Shepherd of the Streets

As a homeschooled pastor's son from suburban Minnesota, Abram Neumann is an unlikely choice to lead the souls of Whiteclay to sobriety and salvation. But by befriending those littering the village's damaged streets, the 22-year-old tries to bring light into darkness.

As a homeschooled pastor's son from suburban Minnesota, Abram Neumann is an unlikely choice to lead the souls of Whiteclay to sobriety and salvation. But by befriending those littering the village's damaged streets, the 22-year-old tries to bring light into darkness.

It’s an early September afternoon and a handful of people sit quietly in cheap plastic chairs at a deserted Catholic church on America’s most famous Indian reservation.

At the front of the church is an open casket, covered by a thin veil to keep the bugs away. The casket is adorned with plastic flowers and a few photos of Benita Lou Swift Bird, a 47-year-old Oglala Lakota who drank herself to death, who just days earlier began her journey to the Spirit World, leaving behind four daughters and a son.

On one side of the room sits a young white man with floppy blond hair. He stands out among the small group of family and close friends who have gathered for the wake.

This afternoon, he’s buried in his own thoughts, remembering her pain. The horrible pain she suffered at the end. The way she grimaced lying on her back on the hot concrete that last day he saw her on the street, listening to her cry, praying for her, knowing the pain she felt wasn’t just physical.

His back stiffens against the cold plastic, against the hard guilt.

Why didn’t someone do something?

Why didn’t I do more?

I could have.

That’s why I’m here.

And then the anger.

In his two years ministering to the diseased and hopeless people littering the streets of Whiteclay, a skidrow prairie town that sells 3.5 million cans of beer annually, he had now witnessed the deaths of eight friends. Seven from liver failure. One from seizures triggered by alcohol.

What right did these four beer stores in this tiny Nebraska village have to prey on so many desperate souls?

“For me, [their] location – right next to a dry reservation – I don’t think it’s right,” says Abram Neumann. “I see how people could justify it, but no. I can’t imagine doing what they do, giving the same people a beer every day. And then every month or so hearing ‘so and so died.’

I could never do that.”

***

As the sun begins to drip across the vast prairie, Whiteclay’s redeemer awakes in a cramped trailer parked on the edge of the desolate Nebraska town of 12 people.

Not yet 7 a.m., the 22-year-old showers, throws on a black “Hope Dealer” T-shirt and ventures outside to pray for the day ahead. Always, he prays for protection. That the Holy Spirit will somehow be alive in the people he meets that day – within all of those collapsed in the rubble of crumbling buildings or in the makeshift tent camps back in the woods or along the asphalt edges of Highway 87 that leads to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.

The sun is higher now. He finds a raised wooden platform in the middle of the five-acre Lakota Hope Ministry to sit on. He clutches his hands together, resting his elbows on his knees, the wind blowing his curly hair, bobbing slightly back and forth as he prays.

Abram Neumann starts his morning with prayer at the Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay, Nebraska.

After a few minutes, he stands up, thrusts his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and ambles down the road to his office: a ramshackle town littered with empty beer cans and empty lives.

Along the way, he steps over an orphaned black shoe, a used toothbrush and dozens of aluminum tabs lying in the dust, finally extending a hand to one of several friends killing time on the front stoop of an abandoned building.

The friend grips Neumann’s right hand with his, holding a 24-ounce can of Camo Black Ice in the other.

“Are you sure you don’t want a drink, Curly Sioux?” he chuckles, offering a swig of the “high gravity” malt liquor that has the power of about four 12-ounce cans of light beer.

Neumann laughs, running his fingers through wet hair. He is clean, freshly showered. Some of his street friends haven’t showered in days, maybe weeks, who knows. The smell of fresh urine, stagnant body odor and stale beer overwhelms them. Soon, another familiar smell drifts from inside a nearby Chevy Lumina, where four men quietly pass around a joint.

On the streets of Whiteclay, the differences between Neumann and his friends extend far beyond hygiene. He grew up in a safe, white Minnesota community as a homeschooled, Lutheran pastor’s kid, wedged in the middle of six siblings, living comfortably in their Lakeland, Minnesota home.

His street friends, meanwhile, were born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 200 yards north, where the Oglala Lakota live in the poorest of America’s 3,144 counties, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report. It is where men have a shorter lifespan than any other country in the world and the infant mortality rate is three times the national average, according to a 2007 report.

The friends tell Neumann that broken marriages, broken families and lost loved ones eventually led them to the streets of Whiteclay.

But despite the vast differences, they have embraced Neumann as one of their own. This is where he has chosen to live for the past two years, fervently believing that God has called him to minister to these Lakota living in poverty and addiction.

By now, they’ve grown accustomed to his morning routine of moving from group to group along the sides of the highway. They see him kneeling in the dirt, listening to prayer requests and bandaging wounds from drunken fights the night before.

Abram Neumann in his trailer at the Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay, Nebraska.

“It is my mission to let everyone on the street in Whiteclay know that they are loved and valued, by me, and by God,” he says. “This is where God put me.”

