[Episcopal News Service – Red Shirt Table, South Dakota] Pilgrims from all over the world came May 24-27 to a hot and dusty stretch of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation prairie land bounded by the Black Hills and the Badlands to learn about and practice trust and reconciliation, overcome stereotypes, form friendships and grow in faith.
They did so while singing Taizé music with Western Meadowlark harmonies and the beat of crickets.
And they did so without showers or electricity and while trying to avoid plopping down on a cactus, stepping in a cow pie or encountering a rattlesnake.
Thus, the simple communal life of the Taizé Community of France came to this part of the Pine Ridge, which exists in one of the least developed parts of the United States and includes Shannon County, one of the poorest counties in the country.
“I hope that their hearts will be touched,” Brother Alois, the Taizé Community’s abbot, said about the pilgrims during an interview at the beginning of the pilgrimage, “and that Christ touches our hearts to awaken within us the will for reconciliation.”
Or, as volunteer Mikayla Dunfee told a newly arrived group of pilgrims during their orientation May 24: “Just keep your hearts open; this is going to be a wild ride.”
The May 24-27 gathering was first Taizé pilgrimage on an Indian reservation and it was by far the most remote of the locations that have been part of the Taizé brothers’ “pilgrimage of trust on earth,” which they describe as a meeting with Christ and with others.
Brother Emile, during an interview amidst the bustle of nearly 600 arriving pilgrims, said that the setting was much like the rural, isolated nature of Taizé in the French countryside but, “of course, the Badlands is more spectacular.”
The Pine Ridge has a reputation for being a stark place, and not just because of its stark physical setting but for its history of subjugation and suffering. Yet, the brothers and the South Dakota young adults who envisioned the potential power of such a gathering were drawn by the beauty and strength they perceived here.
Without ignoring the suffering, Brother Emile said, “we wanted also to be attentive to the beauty that is here,” both in the geography and in people’s hearts.
“When we go somewhere we look for signs of hope; not to be blind to the suffering, but to look for signs of hope,” he said.
What they found, he said, were “people who have been resilient, who are founded deep in their faith and it makes them stand up on their feet and want to be there for others.”
“The church exists through people like that,” he added.
The brothers say the Pine Ridge gathering is important because, while people from outside North America often have a romantic image of the Native American peoples drawn from films and novels, there is another story, one of unremitting poverty, violence, and despair. The brothers were told more than once that the negative perceptions of the reservation and the people who live there alters the residents’ perception of themselves, Brother Emile said.
The statistics are stark and stunning: the unemployment rate is 80 percent and 49 percent of reservation residents live below the federal poverty line (61 percent of those 18 years or younger live below that poverty line); average life expectancy on the reservation is estimated to be 48 years for men and 52 years for women compared with a U.S. combined average of 77.5 years; one in four babies are born with either fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and infant mortality is 300 percent higher than in the rest of America; teen suicide is 150 percent higher than the U.S. average; 50 percent of adults 40 years and older have diabetes and tuberculosis rates are 800 percent higher than in the rest of the country; approximately 58 percent of grandparents on the reservation are raising their grandchildren.
Yet, in the midst of stereotypes is another reality of the Pine Ridge, the brothers say.
Indeed, during a discussion amongst the pilgrims and the brothers on the gathering’s last morning, Shane LeClair, a senior at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, said, “From the outside, a lot of us come in with hearing stories about the reservation and of this land and that there are people who lacked hope and are in need of a reason to hope and to have faith.”
“And what I know I have experienced and several people in my group have experienced is [that] it’s the exact opposite. There is no lack of hope in this land; there is no lack of faith. I think that all of us leave here with a lot of hope that this community and this land has provided us.”
LeClair thanked the Lakota hosts for “allowing us to be here and to share in this with you.”
Brother Alois said in the brothers’ invitation to the gathering that “we want to listen carefully to the story of the Lakota people, and listen together to what the Spirit is saying to us all in our attempt to create a world of solidarity and peace. Only by coming together beyond our differences in a climate of prayer and sharing can we find new ways forward.”
The pilgrimage’s roots
The impetus to come to the Pine Ridge began in 2009, when a group of South Dakota university students, including Tyson and Tyrone White of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, came to Taizé. According to the order, this was one of the very first times when the community welcomed Native Americans to take part in the international meetings on what is know as “the hill.”
Taizé’s focus on reconciliation and justice resonated with the young Lakota men. The encounter was “very beautiful for us,” Brother Alois said, “because it linked us with a reality that was far away from us in Taizé. The reality of Native American people is something that we thought we had to put more attention towards.”
Discussions led to an invitation to Brother John to visit South Dakota. He came in 2010 and again in 2011, at the invitation of the group, and stopped at the Pine Ridge Reservation and got to know the Two Bulls family at Red Shirt Table.
