So...I started writing this post on June 6, nearly two months ago. It should not take me so long, but there are SO many emotions tied up with this one. Now, I can further complicate it by adding that I went back to Montana last week and it stung. Here are my thoughts-FINALLY---with an addendum.
June 6, 2019
I can't believe that it has been 20 years since I went to Montana for a summer internship. I didn't want to go to Montana. I wanted to go to WorldSong, that precious corner of Alabama where I had spent so many summers as both a camper and a cabin leader. (We were called "counselors" at the time.) When a director of missions from Montana showed up to speak to the missiology class that I was taking at Southwestern, the only reason I wanted to talk to him was to get more information about Montana's Native Americans. It just so happened that we were studying Native Americans at camp that summer and I wanted real information. So, I went that afternoon and met the speaker and asked a ton of questions.
It was good as long as I was asking the questions, but I quickly became uncomfortable when HE started asking the questions.
"Have you ever considered working with Native American children?"
"You have a lot of children's ministry experience. There's a need for that in Montana. Would you pray about coming?"
The answer to those questions was initially a "NO!" from me. I had a plan that did not involve Montana and strangers, but still involved children and ministry. Plus, my dear friends would be working at WorldSong, so there was that. But the cowboy hat wearing director of missions was persistent. He made a point to see me every day for the next two days. He wasn't the only one getting my attention. Montana, a state I was only familiar with because I wanted to go to Glacier and Yellowstone, suddenly was everywhere. EVERYWHERE! And all of a sudden, I wasn't feeling quite as "camp-y" and I could not explain it.
As I read my Bible, one verse kept coming back to me, Isaiah 55:5, "Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor." I had no idea why I kept coming back to that Scripture.
Thanks to the generous donations of Washington County Baptist Churches, I went to Montana. I lived with a pastor's family in an apartment at the back of a church sanctuary on a federal reservation. The lady of that house was Cindy and I had never met anyone quite like her. To this day, I have not met another like her! She cooked enough every Sunday to feed an army. She cooked extra food at every meal and there were never any leftovers. There was always someone who was hungry. There was always someone who needed something and Cindy's doors were always open. I learned so many things that my sheltered life in the South had never shown me. I saw beautiful children living in extreme poverty, right here in America and it broke my heart. There were teenagers who could not read. At that point, I had never taught anyone to read, but I'd had lots of practice at actually reading, so teaching literacy became something that I did.
I'll always remember the first night in the apartment with the Wilmots. They tried to prepare me for the culture shock that I was about to experience. I vividly recall hearing these words, "Not all of them will respond to the Gospel, but if we can change just one child's life, it will be worth it."
One particular family seemed to always be around the church. A young mother and her three sons. The middle son gravitated toward me and I thought he was the absolute most beautiful human I had ever seen. He and I were basically inseparable. He went with me everywhere. I took loads of pictures of this two-year-old because what was the likelihood of me ever seeing any of these people again.
People that know me already know the rest of the story--how two short years later that precious child was with us for good. In that two year period, I had gotten married. In the years since, that four-year old has grown into a man and I am quite proud of him. When I picked him up at the airport, he ran to me and in my mind I recalled, "Isaiah 55:5, "Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you." It was a definite God-wink. It was an honor to be entrusted to raise this child. He changed and challenged every thought process I ever had!
Staying in touch with Cindy was easy. She was always phone call away. I flew out and visited with her for an entire month before my wedding in 2000. In 2001, a friend and I drove out to see her. By 2009, they had retired from the mission and were living in Lemmon, SD, so I flew out and she and I toured 4 states in a 3-day weekend.
Four years later, I was itching to see my dear friend Cindy again. My daughter was 10 years old and at the time, I was teaching. So...I got an idea. I could drive to Lemmon, South Dakota. That's a mere 1,300 miles (24 hour drive) for me. We went and we stayed for 40 days (significant, right?). I intended to stay a week, but Cindy just kept making us feel more at home. Currently, we have driven to Lemmon for SEVEN straight summers!
This summer was different. For starters, my husband went with us. We took our time getting there and saw the sights. Cindy took a full week off work and hung out with us. It seemed like we went on mini vacations every day! On the second full day that we were there, I had the fabulous idea to go back to the reservation in Montana. The church had long been shuttered and turned into a tribal building, but I wanted Mark and Tatum to see the reservation and I wanted to go back one more time with Cindy.
There have been some good changes. There are new business in the tribal capital of Lame Deer. Many of the ones we recalled from two decades ago were still in operation also. There is a new high school. The Boys and Girls Club is still active.
I was heartbroken to see that the steeple had been removed from the church. I mean, it's not technically a church anymore, so there was really no reason for it to stay. For me, it will always be the church building, though I'll likely not ever see it again. That beige metal building was my life for the summer of 1999. It is where I learned so many things. My eyes were open to social problems and injustices that I had never even known about and that no sociology class had ever adequately prepared me for. I was forever changed and I had made a forever friend and I didn't know it at the time, but my family would be forever altered, all because I went to Montana--that place that I wasn't interested in.
Twenty years later, I still love Montana. My heart still breaks for the plight of the impoverished. I still love children's ministry (though I am not involved at the moment). I'm still a captive audience for anyone who wants to talk about missions. I still love WorldSong and both my kids have gone to camp there. I still love learning about cultures.
Twenty years later, I am so very thankful for that cowboy director of missions' willingness to answer my questions and I am eternally grateful for the friendship I gained and the lessons I have learned.
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.