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Faith on the job: Urban Rangers, Lakota team up for project

Faith on the job: Urban Rangers, Lakota team up for project


God, says the Rev. Phil Cooke, is an economist.

Cooke is a Jesuit priest on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation whose previous work with inner-city gangs, along with his current exposure to the high unemployment rates among Native Americans, has led him to appreciate the intersection of spirituality and a paying job.

"You need God, and you need a job," said Cooke. "A job is essential."

After all, the root of the word "economics" is a combination of two Greek words that mean "household" and "to manage." And since any faith community, but particularly a reservation faith community, is really just a big household headed by God, the metaphor is fitting, he believes.

Cooke invited the Urban Rangers, a job training program from Kansas City, to team up with the Red Cloud Indian School for a pilot program designed to teach basic life and job skills while providing three weeks of paid employment to young reservation residents. It also provided some much-needed upkeep at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Manderson, where Cooke is the pastor.

The Urban Rangers is a program in which mostly black men from lower-income households set out in work crews over the course of the summer to fix up distressed neighborhoods block by block through painting, repairing and doing yard work. They earn an hourly wage for their efforts, while gaining skills they will need to enter the job force.

For one week last month, five young men from inner-city Kansas City and two leaders traveled to Pine Ridge to work with eight Lakota men between the ages of 17-25 from the Manderson and Wounded Knee communities. Together, they painted the church and two parish halls.

One of them, Leslie Iron Hawk of Wounded Knee, said the project benefits both him and his community.

"It shows me a sense of workmanship and how to get along as a team," he said. "It teaches me responsibility, and the importance of getting things done."

Roberta Spencer, pastoral assistant at St. Agnes, said finding jobs on the reservation is difficult.

Official unemployment rates in Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Reservation are nearly 15 percent, triple what they are in the rest of the state. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs reports an 89 percent jobless rate on the reservation, since many workers drop out of the labor force entirely.

"It's difficult to find jobs for our reservation youth," said Spencer, a resident of Manderson. "They want to work. They are determined to work. It's important-necessary-to start projects like this. It raises self-esteem, and acknowledges the contributions that they can and do make in our communities. They should be proud of what they're doing."

The young men earned wages for three weeks: one week of orientation, which stressed goals, life skills, employer expectations and teamwork, plus two weeks of work, one with their Urban Ranger counterparts and another on their own.

"They did get paid, and that's a crucial point," said Cooke. "We're trying to empower people through the gospel, through the church, through the culture - and through jobs. Our youth need jobs and spirituality, not just one or the other. Sometimes the church needs to reach out and make the first step."

Funding for the Pine Ridge pilot program came courtesy of Urban Rangers, which was founded by a diocesan priest in Kansas City who is friend of Cooke's family. Cooke, who was ordained in 2008, is a native of Kansas City and a member of the Jesuit community at Red Cloud Indian School.

The Urban Rangers are aiding St. Agnes in starting its own chapter, which participants have dubbed the Rez Warriorz.

Cooke hopes to expand the pilot program in the months to come, if funding is available.

"That's our hope. We hope it grows and becomes its own thing," he said.

Bob Pille, environmental program director for OST and project manager of a $22 million dormitory project at Pine Ridge High School, hopes to hire some of the participants in the Urban Ranger program for general labor.

"I think it's a strong possibility that we may be able to utilize them on some of the projects we're doing down here," he said. The labor skills they gained were important, but the Urban Ranger focus on work ethic appeals to Pille even more.

"When I went to the School of Mines, I thought I was going to meet a lot of really smart people. Instead, I met a lot of people who went to class and did their homework.

"That's key here, to incorporate a decent work ethic," Pille said. "Urban Rangers is a prime example of the programs we need down here, and I'm going to do everything I can to incorporate them into the project."

Chronic joblessness can lead to despair and a culture of dependency, said Cooke, something the home-grown Rez Warriorz program seeks to address.

Too often, outside groups come to the reservation to perform community service projects that perpetuate a lack of self-reliance in reservation residents, he said.

"These are people who are trying to do good, but in the end it's harmful," said Cooke. "We don't want outside groups to come in and do things for us that we should do ourselves."

Initially, the pilot program's plan was to work on private homes in the Manderson and Wounded Knee communities, but Cooke decided to focus on the church buildings first as a way of rebuilding community.

"Fifteen years ago or so, the church here was seen as much more of a community gathering spot, sort of a home away from home for young people," he said. Having young people take ownership of the buildings at St. Agnes by investing in their upkeep will help ensure they are used for more than simply Sunday Mass or a place to attend funerals, he said.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or

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