Testimonials from Past Red Shirt Participants:
In my memories, the Red Shirt Project makes its biggest imprint as a time of firsts. From my first time ever hosting a pow-wow, to the first time I slept under the stars in Utah as Forth-of-July fireworks lit up the sky, nothing I experienced at or on the way to the Pine Ridge Reservation was like anything I had ever seen before. I met so many amazing and fascinating people that I will never forget- both from interacting with the Native American villagers and from my fellow project-participants- and had experiences I knew to be life-changing.
I could probably go on and on for days in describing specific memories of my brief two weeks at Red Shirt (like the time we retired a flag and I got forty-two mosquito bites in one night, or the first day where the entire group gathered around a small TV and bonded as we watched Interstellar), but perhaps more important than the memories themselves is the unique nature of the Red Shirt Project that allows for their creation.
When my sisters and I arrived back home at the end of the trip, all we talked about for the next few days was Red Shirt. This project is unlike anything I have been a part of before because of the connections everyone has together. In spite of- or perhaps because of- the poverty the Native Americans in South Dakota suffer from, they have managed to band together in an overwhelming sense of community that I have never seen anywhere else. Not only did everyone know everyone, but they also looked out for and helped each other to a degree that I have never seen before. The only thing approaching the sense of community that I got from Red Shirt is the work of my own church, St. Mary's in Lompoc. There seems to be something about sharing faith that unifies people and causes them to be closer to each other emotionally, and I believe this to be part of what our mission was supposed to teach us.
As is fitting for a mission, my experience at Red Shirt changed my life, because it opened up a whole new part of it that I hadn't even known was hidden. I worked harder than I ever had, met people I never would have dreamed of, and learned about a nearly-lost part of American heritage. I think a trip to Red Shirt would be invaluable to any aspiring Christian, but beyond that, for someone who wanted understand human nature on one of its most fundamental levels.
When I first heard of the Red Shirt Project I envisioned a massive gathering of teenagers who slept in tents and sang Kumbyah in an obnoxiously overly cheerful manner. However, I was in for quite a surprise. By the time the entire group was gathered together I was really confused as to what kind of colorful characters I was destined to travel with in such close quarters for the next few days.
On the journey to the reservation I found out that there were people in the group that were from across the country to people only a few hours south of where I had been living. There were college students, high school students, and some people that had just graduated high school. So far I hadn't really talked to anybody besides my sister and I had kept to myself. I still had my mind set on the fact that this trip was a punishment forced up on me by my mother for making some very stupid and shortsighted mistakes and I intended to reinforce this mind set through my own actions.
Several times I was invited to join card games and this one guy with a Miami dolphin's hat futilely kept on trying to start a conversation with me, but I seceded to short replies and declining any invitation to play cards. The only person, aside from my sister that I didn't avoid was another quiet blonde girl whose name kept on escaping me and with whom I had formed a silent agreement with to always sit in the same car.
However, with each new day I opened up a little more to the people around me and by the last day of traveling I had learned to play a new card game and I actually knew the name of the girl I sat with and the guy in the Miami dolphins hat, along with some other people's names. On the last leg of the journey to the reservation I was starting to see this trip as more of a unique experience that I could learn to enjoy.
As we pulled into the winding dirt road that led up to the church and the area where we would spend most of our time I was struck by the peace and beauty in the nature surrounding the church grounds. I was also reminded of all the privileges that we all have and tend to take for granted. As soon as we got there we got to work setting up and for the first two or three days I was assigned to the group in charge of yard work in the cemetery. Soon I became a master at weed whacking. Those first few days made me feel like I was being held up to the sun on a metal platter but when I finished my days work I felt that part of me had been partially redeemed. For the next few days I strove to fight for that sliver of redemption I felt each time I worked until my hands went numb from weed whacking for so long.
