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Reaching the Reservation

Expanded facilities enable South Dakota church to better minister to nearby Native Americans.

An Assemblies of God church in South Dakota close to a Native American reservation has grown into a multicultural congregation, thanks in part to an expansion of its facilities, which are used for community outreach.

In 2011, Family Life Assembly of God in Sisseton began using a 17,500-square-foot addition, which took five years to complete with assistance from a dozen U.S. Mission America Placement Service (U.S. MAPS) RV volunteers.

Family Life neighbors the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, which includes more than 13,800 Native Americans. Since the completion of its addition, the church has hosted an annual community-wide Vacation Bible School, as well as Dakota Partnership VBS — a collaboration with seven Presbyterian congregations from Chicago that hold the children's outreach in Family Life's facility.

“Before we completed our project, the Dakota Partnership used several locations for the VBS,” says Lead Pastor Vern F. Donnell, himself grew up on the Sisseton Wahpeton reservation. “By God’s providence, they saw our facility.” In the past four years, the congregations have ministered to 250 children.

Besides weddings, reunions, and funerals, the addition also has been utilized the past four years for Family Life’s annual free food distribution, in which 250 low-income families and residents of the reservation receive a truckload of donated fruit and vegetables.

Last year, a nearby elementary school required a complete renovation after sustaining smoke damage in a fire. For five months, Family Life allowed classes to be held for 250 students in the addition, which includes a gymnasium.

“It was an amazing opportunity for Family Life to say to the community that we are here to serve,” says Donnell, noting that the church has “adopted” and continues to support the school.

Donnell, 65, took over as pastor in 2006, a year before the church joined forces with Dakotah Gospel, a Native American AG congregation. Donnell is five-eighths Native American, tracing his ancestry to Sisseton Wahpeton, Sioux, and Chippewa.

Around 130 of the regular churchgoers are Native American, but the church, in a town of 2,400, also has African-American, Hispanic, and Asian attendees.

“U.S. MAPS played a significant role in the building program as many of the volunteers stayed with us from the beginning to the end,” says Donnell of the $1.2 million project. “If the work was done by contractors, the costs would have been around $2.2 million. Without their help, we would have never completed such a great project.”

Wes Vagle, a U.S. Missions missionary associate with U.S. MAPS, and his wife, Nancy, spent 26 weeks on the project, helping to install the heating and air conditioning.

“It has been great to see the blessing of the Lord continue to be demonstrated on this pastor and congregation,” Vagle says. U.S. MAPS is a division of U.S. Missions.

Donnell previously served with Vagle on the board of trustees at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, Dakota.

Eric Tiansay

Eric Tiansay has been a full-time journalist since 1993, writing articles for Christian media since 2000. He lives in central Florida, where he is an active member of an Assemblies of God church.