Highway 16 snakes through lonely hills in the southmost prairies of South Dakota, into the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge reservation—or, as the locals call it, the “rez.”
Bugs kamikaze into my windshield as the prairie put on a show for me. The horizon spreads out as far as you can see, and the sky is truly enormous. Something about the grandness of the place makes me think of how the rest of the Great Plains might have looked 150, 300 years ago, with Bison roaming the hills.
Blink and you’ll miss the exit for the Payabya Seventh-day Adventist Mission, and after a U-turn and a drive up a steep gravel circle the tiny #4 Community Church and school will sit in front of you, nestled between two hills.
My arrival coincides with a youth group from Pioneer Memorial Church. Since I am an hour early, the only signs of life are the teens milling about, some practicing their songs for song service and in the furthest corner of the sanctuary a young boy practicing his sermon.
Around 9:30, Mission Director Bill Glassford and his wife Marilyn emerge from one of the buildings on the mission campus and approach me.
“Church doesn’t start until 10,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“Ah, I was told 9:30,” I say. I stretch out my hand. “My name is Pablo, I’m with the Outlook Magazine from the Mid-America Union.”
Marilyn smiles. “So you’re not here from Michigan, then?”
“No, from Lincoln, Nebraska. I tried calling to let the church know I’d be here today—”
“—Our landline is dead,” says Bill gruffly, Marilyn agreeing behind me, “I’m not sure why. I’ll have to call and see why.”
I lose my train of thought for a moment so my next question is a little awkward. “Would it be okay for me to join you with my camera, pastor?”
“Oh he’s not here just yet,” says Marilyn Glassford. “Pastor Joe won’t be here for a bit.”
“Nice to meet y’all! May I take pictures?” I ask.
Bill just nods and Marilyn’s smile gets even bigger. They walk off without a word.
I make my way into the small building. The heavy door leads to a small hallway connecting the dining room on the right to the sanctuary on the left. Stairs just ahead lead down into the offices and some classrooms.
The sanctuary is small but cozy. Some 20 rows of pews separated by an aisle in the middle, leading to a small pulpit with a beautiful mural painted on it.
“That mural was painted by one of our members,” Marilyn says, beaming with pride. “She should be here later.”
One of the Pioneer Memorial teens who had been sitting at a pew comes up to me and introduces himself. John, 16 years old, is preparing to deliver the sermon later that day.
Other than the teens leading out in song service and my presence, accentuated with an admittedly cumbersome steadicam, it seems a normal Sabbath in #4 Community. Pastor Joe Story and his wife Jimmie arrive in time to lead the quarterly discussion. About 10 members are in attendance early enough for Sabbath School, and a good 15 to 20 more arrived for the worship service. A good two-thirds looked younger than 30, mostly children.
According to Pastor Story, most Sabbaths attendance averages between 15-20 members. Occasionally, the pews will be full. Every once in a while, though, Pastor Story and his wife are accompanied by the Glassfords alone.
The Dakota conference covers territory managed by 12 tribal governments, representing over 100,000 Native Americans. Two of these tribes don’t have reservation boundaries and some reservations can span both Dakotas.
The Pine Ridge Payabya Mission has its genesis in the 1920s, when two government school teachers, the Marleys, began working in nearby Kyle and Porcupine South Dakota. They set up a mission and with time, they were able to acquire land and relocated to where they are now.
I’m at the mission today to meet Hermus Poor Thunder, a lay worker in the area who I’m told has a thriving prison ministry in the tribal prison in Pine Ridge, and has been working on it for over four years.
I don’t know yet what he looks like, but as soon as I see him I feel like I recognize him. He is a large man with a pleasant face, approachable and with a calm voice.
After church, I follow him to the prison and attend his class, but I am barred from recording anything. Once he is done with his part and Pastor Joe begins his, we travel back to the church and sit in front of the beautiful mural, and he tells me his story.