Monday, October 26, 2015

Good Things Are Happening in the Badlands

Kathleen Norris, in her compelling book on the spiritual geography of the Dakotas, describes this rugged prairie landscape as a panorama of tensions and extremes – hospitality and insularity, contradiction and wholeness, change and inertia, bounty and emptiness, hope and despair, open hearts and closed hearts.[1] It’s the kind of place you have to wrestle with before it bestows a blessing, a kind of crucible where all our projections and fruitless desires are crushed in order to taste the sweet wine of reality. The Dakotas are a painful reminder of human limitation but they also, as Thoreau would put it, fill “our need to witness our limits transgressed.”

When Corey Harouff came to Rapid City over fifteen years ago, the religious landscape was as desolate as the geography. In this beautiful outpost wedged between the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, and the historic “Old West” town of Deadwood, 94% of teenagers were not active in a local church. “It broke my heart,” Corey recalls. “That’s the thing that compelled me to start Young Life here. There’s a lot of kids that need to hear about Jesus.”

At the time Young Life was in every state in the union except one – South Dakota. No staff. No volunteers. Not one club. It was the perfect setting for God’s miraculous splendor to show up, akin to water springing from a rock, manna falling from the sky, or primordial light breaking through the darkness. And like the Rapid Creek flood of 1972, the overflow of God’s grace took this town by storm, transgressing the limits of human imagination.

Corey now oversees one of the largest and most successful Young Life areas in the country: 7 staff. 90 volunteer leaders. 350 kids at Young Life club. 400 kids at WyldLife club. Last year they took 350 kids to camp. YL College draws 50 on a regular basis. There are over 2,000 kids being intentionally pursued by leaders every week in Rapid City. Corey’s annual budget exceeds $700,000 – a miraculous providence for a relatively small town of 70,000 people. 

If we borrow fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa’s definition of sin as “the failure to grow,” it might be said that God has done some definitive work in these parts. “Every year we grow,” Corey says. “It’s truly the hand of God. God is working.” Clearly God is present. But as a true prairie laborer, Corey’s success is shot through with rugged pragmatism. “We’ve got great staff, great leaders. And we ASK! We ask people to get involved, to help, to lead, to give. Jesus said, ‘You have not because you ask not.’ We’re not afraid to ask. But we don’t ask off the cuff, we ask in the context of the relationship. We’ve created a community here.”

Earlier this month I joined Corey for a meeting with Bishop Robert Gruss and a select number of priests from the Diocese of Rapid City. Drawing on emerging models of Young Life-Catholic collaboration in other parts of the country, Corey sees this as an important step toward reaching every kid. “We’re wading into the waters of partnership here,” Corey noted. “We’re earning the right to be heard with the Catholic Church, and to cast a vision for reaching kids together for Christ.”

Corey has begun the process in true Young Life fashion. He has built relationships. It began with Sister Margaret, his spiritual director, who introduced him to Fr. Mark. After ten years of friendship with Fr. Mark, who serves as diocesan director of vocations and stewardship, Corey invited Fr. Mark to join the Young Life committee, a step overwhelmingly approved by the bishop and his advisors. He has plans to bring priests to camp, to provide training for Catholic leaders, and to get Catholic priests and laypeople involved in direct ministry to kids.

“It’s all very exciting for me. I have a heart for the Church and for kids getting connected to the Church where they can grow for a lifetime,” Corey explains. “If you have Catholics in your community, don’t give up. Keep knocking on the doors. Keep training your leaders to work with Catholics. Keep honoring our common faith. Keep majoring in the majors.” In the arid plains of South Dakota, the “Big Dream” of Jim Rayburn continues. Christians are stacking their hands on the ‘majors’ so that kids might know Jesus Christ and grow in their faith.

Indeed, good things are happening in the Badlands.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (NY: Mariner Books, 2001).