Goodness in the Badlands

The Badlands Wilderness. A bleak expanse of jutting rocks, gouged deep with trenches. The stones are wrinkled, puckered like ancient lips, sucking soundlessly on the snow which covers them. Bare spits of rock stick out and pierce the skyline, looming over vast stretches of barren prairie. Unforgiving country.

We are passing through the Badlands on our way to Eagle Butte, South Dakota. “We” are six members of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, and Eagle Butte is home to the Cheyenne River Youth Project, which for more than twenty years has served the youth of the Cheyenne River Reservation with after-school programs and weekend offerings.

Eagle Butte is the poorest county in America. Unemployment sometimes reaches 90 percent, and more than 60 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line. There are no cinemas or shopping malls in Eagle Butte – the “city” occupies less than one square mile of land. Predictably, such conditions lead some youth to despair: the suicide rate is high, aspirations often low. The long, slow grind of everyday poverty erodes the human spirit here as surely as wind and rain erodes the sandstone of Eagle Butte itself.

And yet…

The Ċokata Wiċoni Teen Center is a riot of color and vibrancy when we stagger from our van, weighed down with packs and luggage. A fantastical vista of giant mushrooms, a blue caterpillar wearing a monocle, and a vast top hat hanging from the ceiling greet us as we walk through the door, vestiges of last week’s Alice in Wonderland themed “Passion for Fashion” show. This is a place with energy and verve.

The children, too, are full of energy, as we discover on Monday. Our daily debrief is filled with frustration, as we talk of our inability to engage with the teens, and our struggles reigning in the enthusiasm of the younger kids to engage them in the tasks we had prepared. We had to break up a fight between brothers, and endure the ignominy of being ignored by uninterested teenagers. But we are called by the staff to remember the situation in which these young people find themselves – valuable wisdom from those more experienced – and we seek to demonstrate courage, an important Humanist value. We press on.

Tuesday is more successful. We feel ourselves gaining respect from the young people, as we strive to show our respect for them by planning carefully and maintaining high standards. The younger children in the Main Youth Center are more productive – one even offers me a gift, my smiling portrait drawn in crayon on a paper plate, a kind act of generosity. The teens in the Teen Center stop to chat awhile, even play a game of ping pong. Progress.

Wednesday is college night. Here we get to share our wisdom, regaling the youth with stories of our campuses, of philosophy, religion, physics and theatre. We hope to light a fire inside them, and show them that college is a goal they can aspire to.

Thursday rises to even greater heights, as Chris Stedman’s inspired idea to create a foam pit from hundreds of foam stamps that had been donated to CRYP takes shape. The children are clearly bowled over by this generosity, and one declares, as she lies back ecstatically amidst the colored foam pieces, “This is the best day of my life!”

Friday, I watch as teens who on Monday wouldn’t speak chat happily with the volunteers they have come to know. I watch as they demonstrate the courage of sharing something of their lives with people who have only come for a week and who, tomorrow, will be gone.

Woksape, wisdom. Woohitika, courage. Wacantognaka, generosity. Wowacintanka, respect. These are four Lakota values. Four Humanist values. We each found ourselves in the other, and learnt that, though our beliefs our different, our values are the same. Through interfaith service, we found Goodness in the Badlands.

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Interfaith Youth Core.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Isabel

    I don’t know what was going on that I missed this before. It’s beyond beautiful. It’s got a solid, well-shaped quality that makes me think of foundation stones.

    Thanks for reposting. I’m very glad I read it.

  • LucienBlack

    While I still struggle with how I can engage respectfully with people who espouse as virtue the very thing I consider vice (faith), this is the kind of cooperation that I think is key: working toward common values. I am curious how they responded to atheist concepts, or did it never come up?

    Also, I’m beginning to think your writing is head and shoulders above mine. I have much to learn.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      The only conversation regarding faith I had while I was there was with one of the permanent volunteers at the Youth Center, who was delighted to learn about Humanism and felt she was a Humanist too. I think some of the other Harvard people did discuss Humanism with some of the other volunteers – I’ll try to find out how those discussions went!

      Thank you for your kind words regarding my writing. I was very proud of this piece. To be honest though, some people think my writing is very overwrought ;). I’m constantly learning – I really enjoyed your post “Really? Can I propose the opposite?”, for instance. I need to learn how to do shorter posts like that!

      • LucienBlack

        Wait, did you just sorta compliment me on writing a *short* piece??

        If you only knew how hard it is for me to write short pieces. . . Some people think I must have inherited my preacher grandfather’s long-windedness, and I’m not sure they’re wrong. Glad to hear that someone is still reading my stuff though. (Frankly, I was proud of that piece too)