Helping, Fixing, Serving

“Ted Talks” started each day of our mission trip at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. world-smallTed is the executive director of Re-Member, an organization that coordinates volunteer efforts in the reservation. Our first morning there, Ted talked to us about the difference between fixing, helping and serving. He said, “When we fix we see life as broken. When we help we see life as weak But when we serve we see life as whole, ONE; serving is healing because serving happens between equals.”

Ted asked us to be sure we were on the Reservation to serve. That we recognize the people there as they are, for who they are. It was interesting to watch all the volunteers make a concerted effort to use the word “serve” during the week; to adjust our thinking and raise awareness of our mindset on the trip

All this started me thinking… it is one thing to go on a mission trip and “serve”, but how does this work in our real lives? After much pondering and some very insightful conversations, I’ve come to the conclusion that serving is an attitude more than an action.

Without an attitude of serving, volunteers at Pine Ridge might be apt to approach the people of the reservation in a condescending, judgmental way. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens all the time… “we are the white people here to fix things for you, then we’ll go back to our nice comfy homes and talk about how poor and pathetic you are. We are Christian and have the right God and right religion… you are just backward and wrong, so we’ll tell you what’s right and fix you. You are disabled and can’t do this for yourself, so we’ll help you, you poor thing.”

No one wants to be the recipient of that kind of behavior. No one needs that kind of “help”.

The whole issue is deeper than the difference between helping, fixing, and serving… the deeper issue is recognizing our shared humanity.

Serving happens when we don’t see the other as merely an object, but as a person, someone just like us. Serving happens when we remember that we are all the same inside. We have the same types of emotions, fears, dreams, hopes and desires. We all have our struggles, our baggage, our scars from life. No one is exempt. Serving happens when we move beyond judging and labeling another person. Serving happens when we come from a place of compassion.

Brene’ Brown, in her book Gifts of Imperfection, asserts, “Compassion is derived from Latin words meaning ‘to suffer with’. I don’t believe that compassion is our default response. I think our first response to pain – ours or someone else’s  – is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.”

Recognizing our shared humanity may be terribly difficult in some situations. In the case of the extreme poverty we saw in Pine Ridge, maybe it is just too hard to look at it because it hurts too much to even try to imagine what that is like, or what circumstances brought them to that point. So, instead people judge it – why don’t they just leave? why don’t they just get a job? Those of us who went to Pine Ridge heard this a lot when we returned and told our stories. This judgment serves us well if we are trying to keep the people at arm’s length. We have now dehumanized them. It is us and them.

It may be even harder to really look at addiction, because we know it is used to mask deep pain and we don’t want to know the pain that intimately, so we judge the addiction – “Oh, those Indians are just a bunch of alcoholics.” Again, we have kept them separate from us. We have protected ourselves and thrown up our shields. We have also dehumanized them and forgotten our shared humanity.

In a compassionate place of true serving we will strive to be open, to get to know the other person, to understand how they feel and what they struggle with, to put aside our knee-jerk judgments and labels. This applies everywhere, with every interaction. And it is crazy hard. But still we need to try.







Pine Ridge Report

In worship on Sunday, the nine of us who traveled to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a IMG_20150702_202301401_HDRweek of cultural immersion and construction had the opportunity to share some of our pictures and stories. It is incredibly difficult to summarize that trip, the things we learned, the things we did, and the impact it had on our lives, but I’m going to give it a shot.

First off, everyone always wants to know what we accomplished there (must be the Midwest Protestant work ethic). We all spent three days working on projects for the people of Pine Ridge. This included building and delivering bunk beds, digging holes and installing outhouses, constructing a wheelchair ramp, skirting trailers, installing stairs and small landings for people to get in and out of trailers safely, and weeding/debugging at the Renewable Energy Bryn sandingCenter. The work seemed almost minimal, but the stairs enabled people to have electricity installed in their trailers (the electric company wouldn’t put it in without a safe entry/exit). The skirting would save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a family in heating costs. And, the beds may have been the first beds that some children, or adults, had ever had. There is a very long waiting list for these type of requests to be fulfilled. In fact, we were working on requests from 2013.

The deeply transformational part of the trip was the combination of learning the history of the reservation (you know, the stuff the history books don’t teach you), hearing their personal stories of poverty, struggle and rampant teenage suicide, and learning about their spirituality, values and traditions. The bottom line of all of it is that the white man intentionally destroyed an entire civilization and has taken no responsibility. Native Americans did not steal, lie, drink alcohol, or show violence toward their women or children, until the white man showed them how. Their culture and structure was matriarchal and circular, centered on the wisdom of the grandmothers, until the white man refused to speak to the women. Their spirituality taught them respect for all people and all of creation. They believed that the land was alive because it carried the spirits of their ancestors. They knew of the balance of creation and understood their interconnectedness to all things until the white man came and forbid them to speak their language or practice their spirituality.

From 1900 through 1978 the language, spirituality, traditions and rituals of the Indians were outlawed in the United States. Children were forcibly taken from their homes and put into boarding schools where their belongings were burned and they were beaten for speaking their native language. Their identity, honor and dignity was effectively stripped from them. Racism is alive and well against the Indian population. This is not ancient history.


Wounded Knee Mass Grave Site

We visited the Wounded Knee Massacre site of 1890 where hundreds of men, women and children were disarmed and then mercilessly murdered by the U.S. military. The sadness was palpable.

