So much writing to do, so little time. In exactly two weeks I’ll be on a plane to Boston, so I think it’s a good time to start reflecting on how much has happened this summer. Most recently, I was in Oregon at the Warm Springs Reservation. Their claim to fame is Jacoby Ellsbury, the Yankees (and former Red Sox) outfielder who grew up in Warm Springs, about a twenty minute drive from Madras, where he attended high school.
Warm Springs is comprised of three Native American tribes: the Warm Springs, the Paiute, and the Wasco. Like a lot of Native American Reservations, it has its problems with health, addiction, poverty, education, and community cohesion. I worked with a Christian organization called Sacred Road to paint the community center gym and play with some of the children at the Boys and Girls Club.
I had never been on a missions trip, so the only information I had to go off of was what had been shared with me by the trip leader and my cousins’ accounts of their mission trips. I left Palo Alto at 6:20 AM and arrived in Madras at 10:30 PM. Along the way, our church group stopped at Crater Lake and in Bend, Oregon, so the drive took a little longer than I expected, but in the end we arrived safely at our destination, and promptly fell asleep.
The following week was a blur of brooms, scrubbers, painters’ tape, heat, water games, and crafts. By the end of the week the four walls of the gym had a fresh coat of paint on them and I had played four-square, water duck-duck-goose, basketball, and marble structures with some pretty cool kids. There were a few moments and events that stood out to me, sometimes for different reasons, and I spent some time reflecting on them.
First was how the kids on the reservation took ownership of the work we were doing. On our last day on the trip, the work coordinator located in Madras mentioned that only recently had the elders of Warm Springs started to collaborate with the Sacred Road Ministry. In previous years, the teams would meet a reservation representative the day they were supposed to start work and that person would direct them to what they would need to do. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. Often, the representative would only show up late in the afternoon of the second day, so the teams would pick up trash on the roadsides until he arrived. What the Madras coordinator described was completely different from what I experienced. This summer, the Sacred Road team was given a list of things that needed to be completed, and were told to have it done by the end of their time on the reservation. (This is Sacred Road’s second site. Their first one, in Yakama, has a full-time team.) The reservation representatives were available with supplies, and the community center admins seemed grateful for the work we were doing. In addition, the kids we were playing with at the Boys and Girls Club started to come to the work site in the morning to help out. One of the problems with short-term missions is a lack of long-term connections, but I felt that our work was part of a larger community effort to improve the building.
Second was how our own group grew as a community. I didn’t know any of the other high school students on the trip very well, but spending 16 hours a day with them made it easy for us to bond. (This seems to be a recurring event this summer.) The fact that we were all from the same church gave us a sense of security and let us be ourselves. However, our group wasn’t the only church there. That didn’t seem to matter much, as we quickly made friends with the people from Kansas and Minnesota. By God’s grace, were all already part of the same community, and we built on that common bond. I came away from this trip with some new friends and a better understanding of some old ones.
Third was the work that still needed to be done. Sacred Road is only in Warm Springs for the summer, something they would like to change. There’s no church in Warm Springs, and according the Sacred Road, there is a 70% homeless rate among teens and over 80% of children experience physical abuse before the age of 14. Life expectancy is 39 years. Sacred Road hopes that in the long run, they can play a part in bringing the Gospel to Warm Springs and building a community that supports its members. Our one week trip was our miniscule contribution to that goal. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to continue to work with them on site, but for now, my role is to share the story.
From all I’ve read, I’ve had a fairly typical short-term missions experience. However, I’m glad I got to experience it first hand.
P.S. There have been a lot of criticisms of short-term missions, but I think the team at Sacred Road does a good job of avoiding cultural imperialism, wasted resources, and other common pitfalls. We were given a short education on poverty culture and Native American culture, and took a visit to the Museum at Warm Springs before we started work. If you have questions about Sacred Road, check out the link above.