Shortly after arriving in Whiteclay, he earned the nickname Curly Sioux. So as he moves down the street, sing-song shouts of “Curly!” and “Justin Timberlake!” ring out.

“God gave him curly hair,” says Bill McLaughlin, a Pine Ridge resident who frequents the streets. “God only does that to, you know, prophets. Jesus had curly hair. Moses had curly hair. Abram has curly hair. So we follow him.”

Following an ugly divorce, 55-year-old Burton Chief has been in and out of Whiteclay for 30 years, begging for beer money and hustling drugs. To him, Whiteclay has always been a dark place.

“If [Abram] wasn’t around there would be no bright light,” Chief said. “He’s the only one that comes down to the streets and visits everybody...He makes me feel like there’s still hope in the world. There’s still a light at the end of the rainbow.”

As the would-be shepherd tends to his flock, McLaughlin suddenly points to a wind-blown black plastic bag flying high above.

“Look at that eagle! Wanbli. Means good luck today, Curly Sioux.”

***

As a pastor’s son, Neumann is like a plant that can be repotted anywhere. His family uprooted him and his siblings from Minnesota to Texas to Wisconsin and then back to Minnesota again so his father could serve various Lutheran churches.

In each new home, he quickly adjusted to the culture. Within a few weeks of living in Texas, 3-year-old Abram acquired a Southern drawl and a cowboy hat.

Naturally, it was the same for Whiteclay, where he quickly learned some Lakota and how to make dream catchers and war clubs.

As a high school junior, he listened to his pastor describe qualities of missionaries – the ability to love all kinds of people, to live simply, to function gracefully under stress – and he imagined himself living in some jungle or hut village.

“I had never thought about ministering to people in our own backyards,” Neumann said. “I had assumed at that point that there wasn’t the same sort of need here.”

Throughout his junior year, it seemed every church sermon or Christian radio song he heard touched on missions, telling him to “go.” He was inspired by his older sister, Hannah, who spent a year in the Philippines when she was 19, working to fight human trafficking. His heroes became famous missionaries in the stacks of books his father kept.

“Abram’s life goal is to be a Jesus impersonator,” said his father Mark Neumann. “He’s a great listener, he doesn’t have a loud, attention-seeking personality. Abram was the kid you would expect to do missions.”

Abram Neumann chats with a Native man as he drinks a beer on the streets of Whiteclay, Nebraska

So in the spring of 2011, the 16-year-old searched for summer church trips, hungry for a taste of the mission life. But there weren’t many options. Just a $700 trip to Pine Ridge.

It didn’t really excite him. It was no Africa. But he took it.

He remembers his first glimpses from the window of the church van: four or five broken-down cars outside graffiti-covered trailers, piles of trash everywhere. The stark contrast of neglected communities set against amber-toned hills that stretched out like an ocean.

“My comfortable, suburban Christian homeschooler pastor’s kid bubble popped,” Neumann said.

At first, the shy, gentle teenager was uncomfortable in Whiteclay. When there were opportunities to interact with street people, he chose to stay behind at Lakota Hope Ministry and garden.

Then one day, he shared a meal with a street person named “Tom Cat.” He explained how his own grief and trauma led him to alcohol, how violence, poverty and death were commonplace on Pine Ridge. That day, something shifted inside Neumann.

He describes it as a hard tug on his heart. A heavy burden that suddenly landed on him. But he convinced himself that the emotional response was normal, that he would feel this way regardless of where the mission experience occurred.

A year later, he spent seven weeks in Uganda and South Sudan – still reeling from a lengthy civil war, a country rife with hungry, sick refugees. While there, he attended the funeral of a 4-year-old girl who had died of malaria because her family had no way to get her to a treatment center 5 miles from home.

What he saw in Africa was dire, but the oppression and poverty of the Lakota stuck with him more. He couldn’t quite shake Whiteclay.

“You come to expect [poverty] of countries in Africa, but it’s more of a shock seeing it here,” Neumann said.

So he worked as a Lakota Hope intern for two summers, and then at 20, took a full-time position with the ministry, working under founders Bruce and Marsha BonFleur.

Marsha, 64, used to be on the streets a few times a week, sometimes bringing bologna and cheese sandwiches for her friends there. But she had been praying for someone younger, and preferably male, to deal with the street violence.

During his first summer as an intern, Neumann looked at the street people the same way she did. He made up handshakes and played poker with them. And they quickly trusted him because he didn’t force the Bible on them. He just listened.

Abram Neumann chats with people drinking beer on the streets of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

“It’s incredible to see a 21-year-old white kid from Minnesota called to one of the darkest places in this whole country and do it so wonderfully,” Marsha said. “You can’t fake that type of compassion.”

But not everyone views Neumann – and the BonFleurs – as messengers of good news.

For many traditional Lakota, injecting Christianity into the Lakota spiritual world has created generations of anger, angst and ill-will. The indoctrination often was heavy-handed, and many Lakota saw it as an offensive repudiation of their way of life.

