Goodness in the Badlands

The Badlands Wilderness. A bleak expanse of jutting rocks, gouged deep with trenches. The stones are wrinkled, puckered like ancient lips, sucking soundlessly on the snow which covers them. Bare spits of rock stick out and pierce the skyline, looming over vast stretches of barren prairie. Unforgiving country.

We are passing through the Badlands on our way to Eagle Butte, South Dakota. "We" are six members of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, and Eagle Butte is home to the Cheyenne River Youth Project, which for more than twenty years has served the youth of the Cheyenne River Reservation with after-school programs and weekend offerings.

Eagle Butte is the poorest county in America. Unemployment sometimes reaches 90 percent, and more than 60 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line. There are no cinemas or shopping malls in Eagle Butte - the "city" occupies less than one square mile of land. Predictably, such conditions lead some youth to despair: the suicide rate is high, aspirations often low. The long, slow grind of everyday poverty erodes the human spirit here as surely as wind and rain erodes the sandstone of Eagle Butte itself.

And yet...

The Ċokata Wiċoni Teen Center is a riot of color and vibrancy when we stagger from our van, weighed down with packs and luggage. A fantastical vista of giant mushrooms, a blue caterpillar wearing a monocle, and a vast top hat hanging from the ceiling greet us as we walk through the door, vestiges of last week's Alice in Wonderland themed "Passion for Fashion" show. This is a place with energy and verve.

The children, too, are full of energy, as we discover on Monday. Our daily debrief is filled with frustration, as we talk of our inability to engage with the teens, and our struggles reigning in the enthusiasm of the younger kids to engage them in the tasks we had prepared. We had to break up a fight between brothers, and endure the ignominy of being ignored by uninterested teenagers. But we are called by the staff to remember the situation in which these young people find themselves - valuable wisdom from those more experienced - and we seek to demonstrate courage, an important Humanist value. We press on.

Tuesday is more successful. We feel ourselves gaining respect from the young people, as we strive to show our respect for them by planning carefully and maintaining high standards. The younger children in the Main Youth Center are more productive - one even offers me a gift, my smiling portrait drawn in crayon on a paper plate, a kind act of generosity. The teens in the Teen Center stop to chat awhile, even play a game of ping pong. Progress.

Wednesday is college night. Here we get to share our wisdom, regaling the youth with stories of our campuses, of philosophy, religion, physics and theatre. We hope to light a fire inside them, and show them that college is a goal they can aspire to.

Thursday rises to even greater heights, as Chris Stedman's inspired idea to create a foam pit from hundreds of foam stamps that had been donated to CRYP takes shape. The children are clearly bowled over by this generosity, and one declares, as she lies back ecstatically amidst the colored foam pieces, "This is the best day of my life!"

Friday, I watch as teens who on Monday wouldn't speak chat happily with the volunteers they have come to know. I watch as they demonstrate the courage of sharing something of their lives with people who have only come for a week and who, tomorrow, will be gone.

Woksape, wisdom. Woohitika, courage. Wacantognaka, generosity. Wowacintanka, respect. These are four Lakota values. Four Humanist values. We each found ourselves in the other, and learnt that, though our beliefs our different, our values are the same. Through interfaith service, we found Goodness in the Badlands.