Replacing an old wooden fence this summer meant for Freddy Cordon-Perez, long hours in the blistering sun, measuring and reconfiguring, digging and re-digging post holes, breaking and pouring cement, mounting railings and palings and finally, securing it all together.

In a place of extreme contrasts, it also meant camping out in tents for two weeks in the South Dakota Badlands, exquisite starry nights, spectacular sunrises, driving rains and cascading hail, pushing through fatigue, sleep deprivation, garden hose cold showers, glimpsing another’s culture, discovering common ground, daily worship, exploring faith and creating lasting community.

“It’s something I never did before, hard, manual labor,” said Cordon-Perez, 19, about the 150-foot wood fence now in place at Christ Episcopal Church in Red Shirt, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A parishioner at St. George’s Church in Hawthorne and an aspiring commercial pilot, he was part of a group of youth from Los Angeles, Minnesota and New Zealand, who participated in the Red Shirt Project, a ministry of the Dioceses of Los Angeles and Minnesota.

The project, now in its 18th year, brings together young people from across the church for two weeks of service projects at the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was created and is coordinated by the Rev. Canon Michael Cunningham, rector of St. Mary’s, Lompoc, and the Rev. Canon Robert Two Bulls, director of Indian Work for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Two Bulls was born and raised at Pine Ridge.

It was the second year New Zealand youth participated, and a first for the Rt. Rev. Don Tamihere, Bishop of Te Tairawhiti in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, a long-time friend of Cunningham.

He has said he hopes to deepen and develop relationships within the Los Angeles diocese. Cunningham hopes that delegates to the 122nd annual meeting of the diocese, scheduled for Dec. 1 – 2 at the Ontario Convention Center, will approve companion status between the two.

In a series of Facebook posts, Tamihere described the service projects the group tackled, including preparing the grounds and cooking for and serving meals to members of the 145th Niobrara Convocation, a gathering of First Nations People from across the Dakotas.

Making whänau connections

The experience also included time for whänau or family, including attending the ordination of the Rev. Twila Two Bulls, Robert’s sister, to the diaconate, and a memorial Eucharist honoring the late Rev. Canon Deborah Dunn’s participation in the Red Shirt Project in previous years.

Dunn, rector of St. Peter’s, Santa Maria, and a former Los Angeles diocesan deployment officer, was married to Cunningham for 40 years. She died suddenly April 20 after suffering a stroke.

Tamihere and the youth, after the conclusion of the Red Shirt Project, also traveled to Los Angeles to attend the July 8 consecration of the Rt. Rev. John Taylor as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Los Angeles (see story beginning on page 5).

The group arrived at Red Shirt June 20, after a grueling 1,400-mile drive from Lompoc. Still, it was a time to “ice-break, team-build and deepen relationships. It really works,” Tamihere wrote. “Everyone is in great spirits, there’s lots of laughter and smiles.”

Cunningham said the first tasks, after setting up tents and making camp, included clearing weeds from the graveyard, preparing the grounds for the convocation and for the Wakpa Waste Wacipi or “Pow Wow” taking place at the Tatanka Numpa grounds at Red Shirt.

The Pow Wow “is this huge celebration,” Cunningham told The Episcopal News. “The villagers sell beadwork or Indian tacos or buffalo burgers and make money. People from all over the reservation come. It’s a huge deal. It has been a way the project has sought to foster local economic development and self-sufficiency.”

Youth were divided up to work on two major projects, including extending a softball field in preparation for an upcoming tournament and putting up a new fence “strong enough to keep the cows out,” Cunningham said. But there was also time to visit local sacred sites, to hear the wisdom of elders like the Rev. Robert Two Bulls Sr., 83, and learn more about family and one another.

Gisselle Cordon-Perez, 20, helped lengthen the softball field, “a lot of hard work” that ultimately felt wonderful, she said. “To see people happy, to know you’re making a difference, it’s worth it.”

