Churches join to disperse donations with dignity on Cheyenne reservation in Montana
By Kelli Yoder Mennonite World Review
In the 46 years Willis Busenitz has lived on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeast Montana, he has seen many truckloads of donations emptied — including one shipment left outside a locked building for weeks after being picked through and rained on.
Suzette Cain rings up customers at the Everything Beautiful thrift store, where she is the manager. It is the first thrift store to exist on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. — Photo by Nadine Busenitz
“I just remember going by there and thinking, that doesn't bring dignity to our people,”said Busenitz, pastor at White River Cheyenne Mennonite Church in Busby. “We live in an economically depressed area. And so our people, they often feel like, ‘Well, that’s all we’re worth, we’re just second best.’ ” No adequate storage existed for donations. “So it became a burden,”Busenitz said. “It was difficult to know how to handle.” Now, thanks to a group of local ministers Busenitz helped found, the reservation has its own thrift store where donations are sorted for quality and neatly displayed at affordable prices.
From 1950 to 1980 many denominations planted mission churches on the reservation. For many years, Busenitz said, instead of working together, the churches were actually driving the reservation’s 8,000 residents apart over differences. In the 1980s, Busenitz teamed up with a Lutheran minister and a Catholic priest to form the Northern Cheyenne Ministers Association, hoping to work toward positive change together.In 2009, the thrift store became the group’s focus. The dozen or so churches involved found a building to rent, collected donations and filed for 501(c)3 status, so that in May of this year the Everything Beautiful thrift store opened its doors. The name is written on the sign in English as well as Cheyenne: E’mapeva’e Netaa’o Hovea’. The store aims to maintain the dignity of each customer. Through it, the churches have demonstrated they can get along.“We’ve learned to love each other,” Busenitz said.
Suzette Cain, a Cheyenne woman who attends Circle of Life Lutheran Church, is the store’s manager. It’s a big job. “At one point I was just overwhelmed being the only employee,” she said. “I was almost in tears. I would walk into the donation room and then turn around and walk back out.” Things changed in June when the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter on the reservation for people evacuated from their homes because of forest fires. Cain knew the store could be helpful. A recent shipment included hygiene kits, towels and handmade quilts, which they handed out to those in need. “I said, ‘Lord, forgive me for even questioning your plan.’ He already knew what was going to happen,” Cain said. “So now when the donations come in — and they come in every day — I just smile and say, ‘thank you.’ ”
Cain said the reservation has a hardware and grocery store, but people drive 100 miles to Billings for clothes and household items. She held sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday because she knew nothing else in town would be open.“It was so busy in there, and people were just so thankful,” she said. “They said, ‘We needed something to do. We have money, but not enough to pay the gas to drive 100 miles for sales.’ ”
She keeps things as neat and organized as possible. Tired shoppers can sit on chairs.“It’s become more than just a thrift store,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunities when people come in and they just need someone to listen.” One regular shopper is an older woman who calls the store her “stress-free environment.” She stays for two hours at a time, examining each aisle carefully.
Cain said children like it too, because the prices are so affordable. A 10-year-old girl loves it so much she started volunteering. “She would come with pennies and nickels and dimes,” Cain said. “But she would never shop for herself. Her neighbor’s baby, her aunt, her sister, or mother or grandpa — she’s always buying for somebody else.” She’s also always bringing somebody new in. Word of mouth, Cain has discovered, is key to helping the store thrive. Busenitz said the store needs to make $150 a day to cover overhead costs. Anything additional goes toward a new building fund the Northern Cheyenne Ministers Association set up.The building plans leave space for the store to expand into other ministries like a food pantry and craft area. He said Cain is doing a good job promoting the store so business will increase. Cain said, “The people that come in, they all say how wonderful the store is. I just tell them, ‘You go out there and tell five people exactly what you told me.’