This month, I got to be a part of an amazing team that traveled across South Dakota to meet people in some of the darkest and most beautiful places in the state: Pine Ridge and Sturgis.
Led by my fearless friend Beth Jones, our team experienced miracles, spiritual breakthroughs, and powerful encounters with God. This is what happened…
Our first night together, August 6, we set the tone with worship and prayer, and each team member expressed a desire to be flexible to God’s agenda, open to whatever He would lead us to do. The next day, as we packed into our cars heading for the Pine Ridge Reservation, we were ready to do just that.
“I knew that everyone on our team had a lot of different strengths and a lot of different gifts but the common denominator was that everyone deeply loved God and had really humble hearts, so I knew God was going to do crazy things,” Beth said.
Hours of driving later, before pulling into the Lakota Hope campus, we passed through Whiteclay, Nebraska, where impaired Natives slumped against liquor stores and dilapidated buildings that looked like something out of the Old West. These hurting and broken people were the ones God had called us to meet.
Powwow at Pine Ridge
Still, there’s beauty in the Native culture and that night, we immersed ourselves in it at the Pine Ridge powwow. Inside, we walked past booths selling fry bread, funnel cake, and carnival food; listened to the drums and Lakota chants; and watched the women, young and old, dressed in traditional finery, dance and stomp to the beat. Amid the grandeur hid tragedies that have plagued this community—abuse, suicide, hopelessness. We knew there was a reason God had us here, so we divided into small groups, looking for people God might want us to pray for.
Each group talked to numerous people, from teenagers to chiefs, and not one refused prayer.
“There was this young boy, probably 21, that you could tell had just been through alot, and he stood there for like five minutes as Jontae and I prayed for him and tears rolled down his cheeks hearing how loved he was by God, how accepted he was by God,” Beth said. “Many of his friends had gathered around, and all of them were so excitedly like yes, pray for me!”
Making Breakfast for Whiteclay
We returned to our little lodge at the Lakota Hope campus exhilarated. This was only the beginning of what God would do in and through our team as we became more open and receptive to His leading.
We spent the next day doing practical, laborious tasks around the Lakota Hope property—pulling weeds, washing chairs, mowing grass, planting flowers. After sleeping through thunderstorms (or trying to), we woke Tuesday morning, bright and early, to flip pancakes and cook eggs for the residents of Whiteclay. As half of the team prepared breakfast, the others—Zak, Christian, Jacob, Josh, and I—walked the streets, inviting anyone we came across to eat with us.
Even at 9 in the morning, nearly everyone was coming out of a drunken stupor, on the edge of sobriety. They were slurring words and stumbling. People struggled to keep their eyes open, to wake up to this world, so they clutched tightly to beer cans, holding on to that familiar escape. Liquor stores were already open, faithful to the Native customers who had been shunned from their reservation, where it is illegal to purchase or drink alcohol.
“At [Whiteclay], I was like woah, you know, it was way worse than I thought it was. All the alcoholics over there ... At first, I was like, there’s no hope for these people,” Zak said. “But Bruce and Marsha, if they can give up their whole life to help other people, even when they don’t see progress, that grew my hope.”
Sustenance was a welcome invitation, and almost everyone we invited to breakfast gladly accepted. As we struck up conversations with the Natives, one couple told us about their mom’s recent hospitalization, so Christian offered to pray for recovery, and the couple earnestly assented. He prayed for healing, not only for the mom, but for them.
“This couple had this deep yearning for change. I could tell they really wanted to kick their habit,” Christian said. “They were just longing for their life to have meaning.”
Walking farther up the street, we saw one man alone, hidden in an alley. He was bent over his crutches, grasping his beer can, shaking uncontrollably. His name was Frank, he had just been released from jail, and when I asked if he was okay, his simple reply was that he was sick. He was sick with alcoholism, sick with addiction. He didn’t seem mobile enough to reach Lakota Hope, so after we prayed for him (with him still taking swigs), Christian ran back to get a car.
