By Chris Pick, Special to ASSIST News Service
SOUTH DAKOTA (ANS – Feb 4, 2016) — Missionary, pastor, and author Leon Schwartz is a pastor at the Re-Creation Center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Born into a Jewish family, his journey to Pine Ridge was very similar to the story of Abraham’s journey and one that has seen and continues to see many challenges and breakthroughs along the way.
“My father was born in Egypt but his family is all Jew. My father was born before Israel was a nation and the holocaust affected my grandfather’s entrepreneurial endeavors,” Schwartz recalls. “When Israel was formed (my father’s) family moved there. My father fought in the six day war and then came to America after his military service to Israel.”
It was in America that Schwartz’s father encountered the Lord. He was involved in a terrible car accident and was pronounced dead. “…he died in a car accident and saw God himself,” Schwartz recounted. “The Lord restored his life and I was born three months later. So I was always a Christian.”
Between the ages of 6 and 9, Schwartz lived in Israel. He explained: “I do not consider myself a Jew or a Messianic Christian. I prefer the term Hebrew because I do not identify with the Jewish religion.”
After moving back to America, Schwartz’s father moved to Florida and he and his mother, as well as his two brothers, went back to Pittsburgh to live with his grandmother on his mother’s side of the family, who is Italian. “My dad was praying and seeking a job and a church when he felt God lead him to a small church in a Florida town,” recalls Schwartz. “My dad felt that God told him that the pastor was to help him fly his family from Pennsylvania to Florida. Well as any good pastor knows, crazy people come every day into our churches saying God told them this or that, but this time the pastor actually knew God was telling him to do this.
He flew my family to Florida and got my dad a job with a man in the church who had a construction business. In 1994, this same pastor felt God calling him to become a missionary in Pine Ridge, SD (on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation). Schwartz started to feel a little aimless in his life. He sought council and also prayed about moving to Pine Ridge to help this pastor. “I felt that God told me to move here,” Schwartz reflects. “I really felt God say that in part this was God paying him back for being obedient in the past to help my family. I have lived here ever since.”
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is an Oglala Lakota Native American reservation located in South Dakota, U.S.A. The reservation was established in 1889 in the southwest corner of South Dakota on the Nebraska border and currently consists of 3,468.85 sq mi (8,984.306 km) of land area, and is the eighth-largest reservation in the United States. The current estimated population is over 28,787. It’s the site of a tragic event that marked tragic milestones in the history between the Lakota Sioux and the United States, the Wounded Knee Massacre, which took place nearly a year after the reservation was established. In an attempt to repress what was believed to be a rise-up by the Sioux who were participating in a new spiritual dance, a heavily armed detachment of U.S. soldiers attacked and killed many Sioux warriors, women, and children who were fleeing the Standing Rock Agency to seek refuge at Pine Ridge.
This story is told in the popular late nineteenth century book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by American writer Dee Brown.
In my involvement with ministry work on The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I often discovered similarities between the Lakota Sioux and the ancient Israelites of the Exodus. Being a Hebrew, I asked Schwartz if he saw the same connection.
“In general, I would say many first nation people around the world are very similar. Some work has been done in what people call the ‘Honor/Shame’ society vs idea of ‘Guilty’ or ‘Non-Guilty’ society. It is all in how we approach sin in general. On a more simplistic side, native women shrill, Jewish women shrill, and there are many similarities beyond this. For me the only similarity that matters though is the need for a Savior. Does native culture influence my preaching?
“I would say not necessarily; what influences my preaching most is knowing my audience. Being married to a school teacher has further helped me in this area of my life and, as a minister or a school teacher, it is our job to effectively communicate ideas and instill those ideas into people’s minds and hearts. This is not done just by preaching the word, but by living it out and discipling individuals as they seek to draw closer to God.”
From all of my experiences with different mission work, I would say Native American Reservation ministry work has been one of my greatest challenges. And Schwartz has seen some challenges in this work as well, especially expressing the love of God to a people group whose experience with many “pseudo” Christians has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Lakota Sioux.
“In the mind of the Lakotas, many of the atrocities done here were done in the name of Jesus,” Schwartz explains. “Beyond that there is a very real racist attitude that permeates much of the Dakotas and a sense of being abandoned that has led to a hopelessness that has been passed down through generations. On the reverse side bitterness by many Lakotas has brought them to a wounded pride that refuses many times to hear the truth of a life-changing Gospel.”
