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Insights into Kingdom Workers ministry with the Apache people.
by Anna Sherod, Kingdom Workers' Field Manager
Dear Apache Mission Supporter, this story is a part of a longer article, a series of reflections from the Apache mission program manager, Anna Sherod throughout the late Spring and Summer of 2015.
Anna usually lives in Whiteriver, on the White Mountain Apache reservation. She broke six vertebrae in a car accident in June and has been recovering at home in California since then.
On April 25th seven Apache friends came to an all-day Lutheran Health Alliance Diabetes Training in Phoenix. They boarded the Apache Christian Training School (ACTS) van, leaving at 4AM from Whiteriver, AZ. Its green arrowhead-and-cross logo, flashed by Canyon Day, Carrizo, Cibecue, and Globe, proclaiming that there were Lutherans on the move. The road was long, but the ACTS van was driven by Manda, who’s used to driving an ambulance as an EMT. Her passengers felt safe, even as the van snaked its way through the Salt River canyon’s many twisted turns. Laughing, they joked about if they would have enough time for the frequent bathroom breaks that are necessary when a group of diabetics travel together.
Seeing them in the van reminded me of the last time that I’d driven a group to Phoenix. In September, a few people interested in developing a Christian band had come for the ride, to get leadership training and attend a service at Crosswalk. In the subsequent nine months, they had formed a band called the Lutheran Apache Mission Band (LAMB). So many people want to sing with LAMB these days that it sometimes resembles an unruly contemporary choir.
On that morning in April, the Apache Christians made it safely to Phoenix with a few minutes to spare. The topic of the training that they were so eager to attend was evangelism; targeting community members with diabetes. I breathed a sigh of relief to see their dirt-splattered ACTS van pull in to Arizona Lutheran Academy. I hugged them and showed them to the classrooms, the bathrooms. Some members from other congregations had already seated themselves in the training room, and soon it was time to start the day-long session.
As the trainees from each congregation introduced themselves, each participant opened up to their Christian brothers and sisters about their personal connection to diabetes. The Apache group went last. With tears, individuals in the group said, “I’m afraid that my Mom is going to leave me alone [if she dies from diabetes],” and “I myself have diabetes… my sister has diabetes too, but she’s given up on her life.” Other congregation members from the Phoenix area spoke of navigating their local healthcare systems and taking advantage of various types of insurance. I had a flashback to the week before, when I spoke with a member of the Whiteriver Lutheran church. She was limping on a broken leg. She told me that she had waited to see a doctor at the hospital for two days in a row, but had never gotten treatment. Healthcare is a set of completely different issues on the reservations.
The Lutheran Health Alliance’s trainers (a dietician, an Indian Health Services nurse, and a peer support group leader) did a great job encouraging each congregation in their plans for compassionate outreach. At the end of the day of training, the group from Whiteriver promised each other that they would keep meeting to support each other and reach out to the community. “We want to address denial,” they said, “so many people have a disease that’s slowly killing them, but they don’t want to deal with the issue because they’re scared that there’s no cure.” Another member spoke up, “But we can’t just talk about diabetes. That’s just the beginning. Everyone is going to die – they need to know about Jesus. That’s why we’re going to meet.”
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A few weeks later, at the second post-Phoenix diabetes session in Whiteriver, the group decided to have a healthy potluck, following “My Plate” suggestions from a governmental health initiative to learn about portion sizes. As we filled up our plates, there was some of the usual joking about whose plate was the best, and who was managing to fit more on their plate than “allowed.” We sat down. We were in the Gunther Parish Hall at the Whiteriver church, an all-purpose room that’s used for devotions, alcohol-recovery ministry, music practice, craft nights, and more. We’d pushed four weathered tables together, and there were about a dozen of us ready to pray.
Suddenly, a family peered through the open door, looking at the food. The Whiteriver Lutheran Diabetes Peer Support group sprang into action, inviting them in, asking their names, shuffling to make room at the table, and explaining that we’re going to eat and have a bible study. I could see that they were excited to put the training they received from the Lutheran Health Alliance to use.
The incoming family was dirty. There was a mother, father, and little boy. The boy, maybe four years old, had layers of snot and dirt caked on his face. They looked happy to be getting food. As they dished up, the little boy looked at a poster in the kitchen.
“Is that Jesus?” he asked, pointing vaguely in the direction of the food and the wall.
"That's not Cheetos," I said, thinking that he was pointing at the bag of chips that we've grouped in our “carbohydrates section.”
“Not Cheetos,” he giggled, insisted, “Jesus!” Yes. That's a painting of Jesus at the “last supper” with his disciples. “He's eating too,” the little boy said matter-of-factly.
As the family settled in with the group, someone explained that we are trying to support each other and invite others to join us as the community struggles with diabetes. The mom of the family looked around and saw some brainstorming that the group had done the week before. One word jumped out at her from the poster: “Depression.”
“Does depression cause diabetes? I think I have depression.”
One of the group members suggested that depression might cause someone to eat certain foods, or not care about their health. The little boy interrupted, pointing to another picture on the brainstorming from last week, “Is that a heart? My mom’s heart is racing sometimes.”
About half of the group gathered there for Diabetes support and fellowship also participate regularly in the alcohol recovery programs at the Whiteriver church. We could already smell the alcohol seeping out of these parents’ pores. The little boy continued, confirming his family’s problem, “She drinks a lot, they fight each other.”
