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Tree of Life connects mission volunteers with Native Americans

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Jessica Ostrawski

Jingle dancers from Rosebud Reservation offer a glimpse into Lakota traditions.

Aug. 16, 2005

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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Jessica Ostrawski

Jessica Ostrawski (second from left) has organized three Tree of Life Ministry trips with Minnesota churches.

“These are not all United Methodist teams, though the majority are,” Hall said. “Tree of Life works with all denominations, all government entities.”

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 volunteers.

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 Rosebud.”

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 through.’

“It’s very much an individual experience, an individual reaction,” she said.

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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Jessica Ostrawski

A young Lakota dancer on the Rosebud Reservation performs during a visit by Tree of Life volunteers.

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 experience.”

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, Hall said.

“When they (Native Americans) know that people care enough and give to complete strangers, it speaks something to them.”

For more information, go to 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

*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 Dakotas Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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