On a South Dakota reservation, church strives for ‘love in the time of the coronavirus’

The Rev. Lauren Stanley offers a drive-through "church on the go" in late March on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Contributed
Published April 7, 2020

Editor’s note: As Indigenous Anglicans respond to COVID-19—including a letter issued by National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald and stories of people heading to the land—the Anglican Journal decided to expand beyond its normal coverage area and ask how the Episcopal diocese of South Dakota—which has the largest Native American population in the Episcopal Church—is addressing the pandemic.

The Rev. Lauren Stanley has adopted a new final blessing for her evening compline services: “Wash your hands!”

The priest-in-charge for Rosebud Episcopal Mission (west) on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Stanley has been making a lot of changes to her ministry in the past few weeks, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe.

Stanley’s compline and Sunday services take place over Facebook Live, as the Rosebud reservation is under a “shelter in place” order that mandates people keep six feet of distance from others, bans gathering in groups larger than 10, and imposes a 10 p.m. curfew.

The rules are in place by order of the tribal government of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, which is a sovereign nation.

The diocese of South Dakota has 79 different congregations and a little less than 10,000 members, says diocesan bishop Jonathan Folts. “Over half of our congregations are on reservation tribal lands, and we have more Native American members than any other diocese in the Episcopal Church.”

Because of a shortage of medical supplies and a lack of health resources, Folts says, there is worry that Indigenous nations in South Dakota will be hit hard by COVID-19.

Stanley agrees.

“We are living in terror, those of us who are taking this seriously and paying attention to places like Italy,” she says. “I mean, we could lose hundreds—hundreds and hundreds of people here, if coronavirus goes wild.”

Systemic poverty and lack of resources are a problem on the reservation where Stanley ministers, she says, because of treaties that have gone historically unfulfilled by the U.S. government. As a result, the community is ill-prepared for an outbreak of COVID-19.

“We have no respiratory therapist, which means we have no ventilators. When you are really sick, you are either flown out to Sioux Falls, which is four hours east by car, or Rapid City, which is three hours west. Rapid City and Sioux Falls are both watching their coronavirus numbers go up…. At some point, if Rapid City and Sioux Falls blossom, they’re not going to take our people, because they’re not going to have enough [ventilators] for their own locals.

“I mean, we’ve got really good doctors who are here on contract…and they’re trying. But we are terrified of what could happen.”

A parishioner receives the Eucharist from her car. Photo: Contributed

At the time of her interview with the Journal on March 31, Stanley said that there was one confirmed case of COVID-19 on the reservation. “We have one positive test, and the entire family is quarantined—there are 12 of them in that house.”

Amidst all the stress of preventative measures, Stanley has been busy devising new ways to help the community.

She picked up broadcasting services over Facebook Live, a practice she had started more than a year ago during a particularly bad winter snowstorm. The compline services she began doing in the evenings have been getting hundreds of views from around the world.

“We do compline and a little sermon, a little commentary. We’ve been highlighting heroes to celebrate—ranchers and farmers one night, grocery store workers, gas station workers. We’ve done the medical personnel several times…. We’re trying to highlight positive things,” she says. The service is in part a response to the high levels of anxiety around the virus. “Compline is a service that is intended to give you a peaceful night’s rest.”

She has also taken church to the streets.

“All of our churches are closed until further notice, so we invented church on the go,” says Stanley. She and her senior lay leader consecrate the Eucharist—with bread only—and set up a station outside, accompanied by a six-foot banner that reads: “Love in the time of coronavirus.”

“You may pull up in your car. If you are the only one in the car, you may stay in your car. I will stand approximately six feet away from you, and I will say, ‘What would you like to pray for…?’ And you will give me whatever your litany is, and I will graft a prayer that matches whatever you want to pray for. And it always ends by reminding you that God loves you.”

Stanley repurposed a supply of plastic medicine cups as a way to portion out the host. “I consecrate the host and I put one host in each cup, and I wear gloves while I’m doing this. After we’ve prayed, then I’ll present the cup to you…. You’ll hold out your hand and my arms…if I stretch I can get to three feet, and you stretch your arm out…I slip it into your hand and I say, ‘the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.’ We say the Lord’s prayer together. And if you’re with two people you get out of the car and stand six feet away, and then the other person can come.”

