This week parts of our country celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day. Each year, this holiday shifts the focus from celebrating a legacy of colonialism to honoring the original inhabitants of our nation.
Here at YouthWorks we have also experienced a shift in the way we serve our communities. In our 24-year history as an organization, YouthWorks has learned a lot about respectful service. We have learned that sometimes the best way to serve a community is to know before we do. By taking a “learning first” approach we hope to live into our purpose to connect teenagers to God, each other and communities through life-changing, Christ-centered mission trips.
If you served in one of our reservation communities this past summer, you most likely participated in an activity called the Blanket Exercise. This activity was written by KAIROS, a Canadian ministry working toward justice and peace. This interactive learning experience was created as a tool to better understand how indigenous peoples lost access to their land and how this loss has impacted their communities both in the past and today. The exercise walks through approximately 250 years of history between the U.S. government and indigenous peoples in the United States.
Through participation in this exercise, it is our hope to better equip teenagers with a greater understanding of the interplay of history and current realities in American Indian communities, a richer community connection and opportunity for open dialogue about complex social justice issues both past and present.
Are you thinking about bringing your church group to serve on a reservation? Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Understand that God is already at work in these communities. God doesn’t come to the reservation when your church group arrives for your mission trip. God has been active there since the creation of the world! We are unable to “bring God” anywhere. That would put huge limitations on a limitless God. A great way to serve is to recognize what God has already been doing for a long time.
- Sometimes respectful service means learning and listening. This is why we have incorporated some intentional learning activities such as The Blanket Exercise and often have community members share their stories as an evening activity.
- Be flexible. You may come from the dominant American culture which is both time and task-oriented. Native culture on the other hand values relationships. Practice the mindset that programs, projects, and plans should never trump people.
- Know that everyone you meet is made in the image of God (including you!). On your mission trip to the reservation you probably will meet someone who has a different cultural background, theology, or worldview than you may personally hold. You may also come across someone who engages in different spiritual practices to connect with God. Know that when this happens, you do not need to set aside your own personal theology and opinions, however remember that there is value in understanding others’ worldviews. At the end of the day, we are all created in the likeness of our Creator and cultural differences only add to the beautiful diversity of the kingdom!
-Rachel Binning, YouthWorks staff