Never forget

this piece was originally published here via Baptist News Global on September 25, 2015

Some things cannot, and should not, be forgotten.

By Jason Coker

Never forget. As this month comes to a close, I remember the events of 9/11 with pain and sorrow. Eight men in our little town died in that national tragedy. I worked with a young 14-year-old boy who lost his father in that terrorist attack. It was very close to us in Connecticut.

The Friday before that terrible Tuesday, I was delivering clothes to a ministry with which our church partnered in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I’ll never forget driving down the West Side highway and into Lower Manhattan, and turning left through the shadow of those towers.

The skyline of Lower Manhattan is dramatically different today, and I finally went to the memorial for the first time this summer. The events of that day are still traumatic to me even though I didn’t lose anyone close to me — and it’s been 14 years. The mantra “never forget” is incorrigibly fixed in my mind, heart and even spirit.

“Never forget” dramatically took a new meaning for me just this past week when visiting South Dakota for our annual Together for Hope council meeting. Every year all the members of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s rural poverty initiative meet at a Together for Hope site.

Together for Hope started as a 20-year commitment to the 20 poorest counties in the U.S. Oddly enough, this initiative started the same year 9/11 happened. I had never been to South Dakota before, but I had heard of Byron and Toni Buffalo and the ministry they have in Bridger, S.D., on the Lakota Reservation.

I had also known Kenny and Karen Sherin, CBF field personnel in South Dakota who have raised their two boys in that incomparably vast landscape. I was excited to meet Byron and Toni, and actually see where Kenny and Karen work for Together for Hope.

On our first night with the Buffalos, Toni began to tell us the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It is one of the darkest moments in American history when our U.S. military massacred over 200 unarmed men, women and children of the Lakota people.

It was even more horrifying to hear a Lakota person tell the story, which is only accentuated by the fact that her husband, Byron, is a direct descendent of one of the survivors. Most of Byron’s family actually died in the massacre.

While the mass killing occurred on Dec. 29, 1890, it is still deeply ingrained in the cultural narrative of the Lakota people. The trauma of that event still manifests itself in the descendants of the survivors.

Toni said that she and other Lakota people have been told to get over it because it happened so long ago. What has happened has happened and there is nothing that can be done about it now.

In response to this, Toni told us that she felt like the Wounded Knee Massacre was an event to the Lakota like 9/11 was to all Americans, and it was something that deserved the same mantra: never forget.

At what point in U.S. history should we “get over” 9/11? Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 29, 1890, are not days that traumatized people “get over.” Dates like these change the way we live our lives; dates like these change our lives.

We can never be the same again, and this becomes part of our family’s narrative — a traumatic narrative. In the case of the Lakota people, it becomes a cultural narrative that is passed from one generation to another. These are, indeed, events that we should never forget.

This is why the work of Together for Hope is so important. Kenny and Karen Sherin have worked with Byron and Toni Buffalo for well over a decade to build deep relationships that have been transformative for both the Sherins and the Buffalos. With such a history of trauma specifically related to the way the Lakota people have been abused by the United States, this ministry is evidence that God is still at work reconciling people to each other and with God.

TFH field personnel, practitioners; CBF state/regional and global staff; and ministry partners were all in attendance at the Together for Hope 2015 Council Meeting September 20-23 in South Dakota Group picture taken at Badlands National Park courtesy of Stephen Reeves

TFH field personnel, practitioners; CBF state/regional and global staff; and ministry partners were all in attendance at the Together for Hope 2015 Council Meeting September 20-23 in South Dakota

Group picture taken at Badlands National Park courtesy of Stephen Reeves

Together for Hope sites across the country do this kind of work every day. From Arizona to South Dakota to Texas to Kentucky to Arkansas to Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama to South Carolina to North Carolina, Together for Hope builds relationships of genuine trust across all sorts of racial, ethnic and economic boundaries while tackling the enduring problem of poverty in America.

The real hope that is generated from these practitioners of grace reflects the very presence of God. Many of our Together for Hope people have given their lives — their time, talents, and resources — to change our world.

Megan Pike, CBFAR Assistant Coordinator, learning from Tameka, a 17 year old who works with the horses, how to ride Brownie, one of several horses in the ministry. photo courtesy of Stephen Reeves

Megan Pike, CBFAR Assistant Coordinator,
learning from Tameka, a 17 year old who works with the horses, how to ride Brownie, one of
several horses in the ministry.
photo courtesy of Stephen Reeves

An example of these transformative ministries is in Bridger, S.D., where Byron has a “horse ministry.” Byron brings people — many are very young — and shows them how to work with horses. In the process, healing happens, and he showed us.

He brought Rosebud (a beautiful brown and white paint) into the corral, and he told us that the spirit of a horse responds to our spirit. If something is not right with our spirit, the horse will know and show us what is wrong.

Byron Buffalo giving participants instruction on how to work with Rosebud (in background). photo courtesy of Stephen Reeves

Byron Buffalo giving participants instruction on how to work with Rosebud (in background).
photo courtesy of Stephen Reeves

One by one we came into the corral to work with Rosebud. We would command Rosebud to run around the corral and then change directions. Then we would tell her to stop. We would slowly approach her and rub her nose. Finally, we would walk away and Rosebud would follow us.

Rosebud reacted differently to each of us. When it didn’t seem to be working well, Byron would ask us what was going on in our spirit. He said the horse was just showing us what was wrong. We were forced to deal with our own fears, insecurities, difficulties, etc.

I can’t really explain why this was so emotional for all of us, but it was. Byron uses this as a way to help people heal after generations of trauma. I learned from Byron Buffalo, a descendent of survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, that what can never be forgotten can certainly be healed. It’s something I’ll never forget.

Jason Coker is pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn. He also is founder and chair of Delta Hands for Hope, a rural development partner organization with CBF Together for Hope: Rural Poverty Initiative.