Transformed and Eager to Serve
They call it their “happy place”: Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the Rocky Boy’s American Indian Reservation in north central Montana, where middle school youth from St. Mark Lutheran Church by The Narrows, Tacoma, Wash., have served on weeklong mission trips over the last two summers.
"When they arrive, they are totally different kids, which is amazing,” says Ingelaurie Lisher, director of youth at St. Mark. “They keep the other kids in line. They want to set a good example. This is something that means so much to them.”
Like most servant groups at Our Saviour, the youth help out with projects on the grounds of the congregation, including light construction, painting, cleaning and maintenance work.
Downtime means opportunities to play basketball and swim with their Chippewa-Cree peers at the reservation’s recreation center or learn traditional crafts, like beading. They also attend worship twice a day -- an important component of the trip, Lisher says.
As the St. Mark youth experience their time of service and gain insights into a different culture, they begin to think beyond themselves, Lisher says.
“They realize, ‘This isn’t about me or my life in Tacoma,’” she observes.
“The kids explore who they are and the gifts they have. They see God at work in a different place. When they come home, all they talk about is their experience at Rocky Boy’s.”
Likewise, members of Our Saviour and other residents of Rocky Boy’s enjoy meeting servant groups, like St. Mark’s, says the Rev. Linda Webster, pastor.
“We share a meal or have a barbeque,” she says. “We sit together and talk. Relationships start from that. It’s an important connection.”
Many youth return from the trip transformed, eager to serve at St. Mark and in the community, Lisher says.
“There is an openness and excitement,” she said. “By the end they realize it’s not about the work they’ve done, but about the relationships they’ve made with one another and with God.”
A Lutheran Presence since the 1920s
Our Saviour Lutheran Church is among 21 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations with 10 percent or more American Indian and Alaska Native members.
Roughly half of the 5,000 Chippewa-Cree living at Rocky Boy are baptized Lutheran, according to Pastor Webster, although active membership is much lower.
Pastor Webster reports that Lutherans have been part of the Rocky Boy’s community for approximately 90 years. The congregation provided structured activities for the reservation’s children and youth until the early 1970s, when the tribal council established the first youth center in 1974.
Accompaniment now best describes the relationship between Our Saviour and the tribe, Pastor Webster says. And the welcome arrival of servant groups provides important opportunities for building respect and understanding across cultures.
Sharing the gospel is possible in a spirit of mutuality, Pastor Webster believes. Her cross-cultural education opportunities at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., gave her insights into how she might best live and serve with the people of Rocky Boy’s.
“It’s important to focus on walking with your neighbors instead of trying to fix problems,” she says. “We have to stop talking ourselves and learn to listen.”
Pastor Webster carefully integrates Chippewa-Cree traditions into worship at Our Saviour, using sacred elements like sage, sweet grass and cedar. Recently, she lit a sage bundle, which signifies purification, and wafted the incense gently over the communion table.
“It is a way to incorporate Lutheran Christian traditions, while also honoring others, which have been at the heart of how they have worshipped for hundreds and thousands of years,” Webster said.
Pastor Webster is grateful for the partnerships in the ELCA that continue to make the ministry of Our Saviour possible, including a grant from the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission program unit of the ELCA churchwide organization and the ongoing support of the ELCA Montana Synod.
“Jessica Crist, our bishop in Montana, first learned about Our Saviour as a little girl through her congregation in Pennsylvania,” marvels Pastor Webster. “I’m amazed at the connections people from all over this church have with this tiny congregation near the Bear Paw Mountains.”
The compound of Our Saviour is an arresting blend of old and new buildings, including the original log cabin chapel.
Outside the new church building stands a wooden figure of Jesus as an American Indian, sculpted in 1999 by a local resident in member of his son and “dedicated to the Glory of the Creator God.”
“We forget that many of the things we have incorporated into our worship as Northern Europeans are really Northern European customs,” observes Pastor Webster. “When Christ comes into another culture, Christ becomes your own.”