Every night I went to sleep feeling that maybe I was getting just a little closer to the peace of mind that I wished to obtain. The daily ritual; waking up, cold shower, breakfast, prayer and discussion, work, card games, sleep; soon became a relaxing familiarity. As I began to look beyond my own selfish intentions I began to see all the culture and knowledge this place had to offer. The unique cultural experiences the Lakota people shared with us through crafts and songs, even the language that Father Two Bulls would teach us every morning before we ate breakfast. There is nothing like that first-hand experience that makes you appreciate everything around you more.
However, this Red Shirt Project had more to offer than just a unique cultural experience. Red Shirt opened my eyes and my heart to everyone that I had the privilege to work alongside with as a team. I met people I never dreamed I would have so much in common with. I met people that I could collaborate with in such a manner that nothing seemed impossible. The people I met at Red Shirt accepted me regardless of my past and they all made me feel so accomplished. Never before have I ever felt so accepted or accomplished then when I was at Red Shirt. Through my experiences at Red Shirt I transformed what I originally thought was a punishment into an experience that I shall never forget and shall always remain close to me.
At first sight the Red Shirt Village in the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota looked as if it were a desolate, barren land with little if any profound significance to me or my life. That impression, however, would soon be proven wrong. I felt that I would not have any life changing moments, rather simply a new experience in a new place. Soon I realized that I would not witness a new place, I would instead discover a new world, an incredible culture. I met incredible people that brought new perspective to my life. In the days that I toiled in Red Shirt I realized the importance of faith, of hard work. It was in Red Shirt that I first accepted, truly accepted, God, Jesus, the spirit of something so magnificent and magical that it defies explanation.
I saw something so American in that village, not what many see as "American" yet something so intricate to our foundation as a country; the idea that even when things are dark there is always light to be found. I found that the Native Americans of the village were so pleased with the little they had, that, in my eyes epitomized that ideal, that belief, that through arduous circumstances, resiliency could be seen.
The ideals of our nation, the principles of our faith, are not only prevalent in the Red Shirt Village, they are an intricate, universal, and rife part of the village. We must remember that faith can be a hero in places where struggle is widespread, and the future seems bleak. I have never seen such a richness of poverty, but I also have never witnessed such a richness of hope. Our nation can never forget our sorted history, a history that set up the current situation of destitution that is so rampant among the cultures of Native Americans. Through all this however it must be noted that the culture of the Lakota People exemplifies the necessity of us as a nation, as a people, to emancipate our humanity through the tragedy of our history.
When Michael became the new pastor of St. Mary’s, I can remember listening to his sermons, many of which included stories about the Natives from the Pine Ridge Reservation. I remember listening to them from a distance, without any real connection that I felt to these people from his stories. When Michael later asked me to come on the Red Shirt trip, I accepted mainly because I felt welcomed by him, and I had seen how excited he got every time he spoke about it.
While on the trip, we worked, and we worked hard. We worked together, ate together, and fellowshipped together. And as the trip went on, I experienced a softening of my own heart. The lives of those people on the reservation were important to me, as if they were my own family. The inner city youth that had come on the trip, who had first appeared a little rough around the edges, became friends of mine. I found that I became more of a role model than I thought I should be, and more of a leader than I had expected to be. Through the whole experience I felt a transformation that I could not have accomplished solely by education or my own willpower. James wrote in his epistle: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”
You see, before I went on this trip I would have told you that I felt compassion for the people in Red Shirt, and that I had every desire to see their needs met and their relationships grow in the Lord. But nothing that I could have said would mean anything in comparison to what happened once I went. On the Red Shirt trip, I learned that it isn’t enough to wish someone well when they are in need. I learned that passivity and apathy accomplish nothing for those who require our attention. Christians should be dedicated to following Christ, and He calls us into action. He promises that if we surrender to Him, He is faithful and just to not only forgive us, but to transform us. I can honestly say that I have experienced this firsthand during last summer’s Red Shirt Project.
Molina Jo S.
