LACONIA — In 1998, when a wind shear littered the town of West Olive, Michigan with fallen timber, Keith Titus, recently ordained pastor of the United Church of Christ, asked local officials what they intended to do with the trees. "They said they were going to turn them to mulch," he recalled, "but I told them I had a better idea." Together with more than 80 volunteers Titus cut up the windfall, filled two tractor trailers and, with his wife Virginia and friend Mike Alles, delivered the firewood to the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Titus has returned to Pine Ridge every year since. He founded Re-Member, a nonprofit corporation, which every year brings 1,200 to 1,400 volunteers to the reservation where it maintains a year-round staff and plans to expand its presence.
On Neighbors in Need Sunday, October 4, Titus will preach at the services at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. at the Congregational Church of Laconia UCC and afterward speak about the work and plans of Re-Member at the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Pine Ridge Reservation sprawls over 3,468 square miles — about the size of Connecticut,less than five-percent them suited to agriculture. The U.S. Census counted 15,521 residents in 2010, but a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found more than 28,000, half of them — and 69-percent of the children — living below the federal poverty line, in one of three poorest counties in the country. With high rates of diabetes, heart disease and tuberculosis and suicide running at twice and infant mortality at thrice the national rate, life expectancy is the lowest anywhere in the western hemisphere other than Haiti. " The most successful business at Pine Ridge," said Titus, "is the undertaker."
"Be careful coming out here," Titus said he tells the volunteers, "because your life will never be the same." Volunteers, he explained, spend half their time working, primarily by improving housing conditions on the reservation, especially for children. Re-Member has provided more than 6,000 bunk beds, installed windows and doors, replaced roofs and added skirts to trailers to keep out the weather.
Titus said that volunteers spend the other half of their time gaining an understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of the Oglala Lakota, the band of Sioux that spawned Red Cloud, who fought the United States Cavalry to a standstill in the 1870s, and Crazy Horse, the most celebrated warrior on the northern plains.
"We don't do any preaching or evangelizing," Titus said. "The primary focus is to change the lives of our volunteers. We're not there to fix things for the Lakota people, but to stand beside them and support them in any way they wish to be supported."
Titus described himself as a "roving ambassador at-large" for Re-Member, the leadership of which has passed to other hands, with the task of rallying support for Feather II, the capital campaign to raise $1.5-million to expand the organization's presence at Pine Ridge. In 2010, Re-Member purchased a 160-acre ranch on the reservation and this year erected of the first of 13 buildings — and "a whole lot of infrastructure" — planned for the site, Titus said that some $640,000 has been raised so far. Titus said that the centerpiece of the project will be an extensive garden. He explained that the rate of diabetes on the reservation — eight times the national rate — reflects the meager access to fresh fruit and vegetables.