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This past week I co-led another Prairie Serve, an event that brings high school students from the U.S. and Canada to Sioux City, Iowa to see how God is at work. We partner with Siouxland Unity Church, a Lao community in Sioux City, the Gospel Mission, which ministers to the homeless, and Winnebago Reformed Church on the Winnebago Reservation. This was our biggest group yet—over fifty participants. It was also our most challenging SERVE yet, not because of the numbers, it was something else. Honestly, this past week I had my first “What have we done?” moment. By this I mean—What has the adult world done to our young people? So many young people are dealing with heavy stuff. From cell phone addictions, to physical abuse, to self harm, to anxiety—so much fear and anxiety. I try not to be alarmist; cell phones are not the end of the world. We survived TV and sugary cereal—technological shifts take time to settle down and this generation is the first to live their entire lives during this transition. But this past week? I was overwhelmed for them.

It was a great group of young people. Some were rough and tried to live into their rebellious reputation, others were quiet, passively pining away for someplace else. Some of them cried at night… for no apparent reason. It’s heart breaking for me to think about—being gripped by an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I was the speaker for the week so I told them about the love of God, how in Jesus Christ God is with us in our anxiety and fear, our troubles and circumstances. I tried to convey a sense of hope, a sense that God is coming to make things right, that we’re not defined by our circumstances, past decisions, or actions. They were attentive, and some said they liked what I had to say, but for others it was small consolation.

An important part of Prairie Serve is the pilgrimage we take out to Wounded Knee. Because we work on the the Winnebago reservation I want them to experience a small part of Native culture. I want them to hear the story—to hear how God is already with the Native people. Jim Schaap comes long, he tells the story of Spirit Mound, the Santee Sioux, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Before we started I told him the group was a tough bunch of kids. They’re good kids, but they push hard. Then we climbed in our vans and began the journey. We hiked up Spirit Mound to look for little demons, and we stopped at Monowi, Nebraska—population one—to visit the pub on the highway and talk to the sweet elderly woman who runs it. (We all got Sioux City root beer.) We went to the Lakota museum at St. Francis mission on the Rosebud reservation, and we ended at Wounded Knee and the Badlands.

We stayed overnight at Lakeview CRC church on the Rosebud reservation. When we arrived, the sky was pitch black. Soon, the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in, bringing rain, thunder, and lightening. If you’ve never seen a storm out on the prairie of South Dakota you haven’t seen a storm. As we got out of our vans, every young person, from “sweet as pie” to “tough as nails”, were mesmerized. Some were excited, some were scared to death—some danced in the pouring rain. The next day, as we took a gravel road into the Badlands, I pulled over to the side of the road. On one side, a herd of bison, grazing and fighting; on the other, the prairie landscape had given way to the valley of the Badlands. As everyone got out of their vans, they slowly walked to the edge as if in a daze. Wind whipping their face, the white puffy clouds moving through a bright blue sky. “This is what awe looks like,” Schaap said to me. “Yes it is” I said, and then we laughed.

We work so hard to get young people to listen to us, to talk about their problems, to figure out who they are. We worry about them, over structure every part of their lives, including their spiritual life, and wring our hands when they make what we think are dumb decisions. Sometimes, we need to be reminded of just how insignificant we all are. We need to feel the wind on our face, see the Bison wandering over the plains, and come face to face with transcendence. Some things are bigger than us, our plans, and even our problems. So this morning I’m thankful for the young people of Prairie Serve, the herd of Bison, the Badlands, and the sound of the wind moving through the prairie.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

5 Comments

  • James Schaap says:

    Jason’s telling the truth. I was there. Seems to me Calvin said faith begins not in judgment or in servanthood, but in awe.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Loved the story and the line from Calvin. I’ll be googling to find the reference/source. I don’t think we talk much about awe – or perhaps we just don’t do it very well.

  • Duane VandenBrink says:

    Jason, Thanks for sharing this experience. Brought tears to my eyes for some reason. The power of nature and the power of our God. Shalom….

  • /svm says:

    I’m not at all sure we have survived the advent of television and sugary cereals! But I am sure transcendent awe of God and His Creation as you describe is the beginning of the cure for those and following ills in our culture and individual lives.

  • Rob Koops says:

    Didn’t hear much about the people your team visited. I’m curious to know if the Winnebego and Lakota believers are using their music to praise God in their churches. It is happening all over the world but not in North America.

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