U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

From the Yakama Nation Reservation

It’s a Sunday night at the Community Presbyterian Church in Wapato, Washington, on the Yakama Nation Reservation. There are about thirty kids sitting on folding chairs in the social hall. It could be any church, with any youth group, anywhere, except that the leader of this ministry, a young Commissioned Lay Pastor (CLP) named Cory Greaves, is aiming it directly at the Native American kids. The evening reminds me of the Young Life gatherings I attended twenty-five years ago in southern Pennsylvania; start with time to hang out with the teens, move on to silly games, sing a few songs, and offer a moving personal testimony.

So picture this: It’s game time and two kids go to the front of the room. Cory has a six-foot long clear plastic tube - about a half inch in diameter - that he has filled with some kind of slushy drink by taking a gulp of it, then spitting it gently into the tube while keeping both ends up in the air. The object of the game is for each of the two contestants to blow into their ends of the tube until one or the other of them manages to force the liquid into their opponent’s mouth. It is absolutely as gross as it sounds. The teenagers were delighted with the game.

One of the boys quickly established himself as the champion as he wiped out four or five opponents in a row. Inevitably, as the game came to its conclusion, the question was raised as to whether anyone could beat him. Inevitably, I raised my hand. (Can you see where this is going?)

There’s a lot to celebrate about what this church is doing. The commitment shown by the congregation, by pastor David Norwood, and by Cory himself, to reach out to this group of kids and offer to mentor them reminds me of the personal attention that made such a difference to me when I was their age. Cory tells me that one of the things he wants to offer these kids is a relationship with young adults from the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer program, or others who have come as volunteers through Inter-Varsity. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I want the kids from the Yakama Nation to know that they’re just as smart as those young adults. I want them to realize that there’s no reason they couldn’t go to college, too, or become a young adult volunteer. They have something to offer.”

But there are problems, too, of course. The church is struggling to keep this program afloat financially. Cory’s process of becoming a CLP has been arduous, though it is obvious that he has clearly been recognized as a pastor in this community for a long time. Some in the congregation wonder about the program’s value when the kids don’t show up regularly for church on Sunday morning. Besides, we’re only talking about twenty-five kids, here. What about all the rest who fall through the cracks? Throughout the evening I could here a voice in my head asking whether this program was getting to the fundamental structural injustices that make the statistics so depressingly abysmal in the Yakama Nation as with so many other Native American reservations: the highest high school drop-out rates, high incidence of alcoholism, high unemployment, way too many families below the poverty line, the list goes on and on.

And yet, it is an inescapable fact that folks like Gregg Townsley and Bob and Linda Rambo, my own youth pastor and adult volunteers in my youth group back at First Pres, York PA, changed my life when they discipled me into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. It seems like that alone is reason to keep on keeping on with ministries like this one in places like Wapato, Washington. The kids I met at Community Pres. that night are clearly as deserving of that kind of special attention as I was, and I expect some of them will lead different lives because of it, just as I have.

Just so you know, this program has received funding from the undesignated mission dollars your church sends to the General Assembly.

And by the way, you’ll be glad to hear that the Moderator of the General Assembly is the undistiputed king of the “spit through a tube” contest in Wapato.

Trusting that God has a great sense of humor,