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East of the Badlands

Missionary couple hopes for help in the tough mission field on the reservation.
East of the Badlands in southern central South Dakota, the Rosebud Indian Reservation of the Lakota Sioux is almost 2 million square miles with 11,000 people — and rife with endemic poverty, domestic violence, addiction, suicide, teen pregnancy, and hopelessness.

Common Lakota last names — Kill The Enemy, First In Trouble, Whirlwind Soldier — reveal a tribal culture that’s distinctly their own, as is their indigenous spiritism religion.

Johnny W. Wade and his wife, Heidi, Assemblies of God U.S. missionaries in Intercultural Ministries, arrived to minister in 2009. Johnny believes he received a directive from the Lord: “To reach the adults, reach the children.”

Heidi concurs: “The children are an open door to reach the families.”

Various kids on the reservation are descendants of famed Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse among them. But without intervention, these children stand to be sucked into the same generational misery that has long beset this reservation and the eight others in South Dakota. In time, by impacting Lakotas under 18 with the gospel, their parents and the community can experience transformation in a multipronged strategy.

“First is bringing hope to the next generation, and second is building relationships in our 21 communities,” Heidi says. Through those relationships, the gospel can mend the brokenhearted through the transformational power of Jesus. They also aim to train leaders.

After the Wades graduated from Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU), they sensed the Lord calling them to minister to this Native American people group, long noted as a difficult field, in Heidi’s home state of South Dakota. The couple became pastors of All Nations Family Worship Center in Mission, a town of 1,250. This Assemblies of God congregation started in 1973.

To reach the children with the love of Christ, Johnny emulated the sidewalk Sunday School ministry he had known in the Dallas metro area. Though designed for urban areas, Johnny, a Mississippi native, believed the program could reach Rosebud’s children ages 5-11. Equipped with a special truck designed specifically for sidewalk Sunday School — the side pops down into a stage — that was donated to the ministry by a Christian on a neighboring reservation, the couple launched Metro Kidz, which reaches over 400 two to three times each week.

Among those impacted is Mark. At age 10, Mark inherited the post of medicine man. However, while attending All Nations’ vacation Bible school, he encountered God’s presence. Since then, Mark has followed Christ and seen an increased receptivity to the gospel in some of his other family members.

Monday nights, Johnny, 46, drives a three-hour bus route each way to bring adolescents from throughout the vast reservation to “Acts 4:20,” the 25-strong youth group for those aged 12-18. But without helpers to sustain this outreach that meets weekly in the church, the couple found the pace untenable.

“We have such a huge opportunity to change a generation, but there’s not enough help,” Johnny says, adding that most of the reservation is composed of children and youth. Teens and young adults in particular have high suicide rates. “There’s a huge potential to transform this next generation. The church world as a whole doesn’t realize the need. We hope people will respond.”

Through a recent partnership, SAGU, where Johnny in 2006 and Heidi in 2007 earned church ministry degrees, will begin sending long-term workers to assist the outreach. And although the need for workers is keen, the Wades are clear to say that the field is not easy. Those who come need to have a divine call to serve on the reservation. “It’s very tough ground,” Heidi says.

John Boyles, a Lakota grandfather and longtime congregant of All Nations Church, understands the importance of reaching kids with the gospel.

“The people around here are so traditional,” Boyles says. “They believe Jesus is a white man’s God.”

Through the Wades’ ministry, children are hearing God’s Word, Boyles says.

As are the adults. Already with a keen understanding of the supernatural realm, many are hungry for a deeper hope. A descendant of a Lakota chief stopped by the church requesting a Bible and eager to hear more about Christianity, Pentecostalism in particular. Medicine men often attended church services before COVID-19 forced the end of in-person attendance. One healer who brought his followers to listen to him debate Johnny ended up coming to faith in Christ and leaving his post.

A common question is the difference between the traditional Lakota religion and the Christian faith that the Wades proclaim. As the Lakotas are accustomed to supernatural manifestations, sometimes the couple are asked to contrast Pentecostal Christian faith with their own traditional religion. The answer is the source of power.

“We’re different because we only use the name of Jesus,” Heidi says.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.