Stanley had served 16 people at one church and six at another in this way the previous Sunday. She also visited several families, praying the Lord’s prayer across yards and through windows. “If you can’t come to church, then the church comes to you.”

Stanley has also been active in several initiatives to help the community deal with the fallout of physical distancing measures.

She helped organize a group to prepare breakfasts and lunches for children who would otherwise qualify for free meals provided by their schools, which are now shut down for the foreseeable future. The first day, they put out 5,000 meals.

Stanley has personally been making grocery runs for elders in her community, and coordinating ways to make pick-ups for those who use food stamps. She has also been delivering firewood—a main source of heating for many in the area—through the Rosebud Episcopal Mission Firewood For The Elders program. She has been buying gallons of bleach and sanitary wipes for the elders in her community, putting the expenses on her own credit card.

“We have a desperate need…. On a reservation here in this country, it is not unusual for children to be raised by their grandparents, or their great grandparents—I’ve got one parishioner, she’s the great-great grandparent and she’s raising the children. And we’re terrified of these elders getting sick, because they’re the most vulnerable.”

Perhaps the most difficult change has been adjusting the rituals around funerals and wakes.

Traditionally, when a loved one dies, there are two nights of wakes that include a prayer service, a huge meal prepared by the family, a drum group and singing. “The body comes in and we have it for 72 hours…. From the moment they arrive to the moment we bury them, they’re never alone,” says Stanley. On the day of the funeral, the community gathers—Stanley says her largest funeral celebration had 700 guests.

There are Christian prayers, traditional prayers and a final viewing. “People will walk up, they walk a long line and they shake all the hands—see the problem with coronavirus? They shake the hands of every pallbearer. They stop, they quickly will touch the body, if not lean over and kiss, and then they shake the hands of the pallbearers on the other side, and then they loop around and shake the hands and frequently hug every member of the family.”

If the person is a veteran there will be a salute and folding of the flag, and then the coffin is lowered, sealed and the burial takes place. The pallbearers fill in the grave with the help of the attendees, then everyone decorates the site with flowers and memorabilia. All this is followed by a large feast.

“If you can’t come to church, then the church comes to you,” says the Rev. Lauren Stanley. Photo: Contributed

“We can’t do any of that anymore, and if we start having deaths from coronavirus, the families are all going to be in isolation. So I and my wood cutting guys are going to have to do the burial. We don’t have a machine to fill in the hole,” says Stanley.

Stanley is worried about the loss of this ritual. “In Lakota tradition, once we bury them, then they make their journey. The theology is beautiful. You are in this life, it’s a temporary life. When you leave, your spirit makes its journey, you are going to the rest of your eternal life with…grandfather God.” When the funeral rites are over, the family has “already moved through two stages of grief,” she says. “We’ve had 72 hours to say goodbye, to hear the stories, to laugh, to cry. We can’t do that [now], you know?”

With restrictions on gatherings of more than 10, Stanley says she will now have to do funerals at graveside and require the family to leave—after each putting in a shovelful of dirt—while the grave is filled in so as not to exceed the number of people congregating, and ask a few family members to return to decorate the grave.

“But if this becomes a pandemic right here on the rez, we won’t be decorating graves. There will be nobody to do it.

“So we’re pretty terrified.”

Despite the fear, Stanley is staying active and positive.

“Love in the time of coronavirus is difficult. But here on the Rosebud we’ve always been actively involved in doing a lot of things and trying to serve the Oyate, the people. So we’re creating it on the fly.”

South Dakotans, “especially our Episcopalians here, they’re very resilient,” says Bishop Folts. “They’re a very, very missionary-oriented people. They’re extraordinarily down to earth. I’m extraordinarily proud of our clergy for the creative ways that they’ve been reaching out, spiritually, pastorally and physically, to their people. Because we truly are in a time where all of us are having to think outside the box, and we’re all having to make decisions that we don’t like.”

Stanley adds, “The whole thing is about, this is hard. This is a crisis. We all know it. And the numbers are going to be astonishing, and our life is going to be forever changed. But God is with us—you need to know that God is with us. And if we do this right, in the end, we will emerge from our houses and go, ‘Well, nothing happened.’ And then we can all say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ because it will mean that none of our loved ones have died.”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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