When you first met Sid Byrd, he would hand you a business card with a logo on the top that read "F.B.I." On the back, it explained that stood for "Flat Broke Indian." Sid was a Dakota raised on the Lakota reservation. I spent the summer before college on mission with Sid, ministering on the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota. I learned a lot that summer, mostly from mistakes, but a great deal came from long car rides with Sid.
Sid was very open about the fact that white people were not to be trusted. As he regaled old Dakota stories and his own history, it was hard to miss why he would feel that way. Abuse would not begin to cover the extent of those experiences. It was the first time I really was embarrassed about my heritage and realized my privilege. The stories he would tell had a common theme of things being taken away, starting with crafts and land and dignity to identity and finally, life itself.
The stories were hard to hear, but he always seemed to come back to the questions, “How can one claim ownership of another person or the land or even the right way to live?” To him, everything belonged to God, and subsequently for him that was where his Dakota faith connected with the Christian faith. For Sid, accepting a sovereign God was in line with the faith of the Dakota people, and Sid taught me the first very important lesson in my professional ministry.
A lot of what we practice in Christianity is not really Christian; rather, it is cultural. Moreover, a lot of what people do in the name of Christianity is not Christian either. He was the first person to show me how people used a particular myopic view of Christianity to oppress and repress people. Sid also helped me to see how I had been influenced by that view, creating an idol to worship rather than God. For Sid, Christianity was very much about humility and stewardship. I remember him saying once that the moment one realizes they are not God, they recognize their responsibility to care for this world because the land and our lives are gifts. From an early age, I was taught that anytime you borrowed or used something that was not yours, you had a responsibility to leave it better than you found it.
The problems that we face in our world today are based in the fact that we have no real sense of humility and stewardship. Fracking and its by-products are causing earthquakes and sickness in many communities because we do not think about where our gas, oil and electricity are coming from. We arrest and deport people because they were not lucky enough to be born in our country, even though many of the conditions they are coming here to escape are caused directly or indirectly by our consumerism or power grabs. The shootings and violence we see all around are caused by the fact that we are disconnected from each other. Not only do we not love our neighbor, but often we do not even know our neighbor.
Our society lifts up warped values that claim wealth to be success and power to be good, and often this is done under the guise of Christian faith. So often we reject the realities that are happening all around. When things are good, we credit ourselves, and when they are not, we take no culpability. So often we are left wondering where God is, rather than finding ways to let go and truly be present with God.
I remember one day driving through the wheat fields of northern South Dakota, just south of North Dakota, through rolling hills far away from any development. We pulled over at a place where there was no sign of civilization except the car we were in and the little dirt road we were on. Standing at the top of the hill, we looked all around, and Sid said, “This is all God's, and to God it will return. Never forget that.” It is a beautiful memory, but I can only think of how we, in our quest for control and power, lost our call to be good stewards of God’s world.
We, as people of faith, have to make a change and live into the community that God calls us to be part of. We must begin to model for the world a faith based in humility and stewardship, recognizing our place in the world and our call to live as servants to God and not to be God, to listen to God's call for our humility and to not create idols that only serve to support a warped faith of power and persecution.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen