The Rev. Jackie Perry believes children can lead people in faith.
So when Paige Lee — a youth member of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Norfolk, where Perry serves as pastor — asked about the possibility of going on a mission trip before her senior year of high school, Perry said she felt it was the spirit calling her.
“If something hits and rings true, I always think that’s the spirit knocking or Jesus knocking,” Perry said. “It felt like the spirit calling us to do that.”
So in July, seven members of the church — including Perry and four youths — and one member of Blair United Church of Christ joined others from around the country to do mission work for a week on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The trip was the result of generosity of fellow congregation members, who helped raise funds to reduce the cost of the trip for those participating, and it provided an opportunity to be of service to others — as well as to learn about how a complex history has contributed to the conditions on the reservation.
Perry said she had done mission work with Re-Member — the organization that led the trip — at Pine Ridge about 10 years ago. She remembered the mission as “not an easy gig” but had always wanted to go back.
The group from Norfolk arrived at the Re-Member mission on a Saturday evening in July. They spent the following week doing service work for on the reservation, building relationships with residents and fellow mission workers from around the country and learning about the people whom they were serving.
Perry said the labor included putting new skirting and siding on mobile homes to help get them ready for the region’s harsh winter. They also built decks, as well as dug and set outhouses.
“We worked in teams, and it was very empowering,” Perry said.
The group visited the area near where the poet John G. Neihardt met the Oglala-Lakota holy man, Black Elk, and received an opportunity to learn about the massacre at Wounded Knee.
“Every night, they brought in a speaker. They would tell a story about their lives,” Perry said.
Through these, the trip participants received an opportunity to develop a better understanding of the complexities of life on the reservation, where there is a higher incidence of alcoholism and suicide, she said.
“They all liked serving, the physical part of it, and appreciated their eyes being open to the poverty,” Perry said. “I know it made an impact to hear about the suicide rate and how hard life is.”
In an essay written by Adam Gamerl, a congregation member and youth who went on the mission, he said, “I’m glad I decided to go on this trip, and I think it was a very valuable experience for me because I got to help the Lakota people and learn about their culture. Being there also made me realize how lucky I am to have a family who cares about me and to go to a good school and to live in a safe place.”