For some people, the word “missionary” conjures up images of living in an impoverished place and teaching about God in an unfamiliar culture in a foreign country. But for Gayle Schrack, a longtime member of Stow Presbyterian Church, that place is a mere 17-hour drive west of her native Akron.
Gayle and her late husband Dan became missionaries six years ago to a small community of American Indians living on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota. In June, she led a small team of eager volunteers back to the town of Marty, S.D., to teach the children on the reservation about Jesus. The team ran a vacation Bible school program that Gayle wrote herself.
“This year was our best year out there with the kids,” she said. In a town with less than 500 residents, the program was attended by over 40 children from Marty and nearby Wagner. “I really feel we reached the children this year more than in other years.”
Gayle and her husband chose to minister to American Indians because of the needs they saw in the culture. Unemployment, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and gambling are all widespread on the reservation. Young adults often leave the reservation in search of jobs, and it is common to find children raising each other in the absence of attentive parents. The Schracks’ purpose was to offer hope to a community that sorely needed it.
However, finding a foothold in the small Sioux community proved difficult.
“It’s not just about going out there. It’s about building relationships,” Gayle said. “And it takes time to build a relationship. They [American Indians] don’t trust like we do. They’ve taken a lot of hurts.”
On the reservation, the Schracks found, the suspicion of “white” people and outsiders isn’t ancient history. It’s current. Even in recent years, the government has revoked some of the lands from the Sioux reservation for domestic agricultural interests.
“To this day they are still not treated like American citizens,” she said. It has been a challenging barrier to break through as a missionary.
“The first couple of years, there was not much respect for what we were doing,” she said. Even the local Presbyterian Church was reluctant to be involved. However, she and Dan were determined and returned to Marty each summer. Dan often ran a Bible study or prayer group for adults and each year Gayle would run a VBS program for the children. Over time, trust began to build.
“Seeing the people at the church responding to us – the way they started taking part in the lessons – it’s all about relationship building,” she said. This year nine volunteers from the local church joined her VBS team.
Gayle’s VBS program focused on the last week of Jesus’ life, from his arrival in Jerusalem for Passover to His death and resurrection. And just as if she were teaching in a foreign country, some of the lessons needed a creative connection to the children’s native culture to really take hold.
“One lesson included the story of Jesus overthrowing the moneychangers’ tables in the temple,” she said. “We weren’t sure how to explain to the kids why Jesus was so angry. So, we talked to them about the place where they hold their powwows, how they consider that place sacred and how they would feel if someone desecrated it or disrespected it. They got that right away.”
Members of the local church also dressed in costumes and acted out that story. “It really made an impression on the kids to see it and to have people they knew acting it out,” she said.
A member of the tribe also taught the children to sing “Amazing Grace” in their native tongue through the week.
However, Gayle said, there are some things that seem universally appealing to children – candy and clowns. She said the leader who taught the daily Bible verse offered candy to anyone willing to try to recite the verse from memory, with great response.
“Even the 4-year-olds wanted to try to recite the verses,” she said. “By the end of the week all the kids knew them.”
Games leader John Benedik, also a member of Stow Presbyterian Church, dressed up as a heyoka, a sacred clown of the Sioux Indians. His colorful costume included a jester’s cap, but this clown was no fool.
“The heyoka is an asker of questions,” Benedik said. He described it as someone who makes sure people are doing what they are supposed to do, akin to a conscience, but perhaps with a trick or two up his sleeves. Benedik carried a spray bottle of water, a bucket of confetti with which to “douse” unsuspecting kids, and a bag of peanuts on his belt, although the trick with the peanuts ended up being on him.
The idea was that the kids had to open the peanuts, just like they open up their hearts to learning about God, Gayle explained. But the bag broke, so the lesson became a mad scramble of children trying to get the peanuts.
Gayle said over the years she has adjusted the program to better engage the children. Some activities that are must-haves for VBS programs in Stow, crafts for example, don’t appeal as well to kids on the reservation.
“We had done crafts in previous years and found them laying in the grass afterward,” she said. “So, rather than waste time and money on something that didn’t seem to get their attention, we now bring Bibles for the kids and spend time teaching them how to use them.”
She brings picture Bibles for children not yet able to read. For older ones, she brings copies of a special children’s Bible that includes craft and game ideas alongside the stories, as well as an index of topics a child might want to read about, and where to find the verses that would address those topics.
A big part of Gayle's program takes place before and after the official program lessons and activities. During the pre-program gathering and the post-program meal times each evening, she tries to have the adult volunteers interact informally with the children. It allows the adults the opportunity to approach the kids about real life issues, like bullying, she said.
“One girl was ostracized among her peers. Her mom was white and her dad was Indian and they had separated – she was living with dad on the reservation,” Gayle explained. “And she was blonde, which is very unusual in Indian culture. She was different and the other girls shunned her. We tried to use that opportunity to get through to the other girls how they were treating her.”
Ultimately, the purpose of the program is to help the kids to start a relationship with Jesus Christ. Wednesday’s lesson was on Jesus’ death on the cross. The leaders put a large cross made out of painters’ tape on the wall, and the children were invited to fill out a card, listing things they had done wrong, and tape it to the cross. Then they talked about how those sins were forgiven, thanks to Jesus.
“It was amazing to see the looks on their faces as that sunk in,” Gayle said. “That was a really powerful night. We had eleven children accept Jesus that night.”
The lessons are not all one-way, however. Gayle said developing an understanding of American Indian culture has also been a learning experience for her. This summer, for the first time, the team was invited to a powwow on their last night in town.
“This was not a touristy kind of event,” she said. “It was a privilege for us to be invited. Kids from our VBS came up to talk to us there, so that made us really feel accepted into their community.”
Gayle described the powwow as an intense event, with a handful of men and boys beating a large drum, and numerous men, women and children in elaborate and colorful Indian attire singing and dancing fervently in a circle. She admits she was a little nervous about attending until two friends from the community explained how the singing and dancing was their way of praying to God – the Great Spirit.
“That was a really eye-opening experience for me,” she said. “They were praising God, but in their own way. The drumming and the singing were powerful. It just goes through you.”
Gayle said it’s been difficult to continue her mission work without her husband by her side. Dan passed away unexpectedly in 2010. This was her second trip to South Dakota leading the team on her own. However she said it’s been amazing to see the transformation in the community over the years.
“The church there is growing. It’s good to see where they were and where they are now. And I think it’s partly due to our church showing them we care.” She keeps in touch with several volunteers and children in Marty during the year to remind them that someone cares about them. She is also pushing the local church to take on the responsibility of running their own VBS program so she can eventually expand her ministry to other reservations where she has been invited.
Her church is happy to support her efforts. “Gayle has the heart of a true servant and a calling to share God’s love with our friends in South Dakota,” said Dr. David Weyrick, pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church. “She has learned to understand and respect the cultural diversity of the Yankton people and has developed great relationships there. She works hard preparing the VBS programs and God moves through her efforts.”
Gayle is already planning next summer’s mission trip and said being a missionary is a life direction that gives to her more than it takes.
“I think we (the volunteers) are blessed more than the children we serve,” she said. “Seeing the kids grasp that Jesus knows them and cares for them, that he loves them and died for them…when the truth comes to their faces you realize that this is not just time spent – it’s time well spent.”