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Journey of Faith:

Meet Deacon Bill White


bill white's family

William ‘Bill’ White currently serves as the Pastoral Assistant at Christ the King Church on the Our Lady of Lourdes campus in Porcupine, SD and is also a newly ordained Deacon. Bill served in the US Military for over 38 years, serving his country in Desert Storm, and in Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom, before retiring in 2017. He started to work for Christ the King after his military career. In 2020, Bill White reached an incredible milestone and was ordained as a Permanent Deacon with the Diocese of Rapid City. Take a look at Bill’s journey in faith to become a Deacon.

How did you first learn about and get involved with food sovereignty issues?
I participated in a summer program called Upward Bound in Boulder, Colorado, and took a class called Native Pathways. My teacher was majoring in agriculture and issues around food sovereignty, and that opened my eyes to many new issues. She told me about a conference being held by the Intertribal Agriculture Council and asked if I was interested in going.

In order to apply, I had to write an essay about returning to and revitalizing our traditional foods. So I decide to interview elders around our community, to get their input on ideas for the future, particularly around food. When I spoke with elders, they talked about how we need to start living off our land again, instead of depending on stores that sell food that isn’t healthy and connected to health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. My tagline in the essay became, “Make Traditional the New Normal.”

What led you to become a deacon?
You know, ten years ago, I would never even have thought of becoming a deacon, but then the more I prayed about it and the more I looked back on my life, I could see where God was kind of preparing me for this my whole life. The people that he put in my life, from my mother to Fr. Collins in Rapid City, who was a Jesuit at St. Isaac Jogue, to all the Jesuits I worked with here.

In 2013, while I was working for the South Dakota National Guard, my computer just landed on a story about Heavy Garnette, who was a deacon in Rapid City and who had a near death experience with a car crash that kind of changed his life. I had a similar accident. I got bucked off a horse and by all means I should have made my journey back then, but God kept me alive for a reason. And so I think he was telling me what he wanted me to do. Or that's the way I took it, that God was calling me to the diaconate. So, I went to the Sioux Spiritual Center and told Fr. Peter Etzel, “I'm supposed to be a deacon.” He just smiled and laughed and said, “well, we'll see.”

What was the process of becoming a deacon? How long did it take?
It started in 2013, when I came home and told Terry, my wife, “I think I'm supposed to be a deacon.” She said, “yeah, that's fine.” She didn’t know yet about all the training we’d have to go through together, but after some prayer she decided that we should do it. So, we started out in Lay Ministry class down in Pine Ridge. That was a four year program.

During Lay Ministry class we read the Bible and discussed it every week, Terri and I enjoyed it very much. Once a year we would have a four-day retreat. During this time, they changed the whole deacon program out. In addition to doing the lay ministry program, we needed to go to VSI, or Veritatis Splendor in Rapid City, an additional three-year program.

So we started doing both of them, over that last year and a half of lay ministry. We went to VSI in Rapid City one weekend a month: on Saturday we had VSI and on Sunday we would do deacon formation. It started out with six couples the first year. And then three of us got ordained at the end of the process last October. Just learning our faith and getting to know more people in the diocese has been a blessing. I mean, we're all different, but we all can connect with Jesus Christ.

bill white becoming ordained

How did it feel and what was it like going through ordination?
Before ordination I wanted to actually go see Heavy Garnette, who's still alive in Hot Springs at the old soldier home, but they weren't allowing anybody in there because of the pandemic. I started the week in a very prayerful way. I actually went to a sweat that week and started preparing myself for it with prayer and fasting the week leading up to ordination. It was just very moving. I mean, to go through the process and receive the Holy Spirit and receive the laying of hands on my head and laying at the altar at the cathedral.

They also gave me a feather, and they had a feather ceremony for us at the ordination, and so that made it special and really powerful. I had mood swings even during the hour and a half Mass, going from kind of weepy to joyful. It's hard to recount all of the specifics of it, because it was just a very magical moment for me, thinking that God wanted to use me. He wants to use all of us, you know?

How do you balance Lakota and Catholic spirituality?
I guess I was fortunate that I was a “cradle Catholic.” I can trace my roots back, my Catholic roots, all the way back to Wounded Knee at Red Cloud. My great grandmother, Hattie Clifford, was at Red Cloud during Wounded Knee in 1890. That is when she became a Catholic. In her later years she lived with my grandma, so I got to spend time with her. She mostly spoke Lakota, but she could speak English, and she would share stories with us. She remembered that after Wounded Knee, they were going to burn Red Cloud down. She said that Red Cloud stepped in and said the fight wasn't with these people [the Jesuits at Red Cloud]. I remember her receiving communion as often as you could. My Catholic faith comes from her Hattie through my grandmother Edith Clifford and my mom Jeanne White (Dubray) . My dad Lee White was unbaptized but converted when he met my mom. The faith came from my Lakota side and I can trace it back to 1890.

In my role at Christ the King, I have helped with many funerals, and I pray in the Catholic way, and in Lakota walk too. I was brought up to understand that all prayers are sacred. At St. Isaac Joguee, where I went as a child, they sang a lot of Lakota songs during Mass. And I grew up with smudging. Later on I started to pray with the sweat too. To me, they're all the same path. They all go to the Creator, to God, to Jesus. They're just all things that are pulling us to seek God. And that's really what our goal in life is, is to have a relationship with God and to love, as God loved us.

If we realized how much God really did love us, I don't think any of us would stand for hate. I mean, what did he create us for? He wanted us all to get along. All nations, all peoples.There's nothing that brings me more joy than to see my kids and my grandkids all getting along. Love one another, to help each other. I think that's what God really wants from us is to love each other and help each other.

What are your hopes for the parish on the reservation? What is your vision for our community?
I would just like everyone to respect all the forms of prayers. We're all on the same path, you know? We're all headed hopefully home to God. The other thing I would like to see is someone to be inspired by the works of the Holy Spirit enough that they would also become a deacon. That's one of my goals in life is to train my replacement. Who's going to fill our shoes once we're gone? Maybe recruit and help them become a deacon.

I'd also love to see Lakota priests. That would be huge. Or a sister or a nun. We had a lot of nuns in the past from down here. I'd like to see people pulled together and to see more people come back to the church. There's a lot of older people who say that growing up the Catholic church was a big part of this community. And I say, ‘well, come back and let's build it up again.’ Let it interrupt your basketball season, your rodeo season, you know? And put Jesus first, God first.

What does the role of a deacon mean to you? What do you hope to bring to the community as a deacon?
A deacon is ordained to serve. I remember Bishop Gruss [the former Bishop of Rapid City] saying that he was ordained to be inconvenienced. To reflect on the serving Christ is inspiring. My goal is to find how I can best serve the community. Right now it's praying and being present. Before the pandemic, I prayed with eight people in their final days and that was just such a beautiful experience. God revealed himself to me through these people in their final days and I think that's one of my callings. After the pandemic I want to get back to going and visiting people, especially the sick. I did get qualified to go and pray at the hospital for those in need. And I’d like to eventually work in the jail and go to the White Clay senior citizen home to pray or just visit. Whatever I can do to be of service to our community and His church.

 

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