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In South Dakota, a good road leads others to taste and see

During the spring and summer of 2020, Matt Hadden was joined by friends in framing out a building at Čhankú Wašté Ranch in Porcupine, S.D.

PORCUPINE, S.D. (BP) – Psalm 34:8 urges the reader to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” That bit of Scripture becomes personal for Matt Hadden and others operating Čhankú Wašté Ranch, located on one of the larger Indian reservations in the country.

Pronounced CHON-koo WASH-tay, it means “The Good Road” in Lakota. For many residents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, it is also the resource for better eyesight, dental care and camp activities for children where they learn about Jesus.

Children go down a slide during a camp last summer at Čhankú Wašté Ranch.

Hadden’s road to get here began in August 2011 when, as a youth pastor at Harvest Park Baptist Church in Newnan, Ga., he led a mission trip to the area. 

“The Lord used that week to call us,” he said. “Six months later, we were up here.”

That began with Hadden serving as an associate pastor/children’s camp director, then pastor/children’s camp director, then church planter/pastor/children’s camp director. That included preaching in two locations – Creek’s Fellowship in Porcupine as well as a church plant 25 miles away.

Early 2020 brought a lot of changes to his growing ministry. In January, Hadden met with Send Relief representatives to sign a contract for the 150-acre ranch to become a Send Relief center. Those additional funds boosted the ministry possibilities and contributed to the arrival of roofing and other materials March 18.

“We had mission teams signed up and ready to help us [build it out],” he said.

But things officially shut down March 20 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Hadden couldn’t even leave the reservation without a pass.

But he had time, and he had a hammer.

“I was walking around the property one morning, leaned against a block wall, and started praying,” he said. “My dad used to sing that song, ‘If I had a hammer.’

The lyrics met the situation.

If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land…

“I thought to myself, ‘I have a hammer,’” he told Baptist Press.

Hadden’s father, David, had passed his construction know-how to his son. The following morning brought Matt, alone, to begin the framing for a new building.

Chalk messages including the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) decorate a part of Čhankú Wašté Ranch.

Friends joined in, contributing while respecting laws and COVID recommendations.

Buildings began to take shape, but so did a desire for the church to resume in-person meetings after three months of canceled services due to government mandates. When a local casino opened up, Creek’s Fellowship spoke up on regathering. They ended up doing just that in August 2020.

While tension existed with local government and COVID policies, that was not the case with the church’s respect toward the general population.

“The Lakota people are some of the most resilient you’ll ever witness,” Hadden said. “There are many phenomenal qualities in this culture.”

Culturally, however, tribal history and its connections with churches across the prairie remain complicated and impact outreach today.

Oklahoma Southern Baptist pastor Mike Keahbone, whose ancestry includes heritage from the Comanche, Kiowa and Cherokee tribes, stood at the SBC annual meeting last summer to present a resolution titled “On Religious Liberty, Forced Conversion, and the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.”

The resolution came a month after the release of a federal report that presented instances of forced conversions and assimilation among Native Americans in the form of mandatory boarding schools. Southern Baptists were not specifically named in the report, but it did state that churches of many denominations participated.

Hadden has observed those lingering effects.

“Less than 5 percent on the reservation claim to know Jesus,” he said. “We’re trying to overcome those hurdles.”

The wellness center is helping do that through addressing two specific needs – dental care and optometry. Teeth are pulled, but also saved. Dentures are crafted; glasses given.

It’s a matter of meeting needs that may be traumatic for people, Hadden said, and answering that through action as well as the Gospel.

“A fully restored life only comes through Jesus. Hopefully, we have a platform to point them to Christ the way the blind man came to Him.”

Bringing change doesn’t come without personal investment, though. Hadden knew the wellness center needed his full-time attention. Two years ago, the church plant got its own pastor. Hadden also eventually moved to an associate pastor role at Creator’s Fellowship as Chad Deible, one of the core team members who helps at the ranch, became pastor.

The first post-COVID pandemic mission team came in the early summer of 2021, but barely. A tribal council letter at first stated no camps could be held even as a group from Pleasant Grove Baptist in Owensboro, Ky., drove up.

Things settled in the group’s favor, though.

“We were able to have a great camp and a great summer,” said Hadden.

Roughly 700-800 volunteers are needed to conduct the camp throughout the summer, he said, with approximately 80 volunteers daily helping with the wellness ministry, camps and construction needs. Hadden’s sister, Raegan, serves as Čhankú Wašté Ranch’s lone full-time employee as wellness director.

In addition to serving as the ranch’s executive director and camp director, respectively, Hadden and his wife, Amanda, also provide foster care alongside raising their three children, ages 16,13 and 9.

As its name implies, Čhankú Wašté is on a good road. Hadden envisions adding ministries for pregnancy care and parenting, among others.

“We want to walk with people through many areas of their life,” he said.