The mother of the boy looked like she was going to cry. "What he says is right. We are looking to get sober. He prays for us. He’s our little angel.”
The Diabetes Support Group members didn’t hesitate. They took each member of the family aside, prayed with them, and invited them back for the alcohol recovery group, the next day. The devotion that we read that evening was about dealing with the problem of pain, and we prayed again, giving our hurt to the Great Physician. The family left smiling, after the little boy had pointed out several more pictures of Jesus and been told a few more stories about him.
As we were cleaning up the pot luck, we got the message that somebody was having a wake that night in the neighborhood for a family member. The Lutheran Apache Mission Band was being asked to play. We weren’t already on “the list” to play at that wake, so we waited by one of the bonfire, payed our respect to family members sitting by the open casket, and hung out for a while as gospel music played and speeches were made. Later in the night, as rain sprinkled down on the makeshift tin roofs sheltering those at the wake, LAMB played a few songs, accompanied with guitar, ukulele, and tambourine. LAMB’s guitarist gave a devotion to the wake’s attendees, explaining the lyrics to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Many in the crowd expressed their thanks for LAMB’s music and gospel message.
The next night, on Friday at the alcohol recovery meeting, several of us were hoping to see that family again with the boy who had asked about Jesus. They didn’t show. “At least they know where to find us now,” I thought. There wasn’t much time to worry about their whereabouts because there were another 40 or so recovering alcoholics that were showing up for the meal, worship, and group sessions that night. In particular, I noticed another couple in distress that night. The rain of the last few days had wreaked havoc on their lives because they were homeless, living in a car with the windows busted out.
In Arizona at certain times of the year, rainfall forces poisonous spiders out of their lairs. Some venomous brown recluse spiders had taken refuge with this couple in their car.
We talked long after the official program ended. I listened to the wife’s stories while someone else talked to her husband. She told me of her Mormon upbringing and fear of punishment. She showed me the horrible network of spider bites on her back: puss coming out of the purple welts. They had sought treatment from the hospital but hadn’t been seen all day. She wryly told me that they were headed back to face their friend, “Spiderman” in the car.
On Saturday, June sixth, the rain had stopped, and the weather was beautiful. I prayed that it would stay like this for a few days and that “Spiderman’s victims” would be seen by medical professionals soon.
I had all morning to pack up and get on the road to the San Carlos reservation. The churches in Bylas and Cibecue had requested help with restarting/revitalizing their Sunday School programs, and I’d been communicating with several visiting volunteers for months. Today was the day that the volunteers would show up, and the work of expanding these Christian Education programs would begin. I was excited as I folded Kingdom Worker T-Shirts, and packed them into my car along with supplies that had been donated for the project. I thought through the conversations I’d had with the ladies in Bylas and Cibecue about their hopes and struggles. How important God’s Word is for every generation! What a blessing that Kingdom Worker volunteers could partner with them to build their confidence as educators! I packed clothes for the next few days – I would stay in Peridot and connect with church members there about some community-driven Lutheran Health Alliance initiatives after orienting the volunteers in Bylas.
As I drove, I looked forward to the midway point of the Salt River Canyon. I often stop there to use the restroom and take a walk. A week before, I had been there with Apache friends from both reservations – meeting in the middle to swim and fish. I never got to the canyon that day.
A few miles before the worst part of the road, I lost control of my car, and skidded through gravel. As I corrected to get back on the road, my steering wheel locked up and my car flipped over two or three times. The accident happened so quickly that the only thought I can recall is a sinking feeling, noise, and pain.
As I felt sensation return to my body, I knew that God had sparred my life. Gingerly crawling out of the drivers-side window, I lowered myself onto the ground and only had seconds to wait, motionless, praying, before help was on the way. It was a miracle. Dozens of miles away from the nearest home, hours from the nearest city, an off-duty EMT had seen the accident and stopped. She helped stabilize my neck and spine, which were broken. An off-duty firefighter was there within five minutes – my good Samaritans. The next few days were a blur – helicopter ride to Phoenix, MRI, prayer, vomiting, bedpans, gratitude, ICU, family, pain.
God has given me such peace throughout this experience. He gave me experiences to empathize with the pain of others and to struggle with the nature of suffering before showing me his grace in my suffering. He has shown me his daily power to preserve us. He has guarded and blessed the projects that were in the pipeline for the Apache reservation this summer through Kingdom Workers and enabled local Apache members to step in to more significant roles.
In this time of healing and reflection, I’ve seen God use my current disability for his glory and my good. We are indeed valuable to God, his children, called to proclaim his glory. He will use us! He will give us good gifts! When we see pain and suffering around us, or experience it in our own lives, we have tremendous opportunities because we have a tremendous God. He will give us the power to speak his Word, do his will, and help. He will give us the peace to accept, trust, and lean only on Him. We can trust our great God in any situation, whether we are the ones charged with caring for others, or we are the ones in desperate need of care. Our God is stronger than our circumstances, and our eternities are secure with him.
Thank you to the many people who have prayed for my recovery following the accident this summer. God willing, I will be back on the reservations later this fall. Please join me in praying for the Apache people, and partner with us as a volunteer or donor, as Kingdom Workers continues to empower laypeople to share the message of our amazing God’s grace.