The award is presented annually to someone engaged in front-line ministries with the "least among us" in the spirit of the gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25. Award recipients minister among immigrants and refugees, street people, AIDS victims, inner-city youth, prisoners – all those who live at the margins of our society and still lack a public voice.
Rev. Michael Hutchins, DWC president, says, "We are pleased to honor Gwen Nilles as this year's Matthew 25 Award recipient. With the support of friends and collaborators at Resurrection Parish in Dubuque, Gwen has been a sign of "joyful hope," making a difference in the lives of others as Jesus would have us do. She has brought Native Americans and Dubuque area residents face to face in ways that have served and enriched both. She helps us recognize Jesus in fresh and revitalizing ways."
Gwen first became acquainted with Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota when her daughter went there to teach in 1996. One of the largest reservations in the United States, Pine Ridge is home to approximately 46,000 Lakota, half of them under the age of 18. Life expectancies for both men and women are 20 years below national average. Because the reservation lacks any form of industry (not even a casino), work is scarce; unemployment hovers between 75-85%, with an average per capita income of $4,000. Infant mortality rate is over twice the national average. Of the children who survive, 69% live below America's poverty level. Diabetes and heart disease are crucial health issues, and alcoholism, substance abuse and despair are prevalent.
Concerned by the desperate situation at Pine Ridge and inspired by other successful Partner Parish programs, Gwen was instrumental in initiating a similar program at Resurrection Parish. “We would partner with St. Ignatius Loyola Parish, in Wanblee, South Dakota, located within the reservation,” she explains. “Both parishes would support and learn from each other on many levels.” The word Lakota means “friend,” and Resurrection parish embraced their new friends whole-heartedly. Though she is chairperson of the Partner Parish Committee, Gwen is quick to emphasize that “the committee is fluid and its members rotate. Everyone works very hard.”
Gwen has helped organize several service trips to St. Ignatius Parish, and hopes to coordinate another one this spring. “These trips include prayer, education and service work, involving parishioners of all ages,” Gwen explains. The Lakota have also come to visit Resurrection. This past January, Gwen hosted three visitors from St. Ignatius Parish, who presented their Resurrection friends with a unique, hand-crafted Indian Star quilt. Each year, St. Ignatius Parish donates a new Star quilt to raffle at Resurrection’s Parish Festival in August.
“I have learned so much from the Lakota, especially the value and importance of nature and family,” Gwen says. “Our Parish Partner program helps foster and promote mutual understanding, knowledge, prayer and spirituality. It’s very humbling to see the generosity of our parishioners,” adds Gwen. “I am honored to receive the Matthew 25 Award, but I don’t feel worthy. This should be a Resurrection Parish and Committee award. I am accepting this award for them.”
Whose voice I hear in the winds,
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
Hear me! I am small and weak,
I need your strength and wisdom…
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock."
The words of this bookmark prayer, a gift from the Lakota children in South Dakota, remind us that in cherishing nature, we find reverence for the spiritual. We are all united as one in our powerlessness and dependence on God, the “Great Spirit.”