“Christianity is the first thing that really hurt our people,” said Eileen Janis, a 55-year-old Pine Ridge resident. “When the churches came and tried to take the savage out of us, what they did was actually put the savage in us.”

The way Neumann sees it, the people on the streets of Whiteclay don’t need to be preached to.

His goal, he said, is simply to reflect God’s love by caring about the well-being of each person on the street.

“Knowing Jesus doesn’t fix all of your problems,” Neumann said. “It doesn’t take away all the hurt and trauma. It doesn’t necessarily free you of your addiction. But I also believe God gives us the strength to overcome.”

***

Another morning in Whiteclay and half a dozen street people flock to the stoop of an abandoned building, snagging two donuts and a cup of coffee from Curly Sioux.

One sets his cane at his feet and stuffs a powdered donut in his mouth, the thick white sugar coating his lips and mustache.

He’s filling more styrofoam cups with hot coffee, when Waydin High Pine wraps him in a bear hug.

“Thank you, bro bro,” she says. “Will you pray for me, Curly Sioux?”

“Abram, pray for me too!” McLaughlin yells, jumping from the stoop, almost spilling his coffee.

The trio huddle together and close their eyes. Neumann lays his hands on their shoulders.

Dear God, thank you for my brother and my sister here and for their friendship. I pray that you would help them to know how much you love them and how much you want a relationship with them. I pray that you would give them strength in their hearts to walk in a way that honors you. God, I pray that you would just give them peace and joy today. Amen.

Neumann's sister Hannah is on the streets with him today, visiting for the first time from Minneapolis.

She sits with 48-year-old Alvin Janis. He tells her Neumann will soon drive him to an 18-month treatment program in Cincinnati. His 19-year-old daughter, who feared he would drink himself to death, convinced Janis to seek treatment.

“I hate to leave these guys,” Janis says, “because I don’t know if they’ll be here when I get back.”

“So you admit that you’ll be back here,” someone nearby cackles.

Curly Sioux has driven several of his friends to detox in Rapid City, but never as far as Cincinnati.

So far, everyone he’s taken to detox has ended up back on the street.

Abram Neumann prays with Native women on the streets of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

Tom Cat was one who got sober. He left the street to live with his sister on the Rez. One morning, Neumann found him back in Whiteclay, standing with a group sipping beer from open cans.

Leave Tom Cat alone, they said. Tom Cat belongs in Whiteclay. But Neumann snagged Tom Cat anyway, hustling him off to the Subway in Pine Ridge.

Boredom and loneliness, he said between bites of his sandwich, turned his thoughts to the taste of beer, to the streets of Whiteclay.

No! said Neumann. You’re an artist – and a good one when you’re sober.

To underscore his point, he quoted Proverbs 24:16: “The godly may trip seven times, but they will get up again.” And his friend, he said, could get up again, too, no matter how many times he’d fallen.

Tom Cat just nodded.

When he was done eating, they walked silently back to the car.

“All right, where am I taking you? To your sister’s or to Whiteclay?”

Tom Cat hesitated. Then he clicked his seatbelt.

“Take me back to Whiteclay.”

Suddenly, there’s shouting on the street. A lot of noise. A lot of commotion.

McLaughlin has shoved an “outsider” – a man who isn’t a Whiteclay regular – for talking to Hannah, for telling her white people had destroyed red people.

“We don’t know you!” Janis yells, tossing an empty beer can at the man. “You ain’t one of us! Get out of here!”

Curly Sioux calmly walks toward them.

“Bill! Alvin! Stop. It’s OK to tell people to leave, it’s not OK to fight. Hannah is fine.”

Janis stops punching. He drags the stranger by the sleeve of his hoodie to the other side of the road, where a truck has just pulled over. He tells him to get in and go back to Pine Ridge.

“If Abram wasn’t here, I would’ve knocked him out,” McLaughlin said.

Janis put it another way: “Abram takes care of us. We take care of Abram.”

***

It’s a Sunday morning at Restoration Church, a lonely metal building awash in a vast sea of Pine Ridge prairie.

Neumann and his sister are leading an elderly Lakota man with wiry gray hair and a walker into the sanctuary. Worshipers of all ages slap Curly Sioux on the back and shake his hand.

Shortly before the service begins, Neumann and his friends weave through a gaggle of giggling children to take their seats in white plastic chairs toward the back of the room.

Soon, the room quiets and the pastor begins his sermon.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves of who our God is and what He’s done...because so many times our eyes, they lie to us. Because we look into a world of despair and it causes us to sometimes wonder, where’s God? Where’s his love?”

When the singing is over, when the prayers are finished, when the service is done, Abram Neumann once again is alone with his thoughts.

So many times I feel like I’m not getting anywhere.

After two years, so few successes, eight dead friends.

I’m trying to do God’s work every day.

What more can I do?

The beer stores.

In the end, it always comes back to this – four beer stores in a village of 12 people.

So what if those stores were shut down? Abram is asked.

He smiles.

“Then I’d be out of a job."