W. Jay Moon, Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary
Let me describe a community to you. Most of the fathers in this community wake up each day with no place to go for work. In fact, unemployment sometimes reaches over 80 percent. Extended families pool their meager resources in order to provide for their basic needs. It is a day-to-day challenge to access even the most basic food and medical care. The local homes are often missing windows, and screens are torn. Six out of 10 homes are considered substandard. Homes are often packed full of people, as most families will not turn away even extended family members in need of a place to stay. One out of three people are not quite as lucky – they have no home to return to at night to lay their head.
Where is this community? While it sounds like a Third World context, this community is a lot closer to home than you may imagine. This is the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota, which is home to the Lakota Sioux tribe. For the past seven years, students from Sioux Falls Seminary – where I had the privilege to teach from 2005 to 2013 – have been visiting this reservation as part of a 10 year commitment to learn and serve. Living on the reservation for a weeklong immersion each summer, students experience the local culture and discover the historical conditions that contributed to these circumstances. Recent conversations in the Oikonomia Network have led to some new perspectives and directions.
Since God created meaningful work prior to the fall, work dignifies humanity. When meaningful work is stripped away, indignity results, marring the image of God that humans were intended to bear. Discussions of unemployment and work, then, are important for seminaries to consider in order to cooperate with the work of Christ in restoring people to God’s image. Looking around the Rosebud reservation, it is easy to see that something has gone terribly wrong. What happened? While there are a multitude of factors, I will limit my observations to two common approaches to community development: government aid, and non-governmental charity.
The effects of government overreach are evident. In the 19th century, the U.S. government promised to provide land, food, and housing if the Native Americans would relocate to reservation land. Left with few options, the Lakota Sioux accepted. Unfortunately, this resulted in a distributive economy instead of a market economy. When the equation linking work to money is broken, not only is the drive for human progress removed, but the dignity of humans as co-creators with God is also stripped away. While government has a necessary role in society, the overreach of government disrupts the economic system, leading to unintended consequences.
Charity has been a second approach to improving life on the reservation. While intentions are good and have had some positive results, charity can easily lead to toxic conditions resulting in dependency. As with government policies, good charitable intentions can produce unintended consequences, as Robert Lupton points out in his book “Toxic Charity.” The combination of government aid (with strings attached) and non-governmental charity (promoting dependency) creates a breeding ground for an entitlement mindset.
Is there another approach? The PovertyCure Project demonstrates and promotes the use of entrepreneurship as a third option. Entrepreneurs can be empowered to create businesses that address social issues like poverty and homelessness that are rampant on the reservation. Entrepreneurship that draws upon the assets of the Lakota Sioux people and culture provides an opportunity for the return of human dignity and the restoration of the image of God.
This third option provides hope, as an event last summer illustrates. The sun warmed the blankets we sat on as seminary students mingled with Native families along the river. A Lakota father picked up his daughter as the baby crawled around putting objects in her mouth. Quickly, the Lakota father rescued the phone she was putting toward her mouth.
“I have pictures on my cell phone of some artwork that I have done. Would you like to see it?” he asked in a shy voice. I readily accepted the invitation.
Like a proud father showing off baby pictures, he promptly scrolled through a multitude of beautiful charcoal drawings and paintings. His work was very good, and I called others to look at it. Shortly, a small group circled around the cell phone. The artist’s broad smile and bright eyes revealed that he knew he had talent. He was soaking in the positive “ooohs” and “aaahs” that spontaneously erupted as he moved from one picture to the next. At the conclusion of the brief art show, the group offered hearty applause. The artist soaked it in like a proud papa, while students asked questions about his art. Shortly, questions arose about finding a market for his talent, producing a website to advertise his work, and contracting opportunities.
I stepped off the blanket and walked toward the stream to consider what had happened. Seminary students had discovered how economics and work can address social ills on the reservation. Throughout the week, they engaged their faith with the local culture. While there is still much to learn, the conversations have started. The hope on the face of this Lakota artist confirms that we are taking steps in the right direction.