The government has broken every treaty it ever made with the Native Americans. For the Indians of South Dakota, these were crushing blows. First, the Indians were given the Black Hills as their land, but the ink had hardly dried when the government reneged because gold was found in “them thar hills!” So, they were placed in the plains just south of the Badlands, where there is little rain and agriculture is next to impossible. Then the white man killed off millions of buffalo in a vicious attempt to starve the Indians out of existence. This left no resources or opportunities to live off of for the Indians of Pine Ridge. And, to add insult to injury, the four presidents featured on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills all wanted the extermination of the Indian population.


The Creation Story

The poverty is excruciating, the depression and despair is real, and the anger is understandable. But that is not the end of the story. Slowly, there are a few who are leading the return to their native values and beliefs. Elders are teaching the sacred stories and leading the ancient rituals. The hope is that this will help to heal their spirits. But the relationship with white people also needs to be healed. This is what we were a part of, working with the volunteer organization, Re-Member. We were there to grow in our own understanding of the situation and issues to gain compassion, recognizing our shared humanity, and walking with them as equals.

White elitism, manifest destiny and Christian superiority have done so much harm in the world. It is time humanity stopped being afraid of differences. There is so much beauty in the people and spirituality of the Indians. We have much to learn about them and from them.

We are all related,



How does your light shine?

Many of you have heard the Three Dog Night song, “Shambala.” It refers to a place in Buddhist mythology of peace, tranquility and harmony. Some say is it metaphorically a state of consciousness or sensitive awareness, in which one has an acute and dynamic response to the divine. The song is actually based on one legend that tells us that Shambala is a huge cavern under the Gobi Desert where there is a replica of every evolving human being. As a person does good in their life, or cleans up their act, or moves to a higher state of consciousness, our replica begins to glow. When our light in Shambala reaches a certain brightness, a spiritual teacher is dispatched to take us even further.

“How does your light shine in the halls of Shambala?” really invites us to entertain some potentially difficult questions:

  • Are we living with love and compassion, or are we harboring anger and resentment?
  • Are we kind and generous, or are we greedy and judgmental?
  • Are we working on our spiritual journeys? In other words, are we self-aware? Do we look for, and pay attention to, the presence of the Divine in our lives?
  • Are we actively seeking to gain deeper knowledge of the Divine and a deeper connection to God and creation? Or are we living isolated, focusing only on self?
  • Do we live in the NOW with gratitude for all that life brings us, for being able to breathe, to love, to give, to see beauty? Or are we living in past or future moments?

I honestly don’t believe this is any different from Jesus reminding us that we “are the light of the world” and our light is not meant to be hidden. Once we hide our light from the world, it is essentially hidden from ourselves as well. And there are plenty of things that would cause us to hide our light: fear, anger, work, discord, guilt, shame, disappointment, grief. It is natural to come face to face with these things and decide not to risk letting our light shine, not to risk getting hurt.

But we need to let our light shine anyway.innter-light-424x264

This is how we grow, because when we remain connected to the Divine Love, when we seek to live out of a higher self-awareness and state of consciousness, then teachers do suddenly appear. However, I can almost guarantee that they won’t appear in the way we hope or expect. It’s not as easy as a little green guy named Yoda showing us how to use the force. It will be someone or something that pushes us to look at ourselves and the parts of us that still need to be healed or worked on, or challenge us to take a risk to move to the next part of our journey here on earth.

My friends, my children, strangers, books, movies, “enemies”, and chance experiences have been my teachers. It’s often the people and situations that push our buttons the most that have the most to teach us… if we will let our light shine, and stay connected for the deeper wisdom that present itself.

Letting our light shine is not all flowers, unicorns and rainbows. Sometimes we get beat up over it or beaten down because of it. But maintaining that connection to the Divine helps us transform ourselves through what life throws at us. The learning process is very often uncomfortable, but we come through able to be more understanding, compassionate and loving. We come through with an even deeper connection to Divine Wisdom.

Let your light shine and open to the opportunities to learn and grow that surround you.



Gifts of Pine Ridge

A crew of nine of us spent the last week serving the people of IMG_20150702_074538136Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was an amazing, exhausting, eye-opening experience. You will hear more about all this, but for now I thought I’d share the reflection I wrote in my journal on Thursday morning of our trip. ~ Kaye


One cannot help but
be changed
By the stark, beautiful land
The strong, quiet people
The stories of pain, betrayal,
struggle, loss and grief
Spiritual, emotional and
physical poverty.
The grief is almost palpable.
It is in the eyes, behind the smile.
I still feel like an intruder…
or worse… a culprit…
These people have been invisible
to me, too.
Their strength lies in being
able to share their story
with dignity, with honor.
Our strength lies in listening,
in opening ourselves to the pain
Not blocking it out, but feeling…
sitting with compassion in the
uncomfortable space of learning,
acknowledging that all is not right with the world.
It is our role to re-member the world.
To bring balance back.
To love… as equals.
To serve… as equals.
This is no different than what Jesus taught.
This week we’ve been given new eyes
to see it again

These people are not without hope
But it is cautious… guarded.
They share, but have no reason
to believe that we will honor their stories.
If we will not work with them, then we can go.
They are not looking for pity, for “help.”
They are looking to be recognized
as equals… as valid human beings
with deep spirituality
with generations of traditions.
Hope enters when we come
to a place of understanding
we are one… the people of the four colors.
We are one… with Mother Earth and Grandfather Sky.
All are one.
When a part is broken or hurting,
The whole, too, is broken and hurting.
I ache… not just for the Indians of Pine Ridge,
but for myself,
for the world,
for our children.
We pretend we are not broken,
but we are.
Each of us must work
to restore relationships
and to heal creation.