“I would also say that there is a real syncretistic Gospel on the reservation that allows for people to take Jesus and add him to what they feel is right and worship God in this way. This attitude has grown in response to trying to right wrongs done in the past. Reaching people with the Gospel has become a difficult venture because it is easy to offend even when speaking truth in love.”
In early 2015, a suicide epidemic hit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. More than 100 Pine Ridge youths between the ages of 9 and 24 attempted suicide in 2015. Factors ranged from poverty, bullying, rape and molestation, demons, etc.
(Native Americans have always had a higher suicide rate than non-natives in the U.S.)
“The suicide issue is an ongoing emergency,” Schwartz explains. “Sadly for many youth they feel this is the only way to find freedom from the pain in their lives. Has it changed how we minister? Not necessarily. But it has brought an urgency among many Christians on the reservation to seek God’s face for an awakening and revival among our land. The problems are too many and the pains too deep, only a move of God can truly bring the freedom that so many are desperate to have.”
For a while it seemed like a hopeless battle. But once people started praying, we saw a breakthrough!
Schwartz recalls: “A few years ago ministers from different churches began to meet and pray. This weekly prayer meeting grew into a twice a week prayer meeting and a monthly day of fasting and prayer together. I have been living on the reservation since 2001 but only in recent years have I begun to see breakthroughs in peoples’ lives. I attribute this to the desperation of the ministers here to lay aside differences and band together for what we all know is most important. Christians across Pine Ridge are becoming a true family and a body of Christ – and it is a united effort of all who come together for one purpose, to see Jesus lifted high!”
Still, amidst such challenges, he has found his work on Pine Ridge to be very fulfilling.
“One of the more interesting things for me is that I grew up beside the ocean until I moved to South Dakota and became landlocked. It was an adjustment that now I look back over and think, I wish I had lived here my life. Over time God has transformed my heart and my likes by living here on the reservation. In that time, I have met many wonderful people that in my heart I have grown to love not just as a minister but as friends and people I care about. To have had this opportunity to pour into many lives has been a fulfilling life. But I am not satisfied because I dream of the day when our reservation is sold out for Jesus and we are sending missionaries into America, to see this country transformed and on fire for God.”
Schwartz asked that you keep him and the people on Pine Ridge in daily prayer: “The enemy has had his way in Pine Ridge for a long time,” Schwartz explains. “Pray that his kingdom will crumble. Pray that entire families will get saved. Pray for disciples. Pray for an awakening and a revival to sweep the Lakota Nation.”
Schwartz is currently a pastor at the Re-Creation Center in Oglala on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The Re-Creation Center has a gymnasium where children can come and play daily free of charge. They have normal church services on Sunday and in the summer they host teams and do numerous outdoor activities with the youth and children. The church’s website is www.oglalarwc.org .
As an author, Schwartz has recently written an exegetical entitled “Solid Foundations: A Post-Tribulation View of the End”. It is available on Amazon at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Solid-Foundations-Post-Tribulation-View-End/dp/1523307188.
Photo captions: 1) Playing a human size game of Connect Four at a New Year’s Evelock at the Working with a boy in the ministry’s Royal Rangers program. 2) Leon Schwartz running a basketball camp. 3) Book cover. 4) Leon Schwartz leading worship. 5) Chris and Michelle at a GFA event.
About the writer: Chris Pick is a singer/songwriter, missionary, and advocate for the Persecuted Church and Native Missionary Movement. He has been involved with several mission projects which have included work in South America, Africa, Asia, and North America (ministering among the Lakota Sioux at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Allen, SD). As a singer/songwriter, Pick’s music has been heard globally and charted on many continents in both mainstream, adult contemporary, and Christian charts. His latest single “Come Back” (featuring Mariah Hostrander) as well as the EP “Tragedies & Miracles” (featuring members of Rich Mullins’ old band “A Ragamuffin Band”) are available on iTunes. You can find out more at www.chrispick.bandcamp.com. Pick resides in Williamsport, PA, along with his wife Michelle (a fifth grade teacher in Central PA) and their newborn daughter Erica. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Pick on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/Chris-Pick-fan-page/310118944421), Twitter (www.twitter.com/pickchris), or at Reverb Nation (www.reverbnation.com/chrispick).
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