The Two Bulls family eventually offered the land around the small Episcopal Christ Episcopal Church, two miles south of Red Shirt Village, for the Taizé pilgrims to pitch their tents and pray. The Rev. Robert Two Bulls Sr. has been the priest at the church, which has been his family’s church for generations. He is the father of another Episcopal priest of the same name who is based in Minneapolis.
The Rev. Rita Powell, who is the vicar of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Vermillion, South Dakota and coordinator for youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of South Dakota, led that first group of students to Taizé. She had spent several months previously as a volunteer at Taizé after learning about the Taizé experience from a youth group she helped at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“They made their parents send them to Taizé every year – every year,” she recalled. The teenagers told her they were surprised when they realized it was the silence at Taizé that attracted them.
“I thought Taizé was some kind of hippy, unstructured church,” Powell said but, when she went with the youth group and experienced it for herself, she realized that the brothers were very orthodox. “I mean they’re monks who sing about Jesus in Latin three times a day.”
“They found a way to be both very authentic to the tradition and somehow very fresh,” she said, adding she began to believe that Taizé’s attitude complemented that of the Episcopal Church “because our church is a church that cares about liturgy and tradition, and we think it might be possible for the social-activist work to happen in the prayer,” as does Taizé.
The monks’ vision of reconciliation is “exquisite,” Powell said, explaining that Taizé answers the question of how people can find common ground by asking, “why don’t you sit on the same ground” and live and pray together.
And, Powell said, the brothers do not serve clients. Instead, they ask people – especially young people – to come and help them build the kingdom of God now.
“It’s not so much that young people have needs to be met by the church, as the church has needs that young people can meet,” she said.
The brothers encourage pilgrims to live out what they have grasped of the Gospel during their experience at Taizé; and to do this, according to the community’s website, “with an increased awareness of the life that dwells within them and of the practical gestures of solidarity they can put into practice in their own immediate environment … while remaining in touch with the reality of the local church.”
During a retreat, Powell said she had what she reluctantly calls “a vision” that people in the United States needed Taizé’s “energy and wisdom” in a way that went beyond simply using the community’s music. And she began to believe that “a friendship could happen” between the brothers and the Lakota people.
“Christ brings us together from all nations, from all backgrounds, so we found it very beautiful that we could be in community with them,” Brother Alois said. And, besides, “they invited us to come here, so we came.”
Powell said she hoped people would leave Red Shirt Table “feeling empowered to, as [Taizé’s founder] Brother Roger once said, to not run away from challenges but to run toward them.”
“Actually trying to build the kingdom in and with the churches is a kind of act of resistance within our mainstream culture and a really, really important thing to do,” she said.
(Powell is leaving South Dakota this summer to return to the East Coast where she grew up. She has accepted a call to be the assistant rector for congregational development at Trinity Copley Square in Boston, and begins work there July 15.)
Paul Daniels, an Episcopal Service Corps volunteer in Boston from St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, said Pine Ridge was his first Taizé event and during it he found common ground between the story of his African-American heritage and the story of the Lakota people.
“I believe God wants us to see ourselves in others; that that is our practical form of transcendence,” he said. “To know that we are not alone in this and the world is larger than just our situation or our people … knowing that a group in South Dakota can be in some way like me or like my family. I think finding those similarities is the first step toward bringing communities together to really live in the way of the Gospel and begin radical transformation and reconciliation.”
His experience has “created an immense hope” in him, Daniels said.
Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool, another of the pilgrims, said during an interview that she came in search of a simple model of reconciliation for local churches and community groups.
“We’re doing it here and all we’re doing is really simple things,” she said. “We’re praying together. We’re singing together. We’re eating together. We’re just being together and we’re accepting each other across differences.”
The fruits of the pilgrimage will be hard to measure if the measurer is looking for concrete proof of transformation, Glasspool acknowledged.
“The strength of this is in the subtlety of our faith that the Holy Spirit is doing something with us here that will bear fruit, and it will bear fruit, regardless if anybody recognizes it or calls it as such,” she said.
Bringing the pilgrimage ‘vision’ to life
The land surrounding Christ Episcopal Church is rugged and beautiful – and it has no infrastructure. It is about 45 miles southeast of Mount Rushmore and is reached by a six-tenths of mile drive down a dirt road off the two-lane Bureau of Indian Affairs Highway 41. There are no bathrooms and no electricity.
Organizers had to get creative and resist the opinion that such a gathering could not be pulled off. They had to be willing to forgo some things, like showers, and raise money for the gathering in unique ways.
Close to 30 portable toilets were lined up for the pilgrims, each with a sign taped to the inside of the door announcing “This bathroom experience has been brought to you by,” followed by the name of a donor from as close as Rapid City, South Dakota, or far away as Sammamish, Washington; Morgantown, West Virginia, and Bronxville, New York.
Christian churches in the area and groups, including Lutherans and Jesuits, as well as Episcopalians from all over the church, worked together to prepare for the pilgrims.
