The moment I sat in my seat at Gate City Bank Auditorium awaiting the keynote speech during BisonCatholic week 2016, one of the slides of the PowerPoint being shown on the front wall caught my eye and my utmost attention. Mission trip to Belcourt, ND, during spring break, it read. Mission trip? Spring break? I thought, “I’m there!” As my final semester got underway, I couldn’t help but wish for the opportunity to spend it doing something I likely wouldn’t have the chance to do once I left college and tied myself down to a job. A mission trip spent with friends from the Newman Center was EXACTLY what I wanted and everything I could ever ask for in a spring break trip, especially my last one. Who needs beaches when you give your time and energy to people most in need of a vacation from the struggles of daily life? And plus, we had a surprise blizzard in Belcourt, so we got to go sledding with our fellow mission trip participants from Mississippi who rarely see, let alone sled in, snow. A true Upper Midwest Spring Break. Beat that.
It turned out to that a group of four from the Newman would be making the five day mission trip to St. Ann’s Indian Mission in Belcourt: Chris (Yanta), Michelle (LaPlante), Joey (Fritz), and myself. As Chris was my bible study leader that year, I often shared my excitement with him about our upcoming trip. I also did some research on Belcourt, and I noticed that it was the primary town on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, home to a tribe of Chippewa and Métis peoples. (Métis = mixed ancestry, in this case, Chippewa and French Canadian). This only heightened my hopes and dreams as to how great of a trip this really was. As a history major, if I had to choose a specific theme of history to dedicate my career to, hands down it would be the history that belongs to Native Americans and the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. I also earned a minor in anthropology, as I have always been drawn to human cultures, in particular those of native peoples in the Americas. This trip really was meant to be.
As the four of us embarked on this second annual trip to Belcourt, the four of us prayed a rosary for the intention of safe travels and a successful and blessed mission experience. Honestly, I never prayed during my travels before. It never even occurred to me to ask for the intercession of God, Mary, or His saints to guide me as I journeyed. I couldn’t be happier with that opportunity to pray with Chris, Michelle, and Joey. We had all answered “yes!” to the call to give of our spring break to God and to eagerly serve His children who are most in need.
We arrived at St. Ann’s Church near the end of the Saturday mass. We tried taking in the scenery as we awaited our mission to officially begin. St. Ann’s is one of five churches that make up the St. Ann’s Indian Mission, which caters to the thousands of people that call the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation home. As a Minnesota guy who rarely traveled outside of Fargo during his time at NDSU, I was astounded by how beautiful the country up here near the Canadian border was. Hills, trees, and lakes galore - sure, there were still plenty of farms and livestock, but it definitely felt different than the other parts of the Great Plains I had passed through before. This was North Dakota? These people are so lucky to have this part of the state as their adopted homeland!
However, we did also see some of the struggles that afflicted their community. We, as students enrolled at a major university, often consider the universal necessities of food, shelter, and clothing as commonly available to all who seek it, especially in the United States. Just by driving through the neighborhood, it was obvious how most families just barely got by with these necessities. It wasn’t until I spent time in Belcourt that summer when I truly saw these circumstances and their commonality among these great people. People will come up the hill to St. Ann’s at all hours of the day in search of a meal, or gas money, or request a simple time of prayer with you or a priest. Mission trips are almost expected to offer the participant examples of culture shock, but when they do happen, they can still be shocking. However, these instances should only encourage you to make the biggest difference in the lives of the featured community in the short amount of time you spend there. And remember, you are always invited to come back. In actuality, you yourself are going to want to come back… This is where you belong. This is the role you were called to serve in in life, if only for a week.
We made our way into the Queen of Peace building, which houses the parish rectory, secondary chapel, and dining area. There we met eleven of the nicest people you will ever meet. NDSU would be pairing up with a group from the University of Southern Mississippi for this week-long mission trip - surprise! It was great getting to know these fine ladies and gentlemen and discovering their own motivation in spending their spring break doing mission work, and so far away from home, besides! It turns out their pastor, Father Mark, is a member of the religious community (SOLT - Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity) that works on the reservation, and this was the second year that he had brought parishioners from the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico to the edges of Canada. It was beneficial in exchanging ideas with each other in how to live the Catholic faith on a secular college campus. Lastly, nearly every conversation would be paused for a second to allow one of us to comment on each other’s thick accent (supposedly Minnesotans are just as humorous in their spoken word as are Mississippians).
