WASHINGTON - In a normal year, Christmas is a joyful time for Episcopalians on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (The Burnt Thigh Nation), which has seen as many as 30 new coronavirus cases in a day.
The year 2020 has been anything but normal.
“We’ve had to change everything,” said Mother Lauren Stanley, the presbyter (priest-in-charge) for the west half of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission.
Normally, Stanley offers services at the Church of Jesus, a small white clapboard building dating to 1875, and in three other churches under her supervision.
“We shut down all in-person worship in March and immediately created something called ‘Love in the Time of Coronavirus,’ hashtag ChurchOnTheGo, where people can do drive-up Communion,” she said.
“Folks drive up in their cars and come to their window and say, 'So, what would you like to pray for?’ And if there’s a whole family, then I ask them each individually, starting with grandparents, then the parents, and then the children. And I'll put that all in one prayer. And then we'll do the Lord's Prayer together.”
After that, she will hand them Communion.
Normally, the sacrament consists of bread in the form of small, unleavened wafers, and wine sipped from a communal cup. Episcopalians believe the two contain the “real presence” of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
“But we had to give up wine in February and just give out the body of Christ,” said Stanley.
She laughed, “Well, we're Episcopalians, and we don't like that. Then, one of my colleagues gave me an idea.”
Fully gloved, Stanley said she lays the communal wafers on a large baking tray, then dips a pair of chopsticks into the wine and dots each wafer with a drop of what she admits is “really awful port.”
“So, now I am giving them the body and blood,” she said. “When we started doing that, my people here were so overjoyed.”
For those who do not have a car or are confined to home, Stanley conducts home visits, packing Communion wafers in plastic sandwich bags that she passes through front doors.
She also streams a live Compline (prayer) service every evening.
Keeping it light
Through the summer, the congregation met for services outside the church, taking shelter from the heat beneath the churchyard’s cedar trees.
In September, they were allowed indoors again — not in the church but the nearby Bishop Hare community center.
“Fourteen or 15 people could come, well-spaced from one another,” Stanley said.
Stanley tries to introduce humor into every aspect of worship during the pandemic, a time when spirits are low. During one segment of the Episcopalian service, worshippers formally exchange greetings of peace with words and gestures — a kiss on the cheek, a handshake or a hug.
“I like to keep it light,” she said. “At first, it was like, ‘OK, we can fist bump.’ And then, it was like, ‘No, no, we’re going do elbow bumps.’ And this was a big joke with the elders — ‘Fine, we’re going to do aerial bombardments!’ ”
She laughed again. “And now, we have a big joke about how to take Communion: ‘Do I pull the mask up or down?’ ”
In October, coronavirus cases began to climb on the 5,180-square-kilometer reservation, as on neighboring reservations in North and South Dakota. The tribe reported 400 cases among its 33,000 citizens and more than a dozen COVID-19 deaths. The tribe instituted its second lockdown of the year and other safety measures. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.
A COVID Christmas
This year, Rosebud’s Episcopalians will celebrate a very different kind of Christmas.
Stanley is doing something she has never done before: Make a movie.
“We are recording a service in bits and pieces,” she said. “The whole service with eight or nine hymns on it. The whole nine yards. Then, I’ll edit the pieces together on my 11-year-old Mac.”
She chuckled, hoping the aging laptop is still up to the job.
“And then, we will air it Christmas Eve morning,” she said. “And on Christmas Day until 3 o'clock, I will go and do the same thing — taking Communion to the community.”
Normally on Christmas Eve, Stanley gives seven services in 14 hours.
“Now, I’m going to be doing #ChurchOnTheGo at three different churches on Rosebud. And then, I'll be going to people's houses the rest of the time,” she said.
The church has had to cancel activities for GLORY, an acronym for “God Loves Our Rosebud Youth,” Rosebud’s weekly program for children ages 5-15 that is funded in part by St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.
To make up for that, Stanley and the mission’s senior catechist, Erroll Geboe, drove 130 kilometers to the town of Pierre, South Dakota, where they used the donated funds to go on a shopping spree.
“We had a blast and spent a boatload of money!” she said. “And every child in our program — 106 total — is getting a stocking stuffed with coloring books, crayons and pencils, a ton of candy. And, you know our children. When you are poor, candy is a real treat.”
They purchased craft items and stuffed animals for all.
“And I have grandmas who make scarves, hats and gloves. So, everybody gets a set of those. And I have some additional donated items to give the older kids,” said Stanley.
A few days ago, youth volunteers helped Stanley and Geboe assemble the stockings, which by Wednesday had been delivered.
By 5 o’clock on Christmas Day, after being up until 3 a.m. the night before, the celebrations will end.
That is when Stanley said she will go home to a Christmas dinner of Yankee pot roast.
She admits it will be an exhausting weekend — she is just now getting over her second case of COVID-19. But that is what it takes to keep her flock together when they are forced to be apart.