Seeing the Spirit in North Dakota

July 31, 2019
A group of Minnesota volunteers takes a break from painting a building on the Spirit Lake Nation Reservation. Photo courtesy of Ruth Pfaller

Twelve years ago, Mike Flowers stood on a hill near Sheyenne, North Dakota on the Spirit Lake Reservation, envisioning a scene where children and youth would play together down below. Trudging through four feet of snow might have slowed him down a bit that day, but it did not dampen his call and desire to make his dream come alive.

Today, Flowers—a licensed local pastor—is the director of the Spirit Lake Ministry Center, which supports people on the Spirit Lake Nation Reservation and welcomed 31 Minnesota United Methodist volunteers in early July. Ranging in age from 8 to 85 and coming from six different churches in our conference, we scraped and painted, made bunk beds, and did a little landscaping. Teams from Texas and Illinois were there, too, building decks and ramps on homes on the reservation. We also learned about the local culture, including Dakota stories, drumming, dancing, and crafts. And we shared stories of Jesus at Vacation Bible School.

“I went there to meet people from cultures other than my own and figure how we can accomplish things together,” said John Wolforth, a member of Walker UMC in Minneapolis. The multiple generations, the different teams from around the country, and the interactions we had with people on the rez were a good blend of that.”

The Minnesota team got to know Flowers, and his wife Libby Flowers, and hear about their ministry in addition to completing hands-on volunteer tasks. For nine months out of the year, he preaches, teaches, makes hospital visits, puts together children’s and youth programs, along with other pastoral duties, while also making sure the roads are plowed and the heat is on in his multi-purpose building. Each summer, he oversees about 400 volunteers who come from around the country to work on projects with the people who live in the surrounding area. “With” is a very important word to Flowers. To him, it means mutual understanding, respect, and partnership.  

Before the Flowerses started any programs, they spent two years visiting families, schools, parks, playgrounds, and tribal centers just to get to know people and build relationships. Mike Flowers became the first non-Native American to sign up for The United Methodist Church’s Native American Course of Study to become a pastor. 

The mutual understanding and trust created through these experiences are in play every summer.  Tribal leaders pick light construction projects that need to be accomplished, and they pay for the materials. Then Flowers arranges for teams of volunteers to complete them. It’s truly a 50-50 partnership. And because of it, over the years, hundreds of homeowners have been helped.    

All of the Minnesotans who went on the trip this summer are eager to go back. We are already planning another trip to Spirit Lake for next July, hoping to take twice as many people as participated this year. Mark your calendars now, and watch for more information and registration in early 2020. In the meantime, learn about Spirit Lake Ministry Center and considering supporting it financially. 

I will do the same. Why? Because Flowers is not one to point out his accomplishments and tout how he helped improve the lives of many in the area. He’s just trying to be faithful and follow his call. And it seems to me that a new ramp or repaired roof might be the least of it.

The day before our team left, the two of us walked up to the burial mounds at Spirit Lake. On the way back, we stopped on the hill where Flowers stood when his thriving ministry existed only in his imagination. We looked down. We saw about 30 youth—Black, White, Hispanic, and Dakota—playing basketball and having fun together. A beautiful sight to behold: mutual respect, understanding, and taking time to enjoy each other’s company healing a broken world before our very eyes. Thanks be to God!

Lyndy Zabel is director of community engagement and missional impact for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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