For everyone who has met her, meeting the youth director of St. Ann’s and spending even one day with her is likely on everyone’s top ten list of their year. Dorothy is simply a saint in the making who will do everything to put a smile on your face, whether you’re a baby, college student, or old timer. Her own smile is probably the reason why :) She has been the youth director here for nearly a decade, which has surely transformed the lives of hundreds of kids over the years through weekly youth nights, retreats, and summer camp. In addition, part of her work at St. Ann’s involves inviting groups from across the country to participate in a mission trip to benefit this community.
The activities we were offered to do included remodeling rooms in church buildings, visiting residents at the retirement home, cleaning local churches and people’s homes, and spending a day with a group of religious sisters. Many of these activities involved working with someone from St. Ann’s or a SOLT (Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity) clergy member. As you went about your day doing at least two different activities, it was likely the interaction with the people you were helping that hit home the most. Cleaning the homes of those people that need an extra hand was a rewarding experience - it sure was! But, talking a little bit here and little bit there with the family members who welcomed us into their homes made the experience truly memorable, if not life-changing. For me, taking a moment to put a smile on a shy four-year-old girls face while I swept the floor, I feel, is the least a human being can do. In fact, make her smile over and over, again. Do all you can to leave a lasting impact; floors will get dirty again, but a smile and a happy memory may last forever. And when you finally have to leave, even though you had only been in her life for a single hour, you both feel like the least you can do is give each other a hug. You will always remember each other’s face, if not their name.
I was privileged to do a little bit of every activity, with my favorite times coming when I interacting with the outside community in some way. My first morning was spent walking frl2om room to room in the retirement home, asking each resident if they would like any help with their daily errands or simply to sit and talk awhile. I don’t believe anyone turned the five of us college students down for talking, let along assisting with chores! As we helped accomplish their biggest tasks, the retirees often shared their favorite family moments and their faith. One lady even showed us her vast collection of bibles she has been purchasing through catalogues and how each text went about in its own, unique way in interpreting and presenting God’s messages. Once again, it was difficult to part ways, even after only knowing each other for a short time. But, we all know, we’ll see each other again, if not in this life then the next.
While spending time with the SOLT sisters in the nearby town of Dunseith, four of us discovered how a person who devotes his or her life to God actually lives their faith daily in this difficult world. Their lives are simply based on unconditional love for others, and for God. We spent the first hour celebrating daily mass with residents in the nursing home. Instead of fleeing the scene right away, we remained for well over an hour. After helping some people return to their rooms, we found a beach ball and starting passing it around to the five remaining elderly men and women. Even if they could only use one hand with little movement and energy, they all participated and returned the volley! It was such a joyful morning in keeping everybody involved in the game and occasionally diving for the ball so the game would continue. As we walked to the convent with the sisters, I gained great insight into how they are people first-and-foremost, but have taken that extra step towards sainthood by choosing a life of prayer and devotion. Praying the liturgy of the hours and rosary with the entire convent in their private chapel was a blessed experience. Enjoying a home cooked meal with each of them, including two aspirants (those who had lived with the sisters for nearly a year in discerning their vocation), again opened my mind to my own calling of vocation. We again helped the community through cleaning the church. Serving the Lord through prayer and manual labor, even for a week, is the least we can do in our short lifetime, and it is indeed pleasing to Him.
I do wish to speak to the beauty of how each of our days began. Beginning at 7 in the morning, the fifteen of us from NDSU and USM spent one hour with Our Lord in the beautifully-adorned adoration chapel. Without that time of prayer and meditation, there was no way any of us would be able to share the love we received from Christ with the people we would encounter each and every day. We needed that daily recharge and re-energization, in order for us to use up every last bit of juice evangelizing and serving the people of the Turtle Mountains. We also participated in liturgy of the hour together. And every single afternoon, we received Jesus in the most holy Eucharist. The homily and celebration of the Eucharist, when performed by a SOLT priest, is possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed. The genuine love that a SOLT clergy member has for the Blessed Virgin Mary comes through so gracefully in their lifestyle. Prayer, celebrating the mass, and keeping the faith should be the foundation of every mission trip.