The Red Shirt project to me, is not only great for the community but it also works to bridge the gap between our cultures. Over the years, not only have I made new friends, but my family also adopted a member from the group into our own. The projects help to unite the community by working together and welcoming the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Every year, the community looks forward to working with this group and gets involved in the planning of future projects.
Red Shirt Table is located in the poorest county in the nation but is, in my opinion, rich in both culture and heritage. So not only does the group help the community, but the people in the community also share our culture with them.
Michael first asked me to come to Red Shirt in the summer of 2005. He told me it would be a "life-changing" experience. I was kind of skeptical saying to myself: 'yeah life changing, we'll see about that'. The first year we built a baseball field. The work was excruciating, but fulfilling. I felt as though I was really accomplishing something, and that was important for a kid who felt as though he really hadn't accomplished anything his whole life. But I didn't feel that 'life changing' moment that Michael described. Other people felt it. They stated it openly, and I envied them for their experience but looked down upon myself for my inability to grasp the revelations that they had. The second year we built a half-pipe for the kids who liked to skateboard. Again the work was both spiritually and mentally rewarding. I felt like a better person afterword, well I was a better person after that second year. The third year was kind of chill. We did maintenance work as well as finish the half pipe. After three years I came to better understand my moral obligation to help those who couldn't help themselves. I had this place called Red Shirt tucked in my heart, a place from which I could draw strength and guidance. The experience had matured me to a spiritual and knowledgeable degree that I was mostly satisfied with. But that life changing moment still escaped me.
Then the fourth year came. Most people only go three years, and when Michael asked me to go for a fourth I was like: "Yeah! Definitely". But this fourth trip I had a mission. I wanted to have that life changing experience that I had heard about on my first trip. I needed that. I needed it because I felt incomplete without it; I felt as though I hadn't experienced what I should've, that I had 'wasted' my free time up there just playing or relaxing. So we set off to do the work the Lord had made (I'm pretty sure that's in a song I heard). It was a good group that year, the best one of the four. But again, after the work was done and I was packing up my tent I still hadn't had that life changing experience. But then Henry, one of the young kids from the village, walked up to me and started talking. He said he wanted to give me something to show how much he cared about what we had done and he reached in his pocket and gave me his game boy. Now on the surface it doesn't sound like much, a kid gives up a toy so what? But this wasn't any normal kid. This is a kid who broke his ankle and while he was screaming in pain had to find the strength to keep his dad from crying as well. This is a kid who has 3 shirts. Who, like his older brother, has to take his clothes home and wears them almost everyday. This is a kid who sometimes doesn't even get 3 meals a day. And he reached out and gave me one of his most valuable possessions. He doesn't have anything to give away but he gave that to me, to ME. And there it was. That was the moment I was looking for. That was the moment that I could point to for the rest of my life and say it forever changed me. He showed a genuine form of love. He showed me that two total strangers, worlds apart, could love each other like blood relatives. And he showed me that what I had done for him and his village had truly mattered and was truly appreciated. He touched my heart, something few people have ever done, and I felt the most joyous, peaceful, indescribable wonderful feeling of my life. It was at that moment that I committed myself to life of public service. I said to myself: "If I can be as selfless and compassionate as Henry then maybe others can feel what I felt on that day. Maybe If I loved them as Henry loved me the world might be a little better of a place".
I went to Pine Ridge Trip two times, in 2000 and 2007. Both trips were amazing experiences because I got to help the community and meet new friends. The first trip was really interesting. First of all, I was the youngest kid and I was having bit of doubts when it comes to communication. I did not realize that I will be bonding with so many people and I was afraid that my hearing loss would get in the way. But this trip showed me there are more ways to connect with others. I learned to teach others and learn from others as well. I taught my language and showed them a different way of expressions. The others had taught me their culture and appreciation of nature. It was my first time seeing wild horses. That trip was also a test for me. A problem had arisen within our group and I was saddened by it but I helped my friend by sticking with her. Not because she was one of my best friends, but she helped me a lot. With God's help, I faced different things I would never have experienced in my teen life here.