“We really didn’t know what to expect, but we were going out there [to Whiteclay] in obedience, hoping that we could pray for people, hoping that we could really draw people in. Where Frank was at in his life [converged with] where we were at in obedience and intention,” Christian said.
Upon returning to Lakota Hope, we reunited with the rest of the team who was busy serving coffee, pancakes, eggs, and doughnuts. Soon everyone was sitting side-by-side with the Natives, sharing, listening, learning.
“I felt that God was really calling me to be a listening ear to the people at Pine Ridge,” Anne said. “Cliff was one of the first people who showed up at the breakfast and he told me how he felt so alone. That was a common thing with most of the people there, it struck me just how alone people felt.”
In the dusty parking lot, Frank had sat in the car with Christian for more than an hour; they talked and prayed, and eventually Frank gave his life over to God.
“Frank just wanted love and wanted someone to hear him out, to hear his life story, to have a shoulder to cry on,” Christian said. “I had never led a person to Christ, but I just saw the timing was right and had to ask.”
Our whole team prayed over Frank, too, and then the guys left to drive him home, where Josh says, they “prayed over his house, played a couple worship songs there, encouraged him, spoke truth to his life, and let him know that he’s cared about by people and God.”
Adapting to God’s Plan at Lakota Hope
A few Natives remained at Lakota Hope well into the afternoon, apparently enjoying the conversations and attention. By dinnertime, dozens more had shown up again, without being asked. Our original plan was to walk around the reservation, seeking people that might need prayer, but God had other ideas.
“I was so sure that we needed to go out to Pine Ridge, but it wasn’t working, and Christian was like I think we need to stay here, so I was able to say, I think I may be missing something,” Beth said. “We need to be able to adjust plans to what God is actually doing, instead of what’s on the agenda to do.”
Unprepared, we scrounged up plates of food for the hungry visitors, and threw together a quick evening program—Jacob would play the guitar, Correena the bagpipes, and Jontae would share her testimony.
People continued to come as others rose to leave, but as they left, we blessed them and offered to pray over them, especially if they had mentioned any ailments or struggles. One man named Aaron had walked onto the Lakota Hope campus leaning on a cane, so at someone’s suggestion, we motioned for everyone to gather around and pray.
“I felt that the Lord was going to heal his ankle as a sign that he could walk away knowing that the words spoken over him [of God’s love and concern for him] weren’t made up, but he could actually have faith in it. I asked if I could pray over his ankle, and I told him, I believe the Lord wants to heal it. So I laid my hands on it and declared healing over it, and it got healed. He walked away holding his cane, twirling it a little bit, instead of leaning on it,” Jacob said.
By sunset, most of the Natives had finished eating and moved to socializing. At one point, looking out, you could see each team member partnered up with a Native, held in heavy conversation. Brianna sat with a man they called Chuck Norris for hours and said she “felt such a deep love for him.”
“When you come here, you expect to change people, but the result is you’re changed yourself,” Brianna said.
With the room so abuzz it was a miracle when everyone stilled as Jontae moved in front of the crowds and started to speak. She admits she held disbelief at first, thinking she wouldn’t be able to be heard through the noise, but she says, “I got to see God supernaturally command an audience.”
As Jontae shared her story, through her vulnerability, she was able to relate with the people at Lakota Hope, telling of her own past struggles with drug addictions and abuse. When God freed her, Jontae realized God’s power, saying that what she had tried to do in her own strength her entire life, God did in an instant.
“I know that most of them, if not all of them, need a supernatural breakthrough from God, and I believe that through me being able to share my testimony, I got to release even a shred of hope into what may have looked like hopelessness,” Jontae said.
Afterwards, Jontae asked if there was anyone who also wanted God to break them free. A few raised their arms and then everyone stepped forward to join hands with them in unity and solidarity, asking God to bring hope, to bring transformation, to bring power. We formed a large circle together, and prayed.
