One of the great blessings in my life is the opportunity to be part of the work of Simply Smiles, Inc. Their work is the most authentic experience of Kingdom work that I have experienced. This year’s trip was my sixth. Every year I have led a group of congregants, usually adults, on a week-long service trip to LaPlant, South Dakota. This year, my group of folks from the Congregational Church of New Fairfield joined others from around the CT Conference.
Each day was full. In the morning, we were assigned to a work project: preparing a home to be renovated for a grandmother raising her three grandchildren, weeding the community garden, building wall frames for the new volunteer dormitory, installing windows or organizing the storage sheds. After a quick lunch, we hopped on the Big Red Bus to pick up the community's children for lunch and camp. During the afternoon, we shared the pirate-themed crafts and activities that we had planned with the kids. After taking the kids home, we had dinner and debriefed the day.
And each day was demanding. It was physically challenging - we worked hard, building and repairing, cleaning and organizing. We slept on the floor, had no running water, and used latrines. But it was even more challenging emotionally and spiritually. The conditions in which the children and adults live are comparable to those found in the worst of the inner cities, but without the social services. Few role models of successful, sober, and effective ways of life exist for the children to follow. Suicide is rampant; in fact just a few weeks ago one of the twelve year-olds attempted suicide for the second time, and another is at high risk for an attempt. And for those of us who have been to LaPlant before, these are not new acquaintances, these are “our” kids. It is hard to express the stew of emotions the conditions in LaPlant elicits.
And yet, despite the challenge and heartache, I can't wait to go back next year for trip number seven. I can't wait to see if sunny, brilliant Elizabeth still speaks more like a 12 year old than the 6 year old she is. I can't wait to see how the house renovations and volunteer bunkhouse I worked on came out. I want to hear another story about Native culture from Ford, a Vietnam vet who overcame a host of challenges to become a respected elder and historian of his people. And I want to be with these people whose resurrection is being worked out moment by moment, a thing so fragile and yet so tenacious.
These trips to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation are among the best things I am privileged to do each year. And the reason is simple: what we do there is as close as I can come to living the way Jesus did. He didn't barge into the lives of those in need with a ready-made solution. He waited to be invited, listened to what each needed, and entered into every situation as if it were His own. And that is what Simply Smiles tries to do. It practices a humility in its approach that mirrors Jesus’ own.
And because of that humility and the stubborn refusal to give up when so many others have, Simply Smiles is changing lives. The children in the community now have opportunities to explore careers and attend college. Families who are role models in the community are able to receive safe, attractive, affordable homes of their own. Native culture is beginning to be revived through pow-wows and drumming circles. Community is slowly beginning to be re-established. There are tragedies and setbacks, but this has only hardened the resolve to stay and work with the people we are privileged to call friends. Surely this is the kind of love Jesus had in mind when He said, “No greater love has any person than to lay down one’s life for a friend.”
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