Each of our days ended with all of us together, the four of us from Fargo and the eleven from Hattiesburg. We shared our highlights of the day and our low moments. We laughed. We cried. We remembered how our day went and how much we already felt God working in our life. Anyone at St. Paul’s Newman knows how daily mass and benediction concludes - with the singing of “Salve Regina”, of course. Well, we offered to close out our first night of prayer with that hymn, even though our fellow mission friends have never heard it. I’ve never been one to sing loud enough for the next person over to hear me, but I felt comfortable and guided by the Holy Spirit to sing loud for all to hear. I’m convinced it was all Michelle and her beautiful voice, and the lyrics themselves, of course, but our friends were astounded by our rendition! The Salve Regina became our closing prayer for the rest of the trip, and I don’t believe we could’ve picked a better way to bring an end to each long, fruitful day.
In addition to working with disadvantaged and vulnerable members of the community, including the poor and elderly, we were honored with taking part in several other activities. Touring the local museum and learning about the history and culture of Belcourt’s citizens was a great compliment to our overall mission and giving us context into who we were serving. The fifteen of us students from colleges across the country bonded over prayer, in addition to playing games in the youth center, swing dancing, and volleyball matches. Several of them wished and prayed for snow before they left, and wouldn’t you know it, it snowed eight inches overnight on the last possible day! With that miracle came a morning of sledding. Though I haven’t sledded since high school, I was more than happy in seeing the happiness come over each of them as they went up and down that snowy hill. Their joy was my joy. Our community dinners involved not only everything with the mission trip but also the SOLT clergy, which numbered close to ten priests and sisters. Those meals were indeed a memory we will always carry deep in our hearts.
Probably the most influential time I spent in Belcourt that wasn’t related to our mission trip was going to a charismatic night. While half of the group happily served the high school aged youth group, I jumped at the chance of joining a night of praise and worship with the community. The music was incredible - most of the songs are not mainstream and often heard, while many others are either composed or uniquely altered by local musicians! Listening to the whole chapel sing from the soul and allowing the Holy Spirit to use them as He willed was on an entirely new level. And, at the end of each song, I was hearing whispering. Some were saying in English, “Praise you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.” Others were speaking faster, in a language I did not recognize. It wasn’t until I returned that summer that I came to realize what was happening. The Holy Spirit had bestowed the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues to many of the people of the Turtle Mountains, a gift for their long commitment to the Catholic faith and bettering the lives of all around them. That whispering was a gift from the Holy Spirit. Many openly spoke on what they saw during the singing, with others interpreted what these visions and the words spoken in foreign tongues meant. Even after attending four of these charismatic nights, I can’t help but be amazed at how blessed the people of the Turtle Mountains are.
I kept feeling this calling. I felt it as this: God kept saying to me, “Luke, I’m not done with you here, yet.” I quickly realized and appreciated how all of the clergy and staff present at St. Ann’s are incredibly holy, how this entire reservation is a holy place, and that I, I want nothing more than to be holy. And it is only understandable that the easiest way to be holy, or to begin to learn how to be holy, is to live in a place where you are called to be holy the most. I began to agree with the voice and will of God. When Dorothy asked us to prayerfully consider serving the kids during St. Ann’s summer camp that year, I immediately knew this is what I was called to do. It made no difference that I was soon graduating with a history degree geared towards working in museums. I knew I was committing to camp, to the kids, to the community, and to God. And now, even after spending a total of 8 weeks in Belcourt, serving all ranges of people in the Turtle Mountains, I want more. And God wants me to want more. God, even now, I don’t feel like I’m done there, yet. And I hope many follow in my footsteps and feel the same way.
This is a holy place. This is where you belong. We are all called to serve.
Welcome to St. Ann’s Indian Mission.
By Luke Koran