Wake Ministry Teams Offer Essential Support to Families and Communities Across the Reservation

posted October 6, 2016

Recently, on a bright Sunday morning, a group of Lakota parishioners from across Red Cloud’s parish gathered for a retreat in the sanctuary at Christ the King Church, situated in the small, quiet town of Porcupine, SD. The church provided the group with a central meeting place to reflect on the blessings and challenges of their work in the Church. Over the last two years, each member of this group has trained to serve as a minister during wake services so as to guide grieving families in prayer and offer spiritual support. During their retreat, the team came together to share their experiences and renew their commitment to serving their fellow parishioners and communities.

“This is a needed service on the reservation. I find that the more you open your heart to God, the more He calls you. It’s very rewarding to be able to help someone in their worst time—to pray with them when they are grieving,” said Bill White, a wake team member and a parishioner at Christ the King Church.

“This retreat gave us an opportunity to network with others who are providing these services. We reflected on scripture passages and how they apply to the work we’re doing, and we were able to learn together, speaking with one another about the circumstances we’ve faced.”

The Jesuit-led parish ministers to hundreds of