Kay Ressel, an ELCA pastor and director of Lutheran Lakota Shared Ministries (LLSM), says a pillar of her ministry is to “hold people accountable for how they engage in ministry.” When she receives visiting volunteer teams, Ressel works to foster mutual trust, respect and understanding.
“My job is to push you out of your comfort zone, so you come to a different way of knowing the Lakota people,” said Ressel, who is not Native American.
Headquartered on the Pine Ridge (S.D.) Indian Reservation and funded in part by ELCA Mission Support from the South Dakota Synod and the churchwide organization, LLSM serves a geographic area that, at 3,500 square miles, is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
The reservation is home to the Oglala people, a subtribe of the Lakota (one of three Sioux tribes). In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau put Pine Ridge’s population at 18,000—but that’s likely low by thousands, Ressel said.
In 2000, LLSM opened a retreat center to house visiting youth who came to do service projects on the reservation.
“My job is to push you out of your comfort zone, so you come to a different way of knowing the Lakota people.”
“It was very appropriate for that time, but we knew we could do better,” Ressel said. “When I got called to this place, I knew we had to break away from an unhealthy way of doing ministry, in which those with resources are running the show, into one of pulling people together to make decisions for their own community.
“We still do have elements of service, but our focus is on learning and listening to people’s stories, getting to know one another, sharing time together, sharing meals.”
The ministry still offers what Ressel refers to as “threshold ministries,” with household items—diapers, sandwiches, hygiene kits, quilts and blankets—distributed to those who need them.
In addition, there are energy assistance and cultural immersion ministries, as well as the Lutheran/Lakota Job Corps, which employs about a dozen community members in numerous roles. Staff members work with visitors who have come to the reservation to lend a hand and, more importantly, to gain a new perspective.
“With the immersion ministry, we get people to partner with us in ways that are healthy for the community,” Ressel said. “We challenge their beliefs, break down stereotypes about native people and hope they become an ally for the people here. It’s a bridge between the community and visitors.”
Learning and listening
Situated near the southwest corner of South Dakota at the southern end of the Badlands, the territory that makes up the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the site of several milestone incidents in the history of the Sioux’s often tragic dealings with the U.S. government, including the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and the Wounded Knee incident in 1973.
The statistics associated with Pine Ridge, one of the poorest areas in the U.S., are sobering. According to a 2017 Juniper Online Journal of Public Health article, Lakota people die at higher rates than other Americans from alcoholism (552% higher), diabetes (800%), infant mortality (300%), unintentional injuries (138%), homicide (83%), suicide (74%), cervical cancer (500%) and tuberculosis (800%).
The Lakota have the lowest life expectancy, 47 years, of any population in the U.S. And more than 90% of the population live below the federal poverty line.
For her part, Ressel would prefer to steer the discussion away from the statistics, which she calls potentially “dehumanizing.”
“People often stop learning about Pine Ridge once they hear the numbers,” she said. “But when people come for immersion, they find out there’s much more to the story. A lot of good things are happening here.”
Tammy Jacobi, a student at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, visited Pine Ridge this year and describes herself as “transformed” by the experience. “Given what we take for granted … living in western Christianity, the immersion was eye-opening,” said Jacobi, who spent 10 days at Pine Ridge as part of her studies. “I had been cushioned into my privilege and truly had no idea.”
The hospitality from the “extraordinary human beings” at Pine Ridge was “breathtaking,” she said, especially given that “we as seminarians represented so much that was not right.”
“God’s grace is present and very real at Pine Ridge.”
“[Visiting] Pine Ridge Retreat Center was a life-changing experience,” Jacobi added. “God’s grace is present and very real at Pine Ridge. Everyone had a lesson to teach, a story to tell. You just need to open your heart and mind and listen to the Lakota people share their culture and spiritual traditions.”
Longtime Lakota community member Darrin Merrival describes that sharing as “powerful” and “invigorating.”
“It never gets old, for me or for them,” said Merrival, who brings visitors to his ranch to see the four buffalo he purchased after Ressel helped him with a fundraiser. “We feed the buffalo, and I tell them the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman: It’s the story of how our people came up with our ceremonies—she came and explained all of them.”
“I answer their questions, and sometimes we just visit,” added Merrival, who also teaches high school math at Pine Ridge. “And the work they do while they’re here, the groups that come to stay with Pastor Kay, it’s invaluable. It’s really good for our youth to see non-Indians who have good hearts. Our people, at times they aren’t treated very well in neighboring communities, and a lot of that has to do with the color of their skin. Every time a group comes, I thank them for coming and giving our youth a chance to see good people.”
It’s an example Ressel sets for LLSM visitors.
“I always tease Pastor Kay that she’s abrasive,” Merrival said. “She’s a little different from most of the pastors who come through, but I think it’s a good thing, because she’s real. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, but I don’t know of anybody who has a bigger heart than her, that cares like she does. She does so much good.”