The second trip involved fixing up a skate park and repainting a shed, which I had done before the previous trip. I reunited with old friends and welcomed many new friends. I felt different at that time because I was growing up and at the same time, there were several different people with different cultures. That trip was very interesting and it was also when I realized there were so many thunderstorms. While it is dangerous, it is also another way for Mother Nature to show us a way. Every time there are thunderstorms, everyone had to come inside and wait for it to past. There were some little issues but when everyone is inside together, somehow those tiny tidbits just disappear. It is like you never knew until you lose it. I love thunderstorms for it and because I like watching it as well. It was also the trip when I felt several mixed emotions. I was fortunate to meet several people who helped me throughout the trip. Those trips are not just to help other community, to reunite with others, to learn about what Mother Nature has to give. It is also about internal growth. You experience, learn, and grow. I no longer feel the need to worry about communication barriers. I got the chance to meet people of all ages. Each of them has something to offers and it is what makes the trips precious. It is also test of your faith. Trust and you will move on.
Bill Wong, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Covina, CA
Six years ago coming into Red Shirt, it was my first ever trip home away from home by myself. I didn't have a lot of expectations, either. All I knew at the time was the place was super poor and filled with Indian people. Little did I know, this would be where the transformation of myself begin- from a clueless young adult in the church to one of the well-respected up-and-coming young adult leaders in the Episcopal Church today. How did I do that? I learned how to be a servant of God and team player first, which happened during my first trip. Then, on the second and third trip, because I was older than most of the campers, Father Michael expected me to be a big brother presence for the younger first-timers. Since I am not an outspoken person, I chose to lead by example, which has become my leadership style today. Believe it or not, when I applied these three things to my ministry work at my church and nationally in Chinese ministry (coupled with my talents), they worked really well.
I know I have set a pretty high standard for future alums of the Red Shirt Project to come. But, I will say to all future alums this, "If a former know-nothing young person could reach this bar, you could also reach or fly above it! It's just a matter of if you use the skills you learned at Red Shirt or not. They are universal in everywhere where ministries need to be done. Proof: I personally relocated to my current parish 2 years ago, or 4 years after my first Red Shirt trip. After sitting on the sidelines for a few months, I decided to get involved in the church's ministries by using the same approach I learned in Red Shirt. It worked perfectly and I slowly become a well-liked member in my church community".
Rev. Ranjit Mathews, Assistant Rector, St. Michael's Parish, Milton, MA
Going on the Pilgrimage to Red Shirt was powerful for me, on many different levels. I had just gone on a one year mission trip to South Africa where I did work with youth on issues of HIV/AIDS in the surrounding area around Cape Town. I had gotten back from the States and my dear friend Michael Cunningham invited me to go on a Pilgrimage with other young people from L.A. to Red Shirt.
The God in me, said, “yes” right away. I mean, hey, I’m bout mission. And it was something. The trip, the journey, moving with mostly young Asian folk and other cool peeps was just great. We were on Pilgrimage in a white van from Los Angeles to South Dakota and we got to know each other in a deep, deep way. Little did we know of the way in which we would be transformed by the people of Red Shirt; From Rev. Robert Two Bulls and his father, to his family and other folks from the Lakota First Nation Folk.
I mean, you could say we did “work’ on their sacred ground and yeah, we did help to put up a basketball court and build a fire pit; but it was profoundly more than that. It was about meeting on holy ground and finding God in one another. Two groups who otherwise would be seen as different finding the love that transforms all of us. That’s not to say we weren’t moved by the reality of economic poverty that most folk live in on the reservation; but for me that was only a small bit of what I left with.
It was about the Eucharist on an open field. Celebrating together, breaking bread, sharing smiles, being Jesus to one another. This pilgrimage is something that I have never forgotten because the people on that sacred piece of land have remained forever embedded on my heart. I take them with me and remember their smiles, their tears… …and for that, I submit my transformation. That is the God of my understanding.