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Basil Braveheart (center) shares a story with members of Trinity Lutheran Church, Stillwater, Minn., who participated in an immersion program at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

a spiritual element of the immer- sion—that heinous acts are not suddenly removed. It’s important to take the time to acknowledge them.” When people visit the Pine

American Indian ministries:

Immersion programs build bridges

Text by Francine Knowles Photos by Michele Hermansen


t Oaks Indian Mission in Oklahoma, Lutherans pon- dered what it means when a

white person supports sports teams that use racial slurs as their mascots. Many miles away at Living Waters Lutheran Church on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Caro- lina, visitors participated in worship that incorporated American Indian spiritual practices. Both of these groups were tak-

ing part in immersion programs hosted by ELCA American Indian ministries. Te programs are “vital” to the life of the ELCA, given the world’s diversity, said Gordon Straw, ELCA interim program director for American Indian and Alaska Native ministries. “More and more immer-

sion experiences are focusing on engagement. Doing service projects and providing clothes or food for distribution are still part of the experience but are less the focus in favor of a desire to learn about another sister or brother in Christ,” Straw said. At Oaks groups hear from


Cherokee storytellers and par- ticipate in Indian sports. Tey eat together “and engage in activities to inform them about the past, present and future of native people,” said Meredith Harber, pastor of Eben Ezer Lutheran Church, located on Oaks Indian Mission. “Tey wrestle through the things that we learned in our history books and through current media that send a message about people that is incorrect. “[Te goal] is to know the other.

Tat’s not just outside people com- ing in and using the Cherokee people as their personal museum. It’s also the Cherokee people hearing the stories of their family in Christ from across the United States. It’s to not assume, but to learn through one-on-one interaction.” Oaks Indian Mission hosts

roughly five immersion groups per year. Some have come for 25 years. “Spiritually, I’ve witnessed

people move through the shame and anger of what it means to live in a nation built on stripping thousands of tribes of their culture and iden- tity,” Harber said. “In some ways there’s this ongoing act of confes- sion and forgiveness. I think that’s

Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Lakota, con- versations focus on breaking down generalizations. Karen Ressel, pastor and director

of the Pine Ridge Retreat Center, said alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide and unemployment are oſten what people think of when they first participate in the center’s immersion program. She helps people “unravel that one-dimensional view” to understand in a broader context what life is like on the reservation. Visitors hear from descendants of

tribal members killed at Wounded Knee, visit a grassroots commu- nity development site and “learn how some Christian beliefs parallel native beliefs,” Ressel said.

Ways of worship At Living Waters, sage is burned as an act of cleansing before a liturgi- cal service begins. Te congrega- tion then performs a Cherokee song and prays to the east, south, west and north. “We look skyward to the heavens

and praise the creator for the beauty of his creation. … We give thanks for the earth,” said Jack Russell, pas- tor of Living Waters. Te congrega- tion then prays inward to cleanse their hearts and minds. Russell said the sage burning is

similar to the Lutheran practice of burning incense, and the act of pray- ing inward mirrors Scripture: “Create in me a clean heart” (Psalm 51:10). Immersion participants learn

that spiritual practices are an important element of community on reservations.

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