By Eric Connolly

You can use many words to describe the Diocese of Helena’s Justice Outreach Project on the Blackfeet Reservation, but if you want just a couple, consider these: solidarity and immersion.

Sixty-five youth and young adults from several areas of the diocese were on the reservation for a week, beginning June 27. They left with experiences covering a lot more than the service work on the calendar.

Kelly Ruby, youth minister for Holy Rosary and Resurrection parishes in Bozeman, put it this way: “It’s a big deal for us to learn how to become one with our community. We’re all a part of the universal Catholic Church and to do that we need to be in solidarity with each other. It’s not about going and fixing a community. It’s kind of immersing yourself, but also becoming included in that community.”

Justice Outreach on the Blackfeet Reservation “is a project that won’t ever be finished, but we’ll continue to do it,” Ruby said during a break at Heart Butte’s St. Anne Cemetery, where participants did cleanup and other work.

Justice Outreach drew people from Anaconda, Bozeman, Browning, Butte, Deer Lodge, Helena, Kalispell, Red Lodge and Stevensville. Before they departed for worksites at the start of the week, youth participant Emily Jo Schwaller of Helena shared thoughts with The Montana Catholic. Working with people who are of various ages, who come from different places and who are brought together in a culture that for some is entirely new contributes to faith development, Schwaller said.

The time on the Blackfeet Reservation was divided among work sites and opportunities to interact with Blackfeet people eager to share their culture. Mass was celebrated on four mornings, first by Father Dan Shea, a Carroll College faculty member and pastor at Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Helena, and then by Father Ed Kohler, pastor at Little Flower Parish in Browning.

Work included clean up at De LaSalle Blackfeet School, reclamation at St. Michael Cemetery in Browning as well as at St. Anne Cemetery in Heart Butte, restoration and remodeling at Medicine Bear Shelter in Browning, reconstruction of a baseball field and chores at homes.

“This is a part of our Church we can’t ignore, reaching out and standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters,” said Dan Thies, director of Catholic Youth Rural Outreach in the Flathead Valley. As the week progressed, themes of community and solidarity came across in remarks by the youth, as well.

“Originally I came up here because it sounded like a great thing to do to help a community, but I’m actually learning more about myself as a person and that I have more compassion than I thought I did,” Anna Weber of Helena said in an interview. “Learning about the culture of the Blackfeet is inspiring.”

Paula Bremner of Browning described Justice Outreach as “a group of people getting to know each other and developing a relationship while helping others.”

Coordinators include Toni Running Fisher, religious education director at Little Flower Parish. On Justice Outreach participants’ final night together, she told them that “you’ve seen the best of us and you’ve seen the worst of us and you opened your heart and shared in that experience. And that’s the power.”

Cultural immersion activities during the week included stories from Blackfeet tribal elders, teepee lodge building, riding horses and learning about and listening to Native American music. Chief Earl Old Person, spiritual elder of the tribe, gave an Indian name to Doug Tooke, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

Tooke received the name Naatowiiksikka’yiwa, which translates to “spiritual walker.” He was “overwhelmed and humbled to receive such a gift,” he said.

Before the naming ceremony, Chief Old Person said having the Justice Outreach Project on the reservation encouraged the people who live there.

“To our young people, if they see what you’re doing here, even if it’s just cleaning the cemeteries, it is something that will be acknowledged and recognized,” he said. “While you were here, I’m sure the people you were with were part of you and you were a part of them, and that means a lot.”

Published in The Montana Catholic Online, Volume 26, No. 7, July 16, 2010.

Related Links:

Justice Outreach Project photo-spread*
The Montana Catholic, July 2010 print issue.
*PDF format; Adobe Reader® required

Justice Outreach Project 2010 photo album

Justice Outreach Project 2010 video