The Power of Small Churches
Showing Up at the Holy Borders
The Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission in South Dakota is made up of eleven congregations in the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation (just south of our neighbor, Standing Rock Reservation). Cheyenne River is about the size of the state of Connecticut. We arrived at the mission on September 1, 2020 and are assisted by Deacon Iva Traversie, a local tribal member. Our church membership includes four bands of the Lakota (Minnicoujou, Itazipco, Siha Sapa and Oohenumpa) spread throughout the reservation.
The challenges of arriving during this pandemic are manifold, especially as our churches follow the careful COVID-19 guidelines of the Tribal Council, which until just recently, prohibited in-person services or outreach, such as providing food or other necessities, with the exception of Christmas gifts for the children. Additionally, some of the donations normally directed here have come to a halt as churches outside of the reservations struggle in their own ways.
So where does that leave the new clergy? How do we get to know the people we have come here to serve?
Meeting the community in times of sorrow
We met them primarily through funerals. And there are endless funerals, many of which, including our very first, have been COVID-related. We have also buried murder victims, accident victims, suicides, death due to the elements (freezing) and of course, natural causes. Funerals are also pandemic-regulated and have gone from two-day overnight events on average to one-day events and some to grave-side only. The funerals are posted by COVID regulation as restricted to family, but here the word family is understood beautifully to encompass a wide range of connections. We would like to share one of these funerals with you as a way for you to learn more about the people here and to see how God is intimately present in their lives.
Ellen: The call came at ten on a Monday morning, less than two months after our arrival. It was late October and minus eight degrees with a foot of snow on the ground. It was Charlie Rook, the director of Rook’s Funeral Home, calling. I hadn’t yet met him, but I had done funerals there already. He said they had a funeral planned but the family couldn’t reach the minister. Could I come and say a few prayers?
“Of course,” I said. “Okay, it’s at 10:30 – you want me there in half an hour?”
“Yes.” He said, and he began giving me two names.
“Wait,” I said, “there are two?”
“No,” he said, “these are the parents. It’s a miscarriage.”
I flew into the shower. Kurt was on a Zoom call, but he grabbed the prayer book for me along with a funeral service for a child. And of course, my coffee.
Even at the grave, we make our song
When I arrived at 10:30, I could hear the drums from inside the funeral home. I walked in, and Charlie greeted me with a hearty, “Welcome to South Dakota Mother Ellen!” In the large spacious room was a sweet family – Mom, Dad, kids, babies, some relatives and the drum circle in the back corner. I went up to the parents and introduced myself. Mom and Dad were crying, and the children were silent. I introduced myself to the kids, too, then went and sat down to quickly prepare the prayers and readings I would use. Suddenly the drumming stopped, so I knew I had to start, ready or not. I stood up and looked at this beautiful family and began:
I just got word a half hour ago, so I haven’t had time to get to know you, but when I am at a loss for words, I look outside at the created world.
The world that God has made is full of answers for us, full of lessons, full of healing. When we look outside we see a world covered in snow. And we might think to ourselves – everything looks dead. The trees are dead, the flowers, everything. It is cold and nothing is alive. But we know that isn’t true, not really. Underneath the snow the seeds are waiting to grow in the spring, the animals are hibernating all snug in their dens. There is a lot of life under there, we just can’t see it.
Even though you can’t hold him, see him and run and play with him, this child will always be with you. His love is still here. When he was in Mommy’s tummy, he could hear you laughing and playing and all the loving things you said to him. He is a part of you and always will be. When you go sledding or playing or running, he will be with you. It’s okay to be sad or mad – you might even want to stomp your feet in anger. But that will not take away his love for you and your love for him.
Do not try to bury your sadness. It will visit you often, even days, weeks and years from now. Pay attention to it, and when you are sad, turn to each other, hug each other. St. Paul tells us that faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love. His love for you will never die, and neither will your love for him. He will always be a part of your family.
We sang “Amazing Grace” together and took our places at the tiny casket. We walked him out, some carrying his casket, others carrying little stuffed animals or children on hips. The drums and Lakota singing supported our steps as we made our way to the cars and headed out to the cemetery.
Under all the snow we couldn’t find the grave at first, but the Dad knew. He drove his truck in circles in the snow making a spot for everyone. We got out and we watched as he jumped into the empty little grave and started shoveling out the snow. The drummers stood with their drum at the ready. We pulled out the little pine wooden box that the casket goes into, placing it near the grave, and then brought out his tiny casket. The children ran and played as the mothers chided them for getting all covered in snow. I fished out a kid’s hat from my car and plunked it on a hatless child. They pulled out a fleece blanket with a beautiful Native print from the hearse, and the Mom placed it around the casket, tearfully wrapping her baby up for the first and last time.
I took my place by the grave for the committal. Making the sign of the cross on the warm fleece with loose dirt from the grave, the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” never felt more raw. Following the prayer, the funeral director carefully handed the tiny casket, wrapped in the fleece blanket, to the Dad as the drummers took up their beautiful chorus. The director then helped the parents place the casket into the pine box and settle the lid on top, handing the nails and hammer to the Dad. As he knelt down in the snow, the Dad’s frozen tattooed hands struggled to carefully nail the lid on top as his tears fell onto the pine box.
Standing there in the freezing cold, watching this young father nail the lid on his infant son’s coffin, we all stood on the holy border between life and death and bore silent witness to the greatest pain a parent can endure. Dad then carefully lowered himself back into the grave, as the director handed his little one to him. And then the father and family began to shovel dirt into the grave. When it was complete, two of the older siblings placed stuffed animals on top of the grave as Mom slid his marker into the soft dirt. The little one was in his resting place, surrounded by the love of his family, the winter snow and the beat of the drums of his ancestors, into whose arms he has been received.
The Rev. Ellen B. Huber and the Rev. Kurt J. Huber are co-priests-in-charge of the Cheyenne
River Episcopal Mission in the Cheyenne River Lakota (Sioux) Reservation.
- Pandemic Learnings in Navajoland by Leon Sampson and Gerlene Gordy, Vestry Papers, January 2021
- Ministering From an Empty Cup: A Survey of Faith Formation Professionals and Volunteers - Part 2 by Patrick Kangrga, an ECF Vital Practices blog, July 21, 2020
- Inequity and Justice by Annette Buchanan, an ECF Vital Practices blog, June 5, 2020
- Ministry in a Global Pandemic, an ECF Vital Practices webinar presented by Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs, June 11, 2020