I’ve heard a lot of repeated phrases serving in Campus Ministry at Merrimack College, “It’s wicked cold outside!” and “Can we stop by Dunkin’ first?” On days I serve at the community resource center in Lawrence, I catch myself saying phrases over and over again, “Please listen to your tutor!” and “After you finish your homework, then we can play Mancala.” One phrase I’ve said countless times during the tutoring program used to carry little weight, “Don’t take what isn’t yours.” That all changed when I spent a week living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during an Alternative Spring Break trip with seven Merrimack students and another faculty advisor. Although this phrase wasn’t explicitly spoken aloud during our week on the reservation, this phrase was intricately woven into the vulnerable stories of pain the Oglala Lakota Native Americans bravely and eloquently shared with us.
I was apprehensive about this service trip because it was taking place during Holy Week, which meant I’d miss out on the Triduum services I’ve grown to cherish. I now laugh at my apprehension because I’m still blown away by how touching it was to be graciously taking part in and learning about Lakota spiritual practices. On Holy Thursday we had the pleasure of touring the only Catholic school on the Reservation. Our tour guide, an alumni and current employee of the school, shared with us the deep history of the school but most importantly the stunning chapel. She pointed out the unique stained glass windows that were designed by the students with traditional Lakota patterns in mind, the painting of Jesus portrayed in traditional Indian dress, and the handpicked pine wood that enveloped every square inch of the space. As she began to speak about spirituality, her eyes welled up with tears. “40 years ago my beautiful people and all other Native American tribes, gained the access to freely practice their religion after the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978.” I tried to imagine what it’d feel like to hide my spirituality or have my sacred practices stripped away, especially by people who it didn’t belong to. Tears quickly formed in my own eyes. The Lakota people have been suffering for far too long. They fight day after day to beat the odds. The odds that one of the many examples of human suffering forcefully taking over the reservation might finally break their resiliency: rampant amounts of poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, suicide, etc. Can you imagine living in dire distress without being allowed to use your spirituality as a source of comfort and strength? I personally cannot.
Now more than ever, I’m immeasurably grateful for my own spirituality, to grow alongside my community members in theirs, and for the humbling opportunity to experience the beautiful spirituality of the Oglala Lakota Native Americans. It’s safe to say that whenever I take my own faith for granted, I’ll place my heart and mind back to that moment on the reservation.
Lawrence, MA 2017-2018