By Andrew Nash
There are no convenience stores in Bridger, South Dakota. No thrift stores, gas stations or retail of any kind, either. The nearest “town” is 90 minutes away, and the nearest “big town” is closer to two hours away. But this land is sacred to the Hwohwoju band of Lakota who reside on the Upper Cheyenne reservation.
“We count back millions of years,” said Beth Lone Eagle, community organizer. “Even before [European] contact, Bridger was considered a sacred area by our people. It was a major migration route for the buffalo. This river valley was their mating grounds.”
Although remote, the people living in Bridger have not been alone. For 20 years, they have had partnership and support from Second Baptist Church of Liberty, Missouri. While COVID-19 has changed the way they typically connect, the partnership has remained strong.
ORIGINS AND HISTORY
The partnership began with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s rural poverty initiative, Together for Hope. Formed in 2001, the concept was a 20-year commitment to the country’s 20 poorest counties.
Second Baptist originally partnered with a county in Arkansas, but CBF leadership noted that it was the nearest church to Ziebach County, South Dakota, and asked if the church would switch.
Mike Lassiter, retired associate pastor at Second Baptist, and other representatives made several trips to Bridger and established a rapport with tribal leadership. Lassiter eventually organized the scheduling of other church groups to assist Bridger.
Church groups from Second Baptist and elsewhere spearheaded many projects, including adding on to a nearby church in Bridger, pouring a basketball court, serving as temporary teachers at the K-12 school in nearby Takini, building relationships with local youth and completing several other projects.
The longtime primary connection to the Lakota was through Byron Buffalo, a minister at United Church of Christ, who passed away in July 2018.
“For a significant part of the community, Byron was a key figure. His passion was developing a ministry for the youth to reconnect with their tribal heritage,” Rogers said. “One of his big projects was a horse ministry. He acquired horses, and took youth riding, developing their connection with their history. When he passed away, it left a big hole in the community.”
Beth Lone Eagle, a longtime Lakota friend, recently received a two-year grant through the Tribal Ventures Project. The grant included the rental of a vacant two-bedroom house in Bridger and meant that Lone Eagle was hired as a community advocate for the surrounding area. One of her first projects was to use the extra bedroom in her home as a community resource center for the dozens of homes scattered around Bridger and nearby Takini.
“The day we opened and were fully functional, we had to shut down because of the coronavirus,” Lone Eagle said.
Despite the resource center’s shutting down temporarily, Lone Eagle has been busy. She obtained a grant to purchase not only a tiller and garden tools for the previously dormant community garden but also water filters to improve the quality of drinking water for 35 households.
Other projects Lone Eagle had planned required some outside assistance from Second Baptist. The Indigenous people had not been able to find hand sanitizer since March, and could find only a couple of bottles of bleach in the nearest “big city.”
Lone Eagle also identified some electronic needs. When COVID-19 shut local schools, that meant remote learning was a requirement for students. Further, Lone Eagle’s home had become a meeting place to hear tribal news in the morning from the Lakota radio station. However, most homes in Ziebach County lacked both computers and radios.
MEETING THE NEEDS
As Second Baptist members planned their visit, coronavirus arrived. A trip to South Dakota for the 20th year of the 20-year partnership was deemed impossible. Second Baptist put a dormant resource to use to assist their Lakota friends.
For many years, Kenny and Karen Sherin were CBF field personnel across South Dakota. Despite the Sherins’ shifting their ministry to a different arena a few years ago, churches and individuals continued donating to CBF in their name. Second Baptist asked and received approval from CBF Heartland to put those funds to use in Bridger. Lassiter even spoke with the Sherins to receive their blessing.
With that money, CBF Heartland ordered two laptops and two desktop computers with monitors for the resource center, and 25 transistor radios to be distributed throughout the community. Nitrile gloves, gallons of disinfectant supplies and large plastic containers were also purchased to provide the community the ability to make its own sanitizer.
“One of the first things we want to do as soon [as the computers arrive] is to get on Zoom and see our friends from Missouri. We miss them so much,” Lone Eagle said. “It’s a pleasure when they come, and it’s sad for us when they go back.”
Although the 20 years of the commitment are technically up, Second Baptist has renewed its commitment to Ziebach County and Bridger at least through 2025.
“We have told them some things we need, and they have been really helpful and supportive. You don’t go into a community and tell them what you’re going to do for them if you want to be successful,” Lone Eagle said. “You get to know the people first, then ask what you can do to help. You build on relationships. That’s probably why this partnership has been so successful: a long-time commitment and an approach of not assuming they knew what we needed. They ask and then follow through on that. I’m looking forward to another 20-25 years.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. Learn more at www.cbf.net.