They learned Maori songs and taught their guests Spanish, and everyone learned about the Lakota.

“They taught us the same song they performed at the consecration [of Bishop-Coadjutor John Taylor] and we performed it at the Pow Wow,” said the Cal State Los Angeles student, who hopes to become an occupational therapist.

“When they saw us embracing their culture, they were so excited. It was really cool,” she said.

For Tamihere, a day of cutting weeds inspired thoughts of “our isolated rural marae (sacred places), only the surrounding land is far more vast. It feels a lot like home, but is still so different.”

So was the group’s invitation to do a hangi, Tamihere said. The invitation to cook in the traditional Maori way, in a pit dug in the ground, was fraught with conflicting emotions, such as pride, honor, anxiety and even humor, he said.

The group made the pit the night before Twila Two Bulls’ June 24 ordination. “It was three feet deep,” Cordon-Perez recalled, “and they wanted to make trays to put the food in so we could lower it into the ground and cover it up.”

“We were a little anxious,” acknowledged Tamihere. “We didn’t know how the wood or rocks would perform. We wanted to make baskets, and we were cooking a meat we’d never cooked before: buffalo.”

Worries surfaced. Like, “Man if this comes up raw, we’re gonna be famous for all the wrong reasons.” Driving to Rapid City to source metal for the baskets, he said, left “shop staff looking mystified as to what we were up to.” As did asking local coffee shops for their burlap sacks “for free.”

“And Zhane and Jess preparing the buffalo, and Tiana and Grace prepping vegetables, and all the Red Shirt Project family mucking in by digging the hole, watching and tending the fire (making sure the grass didn’t catch on fire as well) … it was a real whänau effort.”

The rocks and logs cooked the meat for about six hours and after the meat was raised, “It was the steam that let us know what we needed to know. But, the real confirmation came when Fr. Robert Two Bulls Senior took the first piece of buffalo
hangi, in his hand and ate it, [saying] ‘Hmmm, that’s some good buffalo!’”

Added Tamihere: “I never thought my first taste of buffalo meat would be from a ha¯ ngi cooked in South Dakota. God’s got
a sense of humor.”

The group also visited a series of places to learn more about the Lakota people, including the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge and the Crazy Horse Memorial in Black Hills, “a worthy response to the narrative of Mt. Rushmore, just a few miles down the road,” Tamihere said.

The fence aroha (love) built

Demolishing the old fence and building a 150-foot new one on sloping, uneven ground “is the kind of work the Red Shirt Project is all about, real and practical work, making a tangible contribution to the local whänau and iwi (people),” Tamihere said.

“Mission trips often become solely about the missionary, their personal experience and development, their superior critique and views, and their stories when they get home,” he wrote. “At Red Shirt, talk is cheap. You come here to work. No passengers.

“Our young people worked so hard on this fence,” he said. “The pictures don’t really do it justice — the sun was hot, and there were dozens of post holes to dig, dozens of bags of concrete to be carried, dozens of railings and hundreds of pilings to be mounted, and thousands of deck screws to install. Everyone was involved in some way, carrying the task. There are blisters galore, aching muscles and joints, but lots of satisfaction from a job well-done.

“Our older whänau were incredible too — pitching in and sweating with the rest of us, hanging the gates, supplying all the tools, advice, and support that we needed.”

Before the trip, Cordon-Perez says he didn’t really know much at all about New Zealand or even the Lakota.

Yet, working together, camping together, dancing and sharing stories of faith and life together connected them all.

So does the fence they completed that stands at Christ Church.

“It was a really proud moment, being able to finish it,” Cordon-Perez recalled. “We finished it at 10 p.m. at night with generators on, screwing it together. Isaac gave the last screw to Bishop Tamihere, since he was the one in charge of the project.

“We were all excited. He put in the last screw and we all started cheering, that we finally finished this project and how long it was taking and being able to look back and see this large fence that we completely that, hopefully, will stand there for many years.”