OWENSBORO, Ky. (KT) – Since 2014, more than 300 individual members of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church have served a Native American community in South Dakota that is recognized as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere where poverty, crime and abuse run rampant.
But the church’s link to the Lakota community dates back even further.
Randy Roberson, the uncle of Pleasant Grove Worship Pastor David Rodgers, has been helping in the Pine Ridge area of South Dakota for more than 20 years. He has been there 39 times himself and taken several hundred with him at different times. “I’ve always had a heart for the Native American folks,” he said. “Some plant the seeds, some water and some get to see the harvest. I always try to keep that in mind.”
Roberson set up the first visit for Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and it has since become the church’s biggest mission. Tiffany Perkins, the church’s director of missions, said, “It has become a passion and a blessing at the same time. God sees them the same way he sees us.”
Young and old alike have made the journey that is a 17-hour, 1,100-mile drive one way. “It’s brutal and you come back completely exhausted,” Perkins said. “This is our heart’s desire.”
Pleasant Grove is a mission-driven church as regular contributors to Annie Armstrong, Lottie Moon and the Cooperative Program. But this mission is when the church works as the hands and feet of Jesus themselves and it has become “the ultimate opportunity,” Perkins said.
Perkins said people between the ages of 9 and 72 have made the trip over the past eight years.
Rodgers said they originally partnered with other Kentucky churches through block parties and construction projects. But God connected them to a local church on the corner in Pine Ridge – Sharp’s Corner Baptist Church – and they were drawn to support and strengthen that church’s effort.
“We wanted to say, ‘OK, church. You’re there in this place, in this darkness, where God is doing a work. How can we strengthen your efforts?’’’ Rodgers said.
Even though the church’s mission trips have been only a week or two at a time, they have made an eternal impact. Sharp’s Corner has become Creator’s Fellowship and two church plants have developed from it in Porcupine, South Dakota and in Manderson, South Dakota. The latter is known as “Murder Town” with rampant gang activity. It’s a place of extreme darkness, Rodgers said.
“The natives are extremely spiritual people,” Rodgers said. “The culture is saturated in spiritual things. The problem was when they were introduced to the gospel centuries ago, they were told to cut their hair, read our translations, speak like us and lose all their culture to be a Christ-follower. There was a hardness toward the gospel. We believe that Jesus and His message is for all people, all the nations and tribes and can thrive in the cultural context of the Lakota people.”
Rodgers said they worship a great spirit, a creator. “We tell them this is who God is and that this is His son Jesus, and He loves you just the way you are. We’re trying to get them to see the gospel can thrive in a people group that doesn’t act like us or think like us.”
The church ministers through building loving relationships with the Lakota people by first helping them physically. They come to help make a better way for them and interject Jesus into their lives at the same time. Gaining that trust isn’t easy because of the history that has to be overcome, Rodgers said.
“The approach engrained in these people toward the gospel makes them sometimes reluctant,” Rodgers said. “There’s a great need for the gospel and a great need for revival.”
Creator’s Fellowship has gotten a foot in the door of the community through the many outreaches for children and meeting physical needs. Pastor Matt Haden started as a North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary in Pine Ridge. “It’s like it’s kind of come full circle,” Rodgers said. “We were supporting him through CP and Annie Armstrong and didn’t even know it.”
Pleasant Grove has found its mission niche and is fully committed to sharing Jesus at every turn. The Chanku Waste Ranch Camp was started as a way to provide hope in a seemingly hopeless area where there were 57 suicides between the ages of 8 to 15.
“We need to give them hope; we need to give them something else for the summer,” Perkins said. “During the school year, the teachers there can help but when school is out, it’s back to being hopeless.”
The Pleasant Grove team drives vans and buses to pick up kids who live as far as 45 minutes away and they are fed breakfast, lunch and take home a snack. The mission team is always there for the first week of camp and leaves Saturday on the next trip, Perkins said.
“The beautiful part of all that, in the beginning, the children were very opposed to the white man being there,” Perkins said. “It’s not only reconciliation between two cultures with a substantial history of pain and trauma but reconciliation to a very spiritual people who don’t incorporate Jesus. We look different, are from a different place and tell them about a man named Jesus. Because we have lived out that love, they are seeing conversions and people come to Christ.”
The van loads of people who come from Pleasant Grove are welcomed with open arms. They have developed relationships and now have an opening to share about Jesus whose name is now welcome too.
“Myself, personally, I ran from the call to do mission work as a teen,” Perkins said. “I was a believer at 11, felt the call and ran from Him. God has given me the opportunity to serve in missions and I’m so thankful. Every year I go, I get stretched in a new way. It is absolutely our pleasure to get to go and do this. It is something our entire church has gotten behind.”
Rodgers said the church typically takes around 40 to 50 people to South Dakota every year and often makes a return trip in the fall with a smaller group. They have had a few church members who stay the entire summer.
“At the end of the day, we don’t care if they remember the Kentucky group,” he said. “We want them first and foremost to know Jesus and know there’s a body of believers right down the road from them that loves them. Our goal is to connect them with the local church.”
Rodgers’ uncle has always felt a connection with the Lakota people. He often receives invitations to weddings or special occasions from those whose lives he has touched.
Roberson said an 8-year-old Lakota girl gave him the ultimate compliment. They were at a carnival and he asked the young girl if she wanted to go into the city to eat. “She said, ‘The white people stare at us. They think we’re dirty or will steal something.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m white and I don’t think that about you.’ She said, ‘You’re not white. You’re just a pale Indian.’ They have a name in Lakota for me that means that.”
For Roberson, who fell in love with the Lakota people after taking a church youth group there two decades ago, Pleasant Grove’s investment brings him to tears. “Of course, I’m proud of David and I love him deeply, probably more than a normal uncle. I respect that church and pray for them daily.”
Jonathan Bonar is the senior pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.