Wounded Healers: Speaking Hope into a Culture of Suicide
By Tim and Kim Wardell, Global Strategy Missionaries to Native Americans
Editor’s Note: Tim and Kim Wardell are among the six missionaries featured during Global Strategy’s 2018 impactX2 year-end campaign. Tim and Kim serve as Global Strategy missionaries in Allen, South Dakota, among the Lakota people.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
—Isaiah 9:2, quoted in Matthew 4:16
“I am sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Wardell,” said the sheriff, hat in hands, eyes glued to the ground, “we found Caleb.” And with that sentence, suicide was no longer a statistic to us.
When we first arrived on the reservation to begin our ministry among the Lakota people living in Allen, South Dakota, we were aware of the most recent statistics indicating that suicide rates among Native Americans are continuing to rise, especially among the teen population. The suicide rate among Native teens is 150% higher than the national average. And we knew other statistics about the Pine Ridge Reservation that are contributors to this epidemic, such as
- 97% of the Native population lives far below the U.S. federal poverty line, with a median household income ranging between $2,600 and $3,500 per year.
- There is no industry, technology, or commercial infrastructure to provide employment for its residents, contributing to its 90% unemployment rate.
- The high school dropout rate is 70%.
- Over 33% of homes have no electricity or basic water and sewage systems, forcing many to carry (often contaminated) water from local rivers daily for their personal needs.
- At least 60% of homes on the reservation need to be demolished and replaced due to infestation of potentially fatal black mold; however, there are no insurance or government programs to assist families in replacing their homes.
But these statistics hit close to home in August 2017 when our own son took his life. We had ministered through 38 deaths since our arrival less than a year before and we had spoken words of encouragement, shared scripture, and offered prayers for comfort and peace. Then the time came for us to put what we had been speaking about to these precious people into action for ourselves. It came time to walk the talk, to demonstrate how one navigates loss and grief with God as their anchor. And God has used the death of our son to speak life into those around us, especially the teenagers.
We have asked our teens here, on more than one occasion, what they think the reason is that so many long to end their life, and the response that we consistently get is that there is a feeling of hopelessness. They feel hopeless to change their circumstances. Hopeless that their broken and dysfunctional families can be healed. Hopeless that they can avoid the destiny of addiction that has controlled their parents and siblings. Hopeless to escape the cycle of poverty. Hopeless that any promise will ever be kept. Hopeless to dream of a different future. Hopeless to dream at all. For this epidemic to end, we must address the issues that create this sense of hopelessness.
God has called us to shine a light into this darkness, to speak life where there has been a pervasive message of death, to declare the God of hope to a generation with no hope. Our ministry seeks to show that a relationship with God is one that can be trusted, one that brings healing and one that brings hope.