“Seeing so many people wanting to receive, willing to accept prayer, willing to listen to the things of God, and be in agreement, that just made me feel that there’s possibilities in this dark place,” Christian said. “The harvest was ripe in that place for the Lord to work.”
Encountering Sturgis (Night 1)
The next morning, we swept the lodge, cleaned the kitchen, packed our bags, and hit the road again. After stopping for selfies at the Badlands and Scenic ghost town, we settled into our new accommodations, a church in Rapid City. After nightfall, we arrived at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Beth said the traffic at the event was much thinner than the previous year, which had been their 75th anniversary. Still, once we entered the festival, we had to squeeze past crowds to walk down the motorcycle-lined street. Within the first half hour, our group split up, with the girls going into the bars, and the guys walking off elsewhere.
“Before going to Sturgis, we were feeling some intimidation about what sort of people would be at Sturgis,” Josh said. “But when you get there and you walk around, I guess for me I realized that they’re just people, too.”
After separating from the girls, the guys—Josh, Zak, Christian, and Jacob—felt like they should walk around the festival and just pray.
“Christian had his guitar so he was strumming music, and it was like marching around the walls of Jericho, praying for God to soften hearts, just covering the whole place in prayer, with the intent that it would make the evangelism that was already going on and the evangelism the next night be more effective and more strategic,” Jacob said.
Meanwhile, the girls had entered the bars, hoping to see if there was anyone God would lead us to talk to. Inside, the atmosphere shifted. Everything about the place—from the bartenders to the signage—screamed “pleasure.” The music was loud, so loud that lengthy conversations didn’t seem plausible. The way we were dressed (sweaters, rain jackets, jeans) in comparison to the other girls (bras, body paint, miniskirts) made each of us aware of how out of place we were. Beth commented that she wasn’t hearing any direction from God, and the rest of us nodded, agreeing. There was only confusion, chaos, and the vexing feeling that we didn’t belong here.
As we were leaving, Beth pulled Jontae aside and pointed at a man sitting at the bar. He had a knife tattooed on his face, was wearing motorcycle leathers, and had tattoos covering his open chest. Beth said, “I think God wants us to pray for that man.” As the rest of us waited outside, Beth and Jontae walked up to him, saying, “Hey, I really feel like God’s chasing you down, like He's really after you. What’s your name?” His name was Bradley, and after he agreed to let Jontae pray for him, Jontae started thanking God for the beauty that was inside of him, the beauty that not many people get to see. Afterwards, Bradley started crying uncontrollably, saying that everywhere he’d been going, people have been coming up to him, sharing about God’s love. He said he was going to call his mom, who had been praying for him the last four years, and tell her about the encounter.
“I really feel that God wanted us there, even if it was just for him,” Jontae said. “On the outside, Bradley looked so hard, really unapproachable; if we paid so much attention to his outward appearance we would have never gone forth to allow God to speak through us.”
Rain was coming—outside, you could tell with the clouds and the mugginess. The girls continued on down the streets, stopping people, seeing if they were open to conversation, if they needed prayer. Most politely declined, their hearts set on partying. One man, after declining, returned and said, “You know, we all need prayer, yes you can pray for me.” He left quickly, but we prayed for him and his wife after they had gone.
On the other side of the street, Jontae tried to pray for the people at the Hell’s Angels booth, but they said they didn’t pray. At times, it seemed there was a darker spirit reigning at Sturgis, hostile to us, and bent on keeping us out.
“It’s definitely a battle that’s raging, and it’s not always easy to minister, but … it’s neat to serve a God that would send people that he loves so much into the deepest, darkest places that need him the most,” Jacob said.
More encounters took place, but by the time the rain was pouring, we decided to call it quits for the night, returning to Rapid City a little before midnight.
