
That his life matters, too.
To show me who he was.
Oh, his eyes lit up so bright when he talked about who he was as an artist.
About his tattoo business he’s trying to launch.
About his family that he’d like to support.
He’s hungry for life — an embodied life.
And maybe he cannot even imagine what that looks like.
But behind the tough exterior and the gang tattoos, there is a hunger for that life.
There is hunger for dignity.
For a fair chance.
And for respect.
There is hunger to believe that maybe this guy who calls himself a Christian and is sitting across the table from him isn’t looking for anything from Richard Bluebird;
That maybe this time the Christian sharing in the coffee means what he says;
That maybe this prayer — this one time — isn’t just empty words,
but is the invitation to a table in which the chair again won’t be pulled out from under him when he comes to partake in the meal,
the very meal he’s repeatedly told God invites him to.
And that the Gospel isn’t just some white, Western structure modeled after the goals and greed of corporate America,
but instead is the truth of love and compassion and justice and equality and relevance and belonging that all God’s children deserve equally;
That Christ commands us to embody;
and the Hoy Spirit empowers us with.
Maybe just this one time.