When fear takes over

Growing up in Montana, I developed biases. I suppose every region has its ethnic or cultural jokes that display untrue perceptions of other people. In Montana, we told North Dakota jokes that portrayed the people of North Dakota as being uneducated and not very smart. The jokes weren’t true. North Dakota has a heritage of excellent schools and does a better job of funding public education than many other states. It is a place of significant wealth built up from generations of hard work. Still, when we learned that we would be moving to North Dakota to accept our first call as ministers, I had some reservations. I was from Montana, the land of mountains and alpine environments. North Dakota isn’t exactly known for downhill skiing. There is a distinct paucity of trees. There aren’t many places on the prairie where you could live in a forest. My preconceived notions, however, were wrong. We moved to the southwestern corner of the state where everything is not flat. There are hills and breaks and wide open spaces where you can see for miles. Living on a huge flyway is a great place to observe the glories of nature. Without a doubt, my fondest memory of seven years living in North Dakota is of the people. They were gracious and kind and warm and supportive of inexperienced ministers. They were faithful and neighborly.

When I lived in North Dakota I became a volunteer in our community ambulance squad. Weeks of training stretched out into months as I acquired the skills and knowledge of basic life support. I obtained a commercial driver’s license and then took a and EVOC course to properly drive the ambulance. I carried a pager in the days before cell phones and learned to make a quick response when there was someone in need of help. It was a time of neighbors helping neighbors. There were nights when we made some long drives to get someone to an advanced health care facility. There were times when we just sat and listened to a person in crisis. I was with people helping others simply because we believe that offering help was the right thing to do.

In our small town in an isolated location we opened our community to the resettlement of refugees that were part of the aftermath of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. We opened our community to people who were fleeing impossible circumstances in the land of their birth and seeking a better way of life. I served on the state Governor’s Task Force on Refugee Resettlement and learned of the ways in which small towns all across the state were helping people who needed to start over one individual and one family at a time. Good people remembered and told the stories of their family members who left Norway and Germany and other countries to make a new life in North Dakota. Then they opened their hearts and homes to welcome strangers.

The years passed. Times changed. We moved west to the Mountains of Idaho and then, after a decade, came back to the western Dakotas. Now I look back and realize that I’ve lived in this part of the country for most of my life. I’ve never really thought of myself as one who is tied to the land, but to the extent that I am, I guess my place is the western Dakotas.

But there are days when living in this place can be frustrating.

I heard a story that is all too common again this week. It isn’t my story to tell, so I can’t give details, but the broad outline is so common in our town that it could be any one of hundreds of families. A single mother with two grown children and another just entering teenage years has worked hard to be responsible and provide a good home for all of her children. She works full time at a job and then works full time at being a good mother. Healthy meals are on the table, he home is well kept, the children have the basics of love and clothing and education. One child, however, suffers from a persistent mental illness. Counselors have been consulted. Doctors have made their examinations. Treatment has been sought at personal expense and the investment of a lot of time. Still the illness persists. And there are days when it becomes acute. On several occasions the child has posed a clear danger to herself. Sometimes she can become dangerous to others. When that happens, the emergency room at the hospital isn’t set up to handle mental illness. It can take days and even weeks to get a psychiatrist’s visit. There have been stays in the behavioral health unit, but they are short term and the problems are never fully addressed. There might be help in another facility at the other end of the state, but there is a waiting line for treatment.

If you follow the State Legislature, which is currently in session, you don’t see lawmakers struggling to provide additional services to those who suffer from mental illness. They don’t even seem to be aware of the crisis in our communities. People try to ignore mental illness and pretend it doesn’t exist.

With only 3 percent of our total population born in other countries, South Dakota isn’t overrun by immigrants, but that doesn’t stop a general fear of immigration in our state. I’ve listened to some pretty harsh words and conversations from neighbors about their feelings on immigrants. Yesterday the President added six countries to the existing travel ban, including Myanmar, where the Muslim minority is fleeing genocide.

I wonder what happened to the spirit of welcome that seemed to be ingrained in the people of the Dakotas? Has it turned to fear? There is, after all, a lot of fear going around these days. Courage doesn’t seem to be a quality possessed by public figures any more.

I still live surrounded by good people, but sometimes they don’t show their best sides. We need to remember our heritage of caring for others because it is the right thing to do. This is a good place with good people, but, my friends and neighbors, we could do better. And we should do better.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!