Knit Together

The senior from Standing Rock High School in North Dakota had never been to a Young Life event, but when, the night before the area’s camp trip, an opportunity arose for her to attend, she happily packed her bag and climbed in the van. Here she met Jessica Campbell, who was on Young Life staff at the time.
“Quite possibly my favorite moment at Castaway (Young Life’s camp in Minnesota) was a conversation we had on our last full day,” Campbell said. “After picking out a Bible from the camp store, she said, ‘No one ever told me this before. No one ever told me you didn’t have to just blindly believe, but you could ask questions about God; you could still be smart, be me, be native and be interested in what Jesus has to say. How do I go home and tell my mom I’m interested in reading and hearing more about the Jesus she equates with putting her grandma in boarding school and hurting our people?’”

These are the kinds of issues kids from Standing Rock face, and their Young Life leaders are delighted to walk alongside them in their quest for answers.

“Dakotas” Bringing Hope
In the Sioux language, the word “dakota” means “friend” or “ally.” How fitting then that Young Life, which has always been about building friendships with kids, is seeing substantial growth throughout North and South Dakota.

Straddling the two states is the 2.3 million-acre Standing Rock Reservation, which has made headlines in recent years for the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. Residents, however, want you to know there’s more to Standing Rock and its people, including the fact that half of them are under the age of 20.

Kids living here, as with many other reservations throughout the country, frequently battle “reservation despair,” a feeling of disenfranchisement commonly associated with issues like drug addiction, abandonment, poverty, health concerns, depression and suicide. The Native American teenager is three times more likely to die by suicide than the national average.

Patrick Kelly, a Young Life staff member who grew up on the reservation, knows firsthand the pain one can encounter here. “There were times where we wouldn’t eat for a day or two. My mom had a job at the casino, one of the largest employers on the reservation, and in middle school I had to move in with my grandparents.”

In the midst of all this, however, Kelly also found hope. “Growing up I knew God existed,” he said, “but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Him. In high school, my leader Terry Star pursued me, and Young Life sparked that relationship. I grew closer to God every day. While family tragedies pushed me forward in my faith, I realized this was a journey I need to be on. I’d rather be going through tough times with faith than without it. And I know I’m closer to God today than I was yesterday!”

It’s this same hope Kelly brings to middle school and high school kids today.

“There’s so much these kids go through that can harden them, especially to the message of Christ. What they go through and who they hang out with can really affect how they believe. Many just don’t believe in God; the hardest part for me is seeing those who don’t want to believe.

“Even though it’s tough, we still go to kids because so many benefit from this, even if they don’t show it. I speak to them out of love. They see a discipline and conviction in our lives they may not see outside of Young Life. We have a group of kids who stick close to their leaders and listen to what we have to say, and we can tell they’re our future leadership.”

A Generations-Old Footprint
Future leaders are critical to the continued success of ministry here, which has been going strong for the last 20 years. Father John Floberg and his wife, Sloane, have been caring for kids in Standing Rock for more than three decades, first with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and since 2004, when Sloane became the first full-time Young Life staff. The partnership between Young Life and the church has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

“Young Life’s core theology and the Episcopal Church’s core theology is incarnation,” Floberg said, “and therefore we’re able to knit together a pretty vital and enduring relationship. We find Young Life doesn’t try to pigeonhole the church, but instead works collaboratively in a church partnership. It’s unique and critical.”

The partnership, Floberg continued, is one where both sides contribute complementary strengths. “Because Young Life is a non-denominational organization, it relaxes people about whether they would have their kids attend. This is harder if the ministry is simply Episcopalian.

“We had a substantial group of kids, but the work blossomed when the relationship with Young Life came into effect. And we have always said to other Christians on Standing Rock, ‘If you want to help out with this, we’re glad to partner.’ Young Life has been a base in opening up the relationship we have with other churches, in particular the Baptist church in Fort Yates. For several years they’ve had our volunteer staff come over and help and vice versa. Young Life opened up the door.”

Of course, Young Life benefits from the strong presence of local area churches and takes great strides to build relationships with these churches. Standing Rock is an important example of how much the local congregations provide to the work of Young Life.

“What a church brings to the partnership is a stability in the community,” Floberg said. “It brings a generations-old footprint which Young Life can step in to. When a ministry comes on a reservation, if you’re able to connect historically, you're more likely to be sustainable. If you’re coming in brand new, you’re only as strong as the staff is at that moment in time. If you transition staff, it may be like starting over again.

“In our case, if there’s leadership transition — whoever the staff might be — they become ‘umbrella-ed in’ by a long-term relationship a church has with the community. That’s an important piece, as is credibility with the tribal council. It’s no longer Young Life as an ‘outsider’ coming in, rather it becomes part of what people recognize as belonging.”

This collaboration, Floberg said, is all about what God is knitting together.

“Knit is a pretty intentional word,” he said. “Knitting something together leaves freedom of movement versus welding something together or even sewing it together, where the pieces become so close it loses the freedom of two or three parties working together.

“Young Life fits well with our church. We have a longtime theological principle called the ‘via media,’ which means the middle way. We’ve found where Young Life and the church have connection in the middle rather than asking if we’re lockstep at the edges. We don’t have to be lockstep at the edges. We need to be knit at the core.”

More Work in More Places
The knitting will continue in the months and years to come as the work expands. Jessica Campbell said, “Young Life and the Episcopal Church have undertaken a collaboration to launch four new Young Life areas on reservations in North and South Dakota using the same model we’ve used in Standing Rock.”

The reservations in the plan include the South Dakota side of Standing Rock, Cheyenne River (central SD), Rosebud (south/central SD) and Spirit Lake (northeast ND). While each plan is being initially funded by the Episcopal Church, the hope is for each model to be ecumenical in nature. The Spirit Lake model, for example, will be a collaboration between many denominations, including Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Lutheran churches.

To fund the endeavor, the Episcopal Church has provided a three-year, $600,000 grant to help start these areas and put staff in place. In the first 18 months of the plan, staff and leaders will focus on developing the local work; during the second half, they’ll continue building upon the ministry and show it to potential donors who can help with financial sustainability.

An exciting and important piece of this plan will be finding and raising up a group of indigenous leaders from each of the communities, Floberg said. “We’re putting a training program in place to make sure indigenous leaders are getting the support they need to do consistent and lasting ministry.”

These leaders will play a critical part in reaching more kids, like the girl Campbell befriended at Castaway. “I love that we have a Jesus who stands up to our doubts,” Campbell said, “a Jesus who meets us where we are, and creates and loves all people and cultures.”

Just as Jesus sacrificed Himself for those from “every tribe and language and people and nation,” so Young Life leaders continue to be “dakotas” to kids living on reservations throughout the U.S. As these kids benefit from Young Life’s ongoing commitment to “every kid, everywhere,” they will, in return, show us all a larger, richer vision of God, His people and His kingdom.