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Every Tuesday evening, the  yellow school bus picked up the high school age youth from Sherman Institute, a federal boarding school for Native American young people from the Southwest, and dropped them off at Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2 miles away.  Calvary was one of several churches in Riverside, CA, which provided an off-campus program for the Pima, Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Ute young people.  It was the policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the United States government to “forcefully” transport the Native American young people to federal boarding schools away from their homes.  The premise behind the policy was that this would be an effective means to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society and culture.  The young people were forbade to speak their native tongues in the federal boarding schools.  Churches served as one of the tools to help with the assimilation process, introducing the young people to Christianity.

It was here that I was introduced to the true meaning of the term AWOL (Absent With Out Leave).  It was not uncommon for alerts to be sent out from Sherman Institute that one of the students in their charge was missing.  And so off-campus programs like the one Calvary hosted were required to follow strict guidelines to prevent AWOL from happening.  It was not uncommon for students to  attempt to literally walk home from Riverside, CA, to their families in Arizona and Utah.  One of the most memorable incidents of AWOL led to the tragic end for one of the boys who attended our program at Calvary.  When he was caught and put in jail for overnight keeping, he was found hung to death in his cell the next morning.  He preferred death to returning to Sherman Institute.

Having learned enough of the issues and circumstances surrounding Sherman Institute, our staff at Calvary tried our best to serve the well being of the young people and not contribute to their difficulties.  Still, it was a challenge to work with the young people from Sherman.  Some refused to participate in our planned activities; they just wanted any excuse to get off campus.  Once we had a girl swear at us and threaten to beat us up for trying too hard to get her to join in the planned activities.  Most, however, were grateful for our ministry as we tried to be as culturally and emotionally sensitive as we could be.

Charlene was Pima.  She was terribly overweight and wore a scowl on her face.  Not only did she never smile, but she never spoke a word to anyone.  Once off the bus, she would seek out a corner where she could sit alone, and wall out any human contact.  Everything about Charlene communicated loudly and clearly—“stay away or else”.  After 2 months of observing her behavior, I decided to sit down next to Charlene.  Each week for the rest of the school year, I sat down next to Charlene.  I never said a word; I just sat there, next to her.  I would sit next to Charlene just for about 10 minutes each week; then get up and join the rest of the group.  As the school year drew near to the end, when the young people looked forward to returning home to their families for the summer, I followed my usual routine of sitting down next to Charlene.  On this particular evening, suddenly  I heard an unfamiliar voice coming from Charlene’s direction.  Once she started talking, Charlene did not stop until it was time to return to Sherman Institute.  I learned that the Pima were a thriving people, growing their own crops, being quite self-sufficient.  Then one day, the river that ran through the middle of their reservation stopped flowing and dried up completely.  The Pima could no longer grow their own food and feed themselves.  Their beautiful lush gardens were replaced by the weekly visit of the truck that dumped government surplus food to the people.  With changed diets, the health of the Pima declined precipitously.  As a result of the construction of Hoover Dam upstream, the river of life that ran through the Pima reservation dried up, replaced by a government welfare system.

Charlene taught me the power of silence and presence.  Communication occurs in silence.  And the most powerful part of the human anatomy in silent presence is the ear.  If my tongue had intruded upon the silence, I would never have heard Charlene’s story.  When I wished Charlene a happy summer, she returned a smile, the first one I had ever seen.

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