Building an Eternal Bridge for South Dakota Reservations

By   •   July 25, 2022

Will Graham pointing up
As the sun fell on the Native Peoples Tour, Will Graham shared one last heartfelt message with the people of South Dakota.

The voice was unmistakable.

As Will Graham prayed with the leaders of the Native Peoples Tour on the opening night, Pine Ridge Prayer Team Leader Terry Craven couldn’t unhear it.

“I was closing my eyes, and I could hear his grandfather’s voice,” Terry said.

Billy Graham always had a heart for the Native Americans and was known for bringing people groups of all kinds together—for the common purpose of sharing Jesus Christ.

So after two days, four Gospel presentations, more than 1,000 in attendance and 170-plus decisions for Christ, something even more incredible had happened.

>>See photos from the final night of the Native Peoples Tour.

With all the focus on the Native Peoples, it’s the Tour part that’s remarkable. That this could even be considered a tour was a huge win for these two communities.

Rosebud and Pine Ridge. Two reservations that are geographically close had not been relationally close when it came to working together for the sake of the Gospel.

“A lot of people doubted that any people would come,” Terry said. “This has really built a bridge between Rosebud and Pine Ridge for the churches.”

‘That’s How Much He Loves You’

Will Graham, preaching his fourth message in 28 hours, still had a lot of fire in his voice Sunday evening, as the 400-plus looked on, dark clouds ever so ominous on the horizon.

His message centered around Hannah (1 Samuel 1), who couldn’t conceive, was ridiculed for it, and cried out in despair. Only to have God later answer her deepest prayers with a child.

Graham explained that God hears us when we go to Him with our problems: “There’s only two things God collects from us. The first is our prayers and the second is our tears.”

As the clouds rolled in and darkened the atmosphere, he shared how the reality of life is that it doesn’t matter who you are—everyone has heartache and sin.

“There’s brokenness all around the world,” he continued. “It doesn’t stop at the border. God knows and wants to do something about it.

“He’s willing to die for you, that’s how much He loves you. But you have to come to Him and believe.”

‘A New Movement’

The Native Peoples Tour came at the perfect time for Abby Withe and Emily Stence, two college students from Penn View Bible Institute who were interning on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Martin Lakota Chapel and became counselors.

two girls holding fliers
Abby (left) and Emily (right) walked around Pine Ridge inviting people to join them at Sunday’s outreach.

The six-week program gave them time to build relationships with area kids who came to their church, as well as go door to door and hand out fliers.

“The best part was interacting with people,” Abby said. “Everyone was so gracious.”

Both Emily, 23, and Abby, 20, were thrilled when they recognized some faces at Kidzfest, where an animated video, “The Quest,” helps present the Gospel message.

“It’s cool how they used the new stuff to incorporate into the ministry,” Emily said. “It’s like a new generation, a new movement. I’ve never seen it done this way.”

Emily counseled Alex*, a teenager who had been to her church twice this summer and came forward after praying to accept Christ into his life. Abby helped 7-year-old Windy* understand her new relationship with Jesus.

Both interns were visibly moved, knowing that obeying God’s call to the reservation this summer has paid eternal dividends. Both also counseled children at Sunday evening’s invitation.

“I need more experience witnessing,” Emily said. “It’s very hard for me to do. But it was wonderful to have a booklet to look to and then say ‘God has promised eternal life.'”

‘Almost Like a Cleansing’

Stephanie Savoy has only been a Christian for five years, but she’s been determined to grow her faith. She volunteered to be a counselor at Will Graham’s Rapid City Celebration last fall as well as the Native American Leaders Conference this past May.

She drove two hours to the Pine Ridge event. Seconds after Will Graham finished leading people in a prayer of salvation, the first rain drops started to dance on the thick rodeo dirt.

Counselors sprung into action. Umbrellas popped open. And those who prayed were quickly matched up with a counselor.

Stephanie paired with Rebecca*, and the two clicked. “It started to rain on us, and we still went through the lesson,” Stephanie said.

Rebecca had come forward to settle her relationship with Christ, something she had never done. The moment, with drops now falling more steadily, seemed perfectly timed.

“The rain was almost like a cleansing,” Stephanie said. “She seemed really sincere. I told her I would call her tomorrow, and I would be willing to drive down to meet her for discipleship. It’s really important for new Christians to build that foundation.”

‘We’re Going to See Revival’

man and wife stand by bus
Terry Craven and her husband, Gus, helped bring kids to Sunday’s evangelistic event.

So what happens next? Can two days really make that much of a difference?

An emphatic yes, says Terry, who sees doors opening between the two reservations like never before.

“Because of Rosebud and Pine Ridge coming together, we’ve met a lot of pastors and gotten to know each other,” said Terry, whose husband Gus Craven pastors Eagles Nest Life Church. “We’re going to continue our prayer meetings together.”

She predicts an uptick in church growth as there are both new believers and a new confidence for residents around the reservation to visit—or in some cases return to—church. With the impact of COVID, many churches had slipped into the single digits.

“I believe God is going to stir in the church here, and we’re going to see revival,” she said. “It can break a lot of barriers for people to come to church.

“It takes someone like [Will Graham] for the church to get stirred.”

And Terry knows it’s up to the church to keep things stirring.

“This is the church’s chance to rise up and get the new believers into the nursery and start feeding them,” she said. “Tomorrow, the work begins for us.”

*Names changed for privacy.