May 2009 No Reservation Dave Pond Ted Standing Soldier Jr. South Dakota

Throughout the Native American reservations scattered around the Black Hills of western South Dakota, the locals' love of basketball borders on obsession, offering a nightly escape from days flush with hopelessness and indescribable poverty.

No matter how brightly the community's young hardwood stars shine on the court, though, many seem destined to follow the paths of those who support them from the stands. Unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse have tightened their grip on the Lakota people, and the reservation has become a place where suicides quadruple the national average and funerals fail to discriminate between young and old.

Local basketball powerhouse White River at the Lakota Nation Invitational Tournament

"Basketball offers a sense of hope and relief from everyday life; it's an escape to some degree," said Ted Standing Soldier Jr., who joined the South Dakota FCA staff last summer. "With the incredible amount of poverty on the reservation, our kids don't have the same opportunities that other kids do. They can't just go down the street to the YMCA or the movie theater — the stuff kids across America have the opportunity to do. There are just so many lost souls here, and you pray they come to know Christ in a magnificent way that will transform their lives."

Help arrives in spurts in America's second-poorest county. Short-term missionaries come and go, putting in a few days of repair work and fellowship in spite of the underlying, historical strife between whites and Native Americans. But, as a Lakota man, Standing Soldier is truly at home on the reservation and feels called to invest daily in his people through God's Word and a shared passion for basketball.

"Ted came to know Christ at a basketball camp when he was 16," South Dakota FCA State Director Brian Hansen said. "For years, he's had a dream to be able to do the same thing for others and to be able to bring the hope and the saving message of Jesus Christ to his brothers and sisters on the reservation."

According to Hansen, Standing Soldier, the girls basketball coach at Little Wound High School (Kyle, S.D.), couldn't be a more perfect fit for the newly created FCA position. A two-year grant allowed South Dakota FCA to seal the deal and bring Standing Soldier on board as the state's first official Native American staff worker in July 2008.

"I hate to think about where I'd be without Christ," Standing Soldier said. "I don't even want to get too far into that, but my being born and raised here — this is all definitely a part of God's plan."

Hiring a Native American familiar with the local customs and culture was a vision shared by Hansen and fellow S.D. FCA staff members Bob Parsons and Bob Young in attempting to care for a people that, until then, had been overlooked.

Ted Standing Soldier Jr. with wife, Meghan, and sons Guy (left) and Devyn

"I just believe in God for the salvation of my people as a whole, for our tribe and our nation."

"It's important, considering the history," Standing Soldier said. "That's not to say that the people who come in for a few days or a week aren't helpful, but what our people need is for someone like them to live it out before them every single day.

"My association with FCA is definitely something that has happened only by the grace of God," he added. "And through that grace, doors have opened that I couldn't open as one man standing alone. It's been much easier for me to get into schools and speak to students about Jesus. God opens doors that no man can shut."

Through his connections on those campuses, Standing Soldier has started a pair of high school Huddles: one at Red Cloud, where he coached basketball for several years, and another at Pine Ridge, the school his mother attended in her youth.

"The Huddles have had a positive impact, and the kids are really getting along better," Standing Soldier said. "Sometimes, if a kid is having a bad day, you don't know if it's just that or if it's because their parents were up drinking all night and they couldn't get any sleep. But we try to share with them the love God has for us and that they can trust in that peace."

The Huddles also help Native American students experience Christ's love while searching for a balance between their rich heritage and Christianity.

"There are things in our culture that are very similar to the cross and what's in the Bible, and then there are other things that don't match up," Standing Soldier said. "The most important thing is that you stick to the cross and you stick to Christ. When you start consulting other spirits, that's where you have to draw the line and examine what God's Word says. The Word is our sword, and, if we don't use it in this battle, we will lose."

FCA's Ted Standing Soldier Jr. (left) also serves as the girls basketball coach at Little Wound High School.

Prior to Standing Soldier's arrival, staff members found it difficult to attract Native American athletes to their multisport summer camps. But last year, Standing Soldier quickly assembled a dozen girls — most wanting to hone their hoops skills — to take part.

"Camp was a great experience for me last summer," Standing Soldier said. "It really reminded me of when I was their age and gave my life to Christ in a similar situation. Now, to be a staff member and have kids from our reservation there — it was amazing. I find myself constantly praying that all of these kids would have the opportunity to find Jesus, be transformed and believe in God's ability to change our Lakota families through the youth."

To that end, FCA hosts an annual tip-off banquet at the Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament, reaching out to members of some of the top Native American boys and girls programs in the state. Past speakers have included 1964 Olympian (and Pine Ridge native) Billy Mills and former L.A. Lakers star A.C. Green, as well as students like Christian and Alliey Janis, two of a trio of sisters walking with the Lord while currently suiting up for the Pine Ridge basketball team.

"It's important that the kids see people living it out in front of them — especially their peers — and showing them it's possible to have peace, live in joy and walk with hope regardless of what's happening around them."

That's not to say everything has been easy. While trying to build relationships with his Lakota brothers and sisters, the 31-year-old Standing Soldier has needed police protection while coaching on the road, and has even spent a day in jail on a trumped-up charge thrown at him by a basketball parent unhappy with their child's playing time. But the adversity only encouraged Standing Soldier further in the fight to win his people for the Lord.

"The Word is our sword, and, if we don't use it in this battle, we will lose."
– Standing Soldier

The locals' love of basketball starts at a young age.

"It's a war, and we're on the front lines here," he said. "I take it all with gladness. These are desperate times, but nothing I face could be worse than what Jesus experienced on the cross.

"This is an opportunity for us to show the Lakota people His love," he continued. "There is such a negative mentality on the reservation. The enemy has a hold on people through death, substance abuse and corruption. That lets us know how real it is to fight for souls and stand in the gap for my people."

FCA's Parsons currently travels around South Dakota raising support for 2009 camp scholarships in hopes of increasing the number of Native American participants. In combination with the student Huddles and Legacy Builders coaches' ministry, the South Dakota staff sees evidence that God is at work on their state's Native American population from every angle.

"We think we've got at least part of the answer, but realize that we have to be faithful and do our part to trust the Lord regarding the fruit and the results," Hansen said. "We don't know exactly what the game plan is, but Ted is a big part of the equation — to have somebody there that the kids can look up to, trust and who can be a model of what it means to know Christ."

Familial bonds are treasured on the reservation. Cousins are like siblings, while aunts, uncles and grandparents are revered on the same level as parents. And, similar to what happened in his own family, Standing Soldier hopes the young athletes he reaches out to will begin to flourish in Christ and eventually bring their immediate families to Him in the process.

"I pray that all of our children on the reservation have the opportunity to hear about Christ before it's too late," he said. "Even if it's just one person, that one person could be the key to many others coming to know the Lord. However God chooses to work is totally up to Him; we just need to believe in and trust Him. I just believe in God for the salvation of my people as a whole, for our tribe and our nation."

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Photos courtesy of Bob Parsons.