Renewed in the Body
Our first night at Sturgis took a toll on most of us, spiritually and emotionally. We were allowed to oversleep the next morning and were told to dedicate some time to being alone with God before our meeting in the afternoon. Five of us—Brianna, Zak, Anne, Christian, and I—walked to Starbucks and talked for close to an hour about our testimonies, a refreshing time getting to know each other more deeply.
We thought our afternoon meeting would be a quick debrief, but as we sat in the pews of the church’s sanctuary, what unfolded in the next three hours was nothing short of God’s intervention. We spent considerable time praying for each person, laying hands on them, asking God what He may want to say to them. As a result, people testified of inner healing, freedom, deliverance.
“We all got to bond together as a team and lift one another up in prayer. It just felt like a really holy time,” Beth said. “After that, I saw a new level of vulnerability in people, I saw a new level of boldness, a new level of ease in connecting with people and praying for people. That was my favorite part, to see our team empowered. God did a magical unicorn healing work, and we were all better off because of it.”
Brianna was the last to be prayed for, and she was so bold and vulnerable in confessing that she had been feeling insecure the previous night at Sturgis, not knowing how to talk to people, feeling triggers to her past life. But, she says, “after being built up by the body, when I went out that night [to Sturgis], I felt that I just had to share this freedom that I have, I have to go up to people, I have to pray for people—something changed in me spiritually.”
Jontae said that time in the church had the “ambience of heaven,” as God’s presence was felt so strongly, and as people—both guys and girls—opened up, saying things they would normally never say. And all of it spiritually prepared us for our second round of ministry at Sturgis that night.
“I think God really did something that day. I believe there was so much breakthrough in so many different ways,” Jontae said.
Empowered at Sturgis (Night 2)
That night, our team looked less burdened, less intimidated, more filled with the Spirit.
“Everything felt different, it felt effortless, like it was the easiest thing in the world to go up to people, to pray for people,” Jontae said.
The girls returned to the bars, specifically one named The Dungeon. After sitting down for a while not knowing who to talk to, a woman approached Beth, saying she was trying to escape an admirer. Beth and the woman continued to talk, eventually ending the conversation with prayer that God would guide and direct the woman’s life, and help her make some critical life decisions.
Jontae, too, had a long conversation with a man at the bar, whom she was able to share her testimony with. Others on our team also had fruitful conversations, some lasting as long as 40 minutes. While people at Sturgis were still declining prayer, there were others who weren’t.
On the other side of the festival, Jacob, Zak, and I came across one young man sitting on a bench with his girlfriend. He said he’d recently become a Christian and was trying to turn his life around. We talked with him, learning that he’d recently moved to Rapid City and that he had high blood pressure. Jacob offered to pray for that, saying God had just healed another man’s ankle a few days ago. After Jacob finished praying, the man said his heart wasn’t racing as much, a sure sign of progress, so Jacob prayed again, and as he did so I saw the young man tear up, visibly touched by the gesture, by God’s love. We encouraged him to keep the faith and left soon after to meet more festival-goers.
It was past midnight when our team returned to the church at Rapid City, full of stories of what God had done.
Coming Home Changed
On Friday, our last day as a team, we drove through the Black Hills, to Mount Rushmore, and eventually back to Sioux Falls. We weren’t the same.
Josh noticed that “it seems less intimidating, more fluid to be open in [his] faith and just bold in that way.” Zak, too, feels that if he sees “somebody that needs prayers [he] wouldn’t be afraid to walk up to them and pray with them, because we did that a lot on the trip, and [he] could do it in [his] daily life, too.” Anne admitted that she didn’t expect much from the trip at first, “but it ended up being invaluable.”
On Saturday, Jontae, Christian, and I had to catch our flight back to Los Angeles. It was a bittersweet ending. We were leaving our new friends in Sioux Falls, but thankful to have experienced, on a deeper level, what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.
“Encouraging one another, laying hands on one another, building each other up, going to the streets as the body—this is what it’s supposed to look like,” Brianna said. “With everyone on the trip—we were the body as Jesus intended it.”