From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
UMNS# 455-Tree of Life connects mission volunteers with Native
Tue, 16 Aug 2005 17:00:49 -0500
Tree of Life connects mission volunteers with Native Americans
Aug. 16, 2005
NOTE: Photographs are available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Feature
By Sandra Brands*
When Jessica Ostrawski had her first mission experience at Tree of Life
Ministry on Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, she became a
convert to the outreach program.
She was one of three people from Cascade United Methodist Church in
Deerwood, Minn., responding to an invitation to join a group from the
larger Minnetonka (Minn.) United Methodist Church.
"Within probably two days of being there (at Rosebud), I fell in love,"
Ostrawski said. "I knew I wanted to make arrangements for people at
Cascade to go on a Tree of Life mission trip."
She organized a mission trip with Tree of Life for 33 mission volunteers
to go to Rosebud in summer 2004. They came from small United Methodist
churches throughout Minnesota. The success of that trip led her to
organize two more, for July and August this year, and again the rosters
quickly filled up.
"It seems like people are even more excited about this year's trip then
last year's," Ostrawski said.
Tree of Life is a ministry of the United Methodist Church's Dakotas
Annual (regional) Conference to the people of four Dakota reservations.
It began in 1990 on Rosebud Reservation, and it hosts Volunteer in
Mission groups from across the United States. Over the years, it has
grown to serve Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations in South Dakota,
and Spirit Lake Nation near Devil's Lake, N.D.
Though each ministry varies according to the community's needs, most
projects involve building or repairing homes on these South and North
Dakota reservations. The Crow Creek and Lower Brule Tree of Life
ministry is working with homeless veterans. Plans are under way to buy a
motel and convert it into housing for homeless veterans.
VIM teams arrive weekly, said the Rev. Mina Hall, who served as Tree of
Life's executive director until June, when she was appointed to Flame of
Faith United Methodist Church in Fargo, N.D. Teams come regularly come
from Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Washington D.C., Georgia,
Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska,
South Dakota, Kansas and Ohio.
"These are not all United Methodist teams, though the majority are,"
Hall said. "Tree of Life works with all denominations, all government
The ministry has coordinated activities for teams from Lutheran,
Baptist, Episcopalian and nondenominational churches as well as
nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
"That is one of the unique strengths," Hall said. "Tree of Life will go
in and work where they're needed."
But Tree of Life isn't just about helping people. It's about building
relationships - within the teams and with the people living on the
reservations. Part of Tree of Life's mission is to promote understanding
and respect between the Native Americans being served and the visiting
To promote that understanding, part of the Tree of Life experience
includes nightly cultural and education activities, such as performances
by a drum and dance group, an overview of native dress, artwork and
games. Native American pastors visit to talk about their ministry. Some
speakers describe the effect of the missionary school education on the
tribes. And sometimes, tribal elders will hold sweat lodges and explain
the spiritual significance.
"For me, the sweat lodge does it every year," Ostrawski said. "You can
feel God's presence there. It's just so real and vivid.
"There's a lot of etiquette involved in participating in some of these
things like the sweat lodge," she said. "People are prepared by the
staff at Tree of Life. One of the construction bosses who helps the
teams is a Native American, and he helps prepare people."
The evening experiences are "a way to connect to the native culture with
those coming in," Ostrawski said. "Unless you understand native culture,
it's hard to understand why your work is so important."
And the work is important, she said. "The people, the culture, the
environment, doing a stateside mission - it's very important. I've seen
poverty. I've been to Jamaica, but it was a spiritual awakening to be at
For some, Ostrawski said, exposure to the poverty and rural lifestyle of
reservation residents fed into their existing prejudices, but for
others, it was an eye-opening experience. "They would say, 'Oh, I've
treated Native Americans so poorly. I never realized what they've gone
"It's very much an individual experience, an individual reaction," she
Shere Wright grew up on Rosebud Reservation and works with youth on the
reservation. "Every day is a struggle here on the reservation," she
said. "We are stuck in this place where we are so dependent. I want our
people to forget about that, start looking forward and moving forward."
Wright is among those who offer volunteers a glimpse into the culture
and traditions of the Lakota. Dressed in traditional tribal regalia,
Wright challenges visiting mission workers by saying, "The best thing
you can do for us is to remember us. Know what is going on with us.
Support us when we need help."
The short-term VIM trips to Tree of Life have a twofold impact, Hall
said. "You're helping people, but you're also building your own
community. You are also building you own faith. When you hold devotions
together, great things happen," she said.
A young man on a Tree of Life mission once told her he was losing his
faith in the church. "In the process of coming out here and working with
a team, he found his faith again," she said. "It was a transforming
Hall described how a woman, whose home was repaired by a mission team,
"looked at me and said, 'you're the lady who sends Christians to fix my
home.' I work really hard to make them understand that these people (on
the mission trip) take vacation time and raise money to help them.
"They are in awe that anyone would do that," she said.
The work is a step toward healing the scars of the past - mission
schools, and the subjugation of an entire way of by a dominant culture,
"When they (Native Americans) know that people care enough and give to
complete strangers, it speaks something to them."
For more information, go to http://treeoflifenewsletter.org/. Some
financial support comes through The Advance for Christ and His Church, a
second-mile giving program of the United Methodist Church. Details on
giving to the Advance - Tree of Life is Advance No. 123615 - are
available at http://gbgm-umc.org/advance/.
*Brands is the editor for print and electronic publications for the
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Quotes from
Shere Wright were contributed by Michelle Harvey Erpenbachin of the
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or
United Methodist News Service
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