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Program invites mission groups to come to learn

Corey Greaves, left, and Annaweinita Miller change paradigm of mission visits on the Yakama Reservation. Photos courtesy of S.L.A.M. website

By Emma Maple – Intern

In 2012, Corey Greaves, a Native American Christ-follower who lives on the Yakama Reservation in Washington, developed a program called Students Learning About Missions (S.L.A.M.)

It invites family groups or middle school through college student groups to come to the reservation in order to serve and, most importantly, to learn.

"They come to learn Native American history and who we are," said Annaweinita Miller, S.L.A.M. trip director.

The trips were established in response to ineffective, insensitive mission trips. Before S.L.A.M., Corey said every summer people poured to the reservation on mission trips run in a "western, colonized paradigm." He called them "drive-by-mission trips."

"They came, painted houses, led vacation Bible schools, took before and after pictures of the houses they painted, went home after a week, put together a PowerPoint, showed it to the church and said, 'Look what we did!'"

The next week, more groups came and did the same things.

At the end of the summer, nothing changed on the reservation except a couple of paint jobs, but youth went home feeling good about themselves, he said.

Mission groups used a "typical top-down missiological paradigm of 'We're coming to help you,' never bothering to ask if we needed help," Corey said.

After watching summer after summer of unfruitful mission trips, he decided to develop a better program.

S.L.A.M. trips are run in "an Indigenous way with groups coming to learn about our ways."

"They come humbly asking, 'May I come?'" Corey said. "If we give them permission, they come in a posture of learning. We don't let them lead vacation Bible schools or kids clubs. They come to learn because they have a lot to learn."

S.L.A.M. visits run from Sunday to Friday 10 weeks a year—two in the spring and eight in the summer.

These trips are only one part of the program Corey runs called Mending Wings, a nonprofit Native American youth organization that serves the Yakama Reservation. He is president and cofounder.

Besides helping outsiders learn about Native American culture, Annaweinita said S.L.A.M. trips bring in income to support other Mending Wings programs. Because Mending Wings hires reservation youth to help run trips, they gain leadership opportunities.

"It's an investment in our kids' leadership and future, as well as the future, leadership and understanding of groups that come," she said.

Annaweinita invites each group that takes part in a S.L.A.M. trip. To find interested groups, she does outreach at conferences and networks online. Once she finds a group that might fit, she sends an invitation.

"That empowers leaders to be like, 'Okay, they invited us, we're not just going there to walk our way. They're inviting us to their home,'" she said.

Once a group chooses to take part in a S.L.A.M. trip, Annaweinita builds a relationship with them while they're at the reservation and maintains the relationship when they have left. Often, she invites groups back in a few years.

S.L.A.M. trips are usually booked well in advance, often filled for the following spring and summer by September and October, sometimes before the schedule is posted. Because so many want to take part in these programs, each summer is jam-packed.

This summer, about 380 took part in S.L.A.M. trips.

Even though Annaweinita and Corey emphasize this is not a traditional mission trip and is about learning humbly, they said sometimes a group slips through the cracks and comes "to help those poor Indians."

When these groups refuse to accept they are learners rather than teachers, "it does not work out well," said Corey.

This summer, one group had to leave midweek.

"We do have groups that don't get it." Corey said. "They want to function in that old model, because they think that's what works. From their perspective, it's working, but when we talk to the Indigenous people, it's not working."

That model has been around since Columbus landed. It hasn't changed much, he said, even though less than three percent of Native people claim to follow Jesus after more than 400 years.

"That's not a good return. It begs the question. Is it the model? I believe it is," Corey said. "A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. We see that in short-term youth mission trips."

While S.L.A.M. trips focus on how guests can learn from those on the reservation, Corey said the Yakama do learn from people who come. One week this summer, there were more than 80 people from different cultural backgrounds—Samoans, Tongans, Hmong, Alaskan Natives and Africans.

"One night when we had a Salmon Feast, our kids drummed and danced. Then we invited the guest groups to share their dances. It was a cultural exchange experience for all of us," he said.

Each year, S.L.A.M. trips have one of four themes that repeat every four years: compassion, courage, honesty and respect. Courage was the 2023 theme.

The themes are woven into the program through teaching that focuses on the senses. The first day, participants hear a teaching on the year's virtue, targeting their sense of hearing.

During the next days, they focus on their other senses to see the virtue in everyday life. For example, participants use touch the second day to make mats or moccasins, learning about the compassion of nature and the world everyone is part of, said Corey.

Next, they have a lesson on the virtue through sight, then taste and so on.

"By the end of the week, they used all their senses in an Indigenous way," Annaweinita said. "It's a different way of looking at life. People won't get it in one week but will forever be changed. They go home with different feelings—being learners and part of the family."

"Our spirituality is in and through everything we do." Corey said. "For me, as a follower of the Jesus way, I want to experience what it is to be a follower of Yeshua. What does that look like? Sound like? Smell like? Feel like?"

Corey's desire to learn and teach about Jesus was part of the reason he started Mending Wings.

"I had a pretty clear vision of what the Creator was calling me to do," he said.

Mending Wings focuses on "teaching kids stories of Jesus from an Indigenous perspective and theology, which is different from European theology," he said.

"We don't say we have the Creator all figured out or put in nice theological boxes that explain everything, as often happens in western theology," Corey said. "In Native theology, we don't take the mystery out, because it's wonderful. That understanding humbles us."

Focusing on Jesus' story from an Indigenous perspective also means honoring and remembering their culture and who they are as a people.

"We talk about our faith in Yeshua, but also talk about how important it is to hang onto and remember our spirituality as Yakamas. Before we had a Bible, the Creator gave us that spirituality. We try to tie that in together, not throwing one out over the other, because we don't see them as mutually incompatible realities," he said.

A song by his friend Cheryl Bear summarizes how Corey feels about his experiences of Jesus in his culture:

"You spoke to our grandfathers many ways through Mother Earth,

through visions and rituals,

through fasting and prayer,

through holy men who prophesy through our sacred songs and dance,

and then you sent your son Yeshua and you spoke to us through him."

"Jesus makes what the Creator has given us more beautiful," Corey said. "Now we also have a Savior."

He incorporates this cultural understanding for S.L.A.M. visitors, so many leave saying they have a bigger picture of the Creator.

"If we learn, worship and look at the Creator through our own cultural lenses, we have a narrow view of this infinite, invisible, mysterious Creator. When we see the Creator through other cultural lenses or perspectives, we gain a bigger picture of who the Creator is. No matter what culture, we all use finite minds to describe the infinite," he explained.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October 2023