They carved a trail from the churchyard to a natural amphitheater with a view of Red Shirt Table Mountain the Badlands that served as the pilgrimage’s prayer site. Michael Two Bulls, who spent time at Taizé, said in an interview that such cooperation and dialogue among the churches and between them and the tribal council was a new example of the kind of dialogue that Taizé hopes for.
Twyla Two Bulls helped coordinate meals provided by the local Lakota people. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council supported the event and donated two buffalo for meals. The animals were cooked in the ground.
“We are here as pilgrims, not as tourists, so even though we will not be quite as comfortable as we might have been had we been tourists, like staying in a hotel or something, we are here for a much bigger reason than just going to visit a place,” Dunfee told her group. “We are here to bear witness that something great is happening within us.”
South Dakota Bishop John Tarrant, who was one of the pilgrims, said “what has really gratified me about this weekend is the energy — the positive energy — the will of those who are organizing it to resist the naysayers.”
Tarrant said that the stark nature of the setting “draws people together in relationship and the significance of [meeting on the Pine Ridge] is it’s not only relationship with each other but with the land. That makes this a unique event; it’s not in a hotel or in a city.”
The bishop, whose diocese has 47 Native American congregations, said he hoped the pilgrimage would be “an exploration of what it means to be in unity again with each other” and with the land.
Focus on the next generation
The Red Shirt pilgrimage was especially meant for young people aged 18-35, “a voice rarely heard in the church or in society,” the Taizé brothers said in their invitation to the gathering. Tarrant echoed that sentiment, calling that age group “the generation that the church is missing – young adults.”
Leena Fofonoff, a member of the Skolt Samis from Finland, is one young adult who does attend church but she said it was “amazing” to be on pilgrimage at Pine Ridge.
“Faith means a lot to me,” she said in an interview. “There’s not so many young people in my church so I go to church with older people. Here I can meet young people who have the same faith.”
Asked what she would take home with her from the pilgrimage, Maureen Booher, a young pilgrim from the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, gazed over her shoulder to Red Shirt Table and then answered “the prayer; I really want to keep that going in my own church, and the relationships that it’s going to build.”
“I want to get my friends into this but, I’m pretty sure that’s going to be kind of hard,” she added.
Taizé Pine Ridge part of a larger process
The Red Shirt event occurred 18 months into a three-and-a-half year process that Brother Alois has called an effort toward forging a new solidarity among the people of the world “that can bring together all who are pilgrims of peace, pilgrims of truth, whether believers or non-believers” and aims to “enable young people from every continent to mobilize their energies, to gather together their longings, intuitions and experiences.”
The effort will conclude in August 2015 with a major gathering in Taizé that will also celebrate the 75th anniversary of the order’s founding and what would have been the 100th birthday of the community’s founder, Brother Roger. A 37-year-old Romanian woman who was later found to be mentally ill stabbed Brother Roger to death during Evening Prayer in Taizé on Aug. 16, 2005.
The pattern of Taizé’s days
The cycle of a typical Taizé pilgrimage day begins at 8 a.m. and ends with an 8 p.m. candlelit prayer service, often followed by a talk from one of the brothers. The day includes meditative prayer combined with music together three times a day, Bible study, workshops and small group discussions. Pilgrims are also assigned work to support the life of the community during their time within it.
The brothers have developed a style of music that highlights simple phrases, usually lines from the Psalms or other pieces of Scripture, repeated or sung in canon. The repetition is designed to help meditation and prayer.
The Red Shirt gathering followed a similar pattern each day but also included a few differences. Candles on the dry prairie were out of the question so lanterns and solar light substituted. On Sunday, May 25, some participants spent the morning worshipping in local churches while others joined in an Episcopal Eucharist celebrated in the gathering’s large tent because of a morning rain. Also on the 25th, a group of pilgrims went to Wounded Knee to sing and offer silent prayer.
On the final morning, the pilgrims gathered for Morning Prayer and a general discussion on their experience and the future before breaking into regional meetings for conversations about what the pilgrims hoped to carry home with them from the experience. The pilgrimage ended with a prayer service.
During the closing prayer service, the elder Two Bulls thanked the Taizé brothers for coming to the Pine Ridge. “The Taizé Community offered a lot to us. You let your light shine here,” he said, standing before the monks. “You were an inspiration to us. You have left a legacy we could follow. You taught us how to pray in a different way.”
“I hope that someday you might come back again … to continue to teach us,” Two Bulls said.
Brother John told the pilgrims during the general session on May 27 that the brothers would return to the United States in 2014. He said they plan three meetings that spring in Texas, including March 21-23 in Austin, April 4-6 in Dallas and April 25-27 in Houston.
Background on the origins of Taizé is here.
Video interviews with seven Taizé Pine Ridge pilgrims are here.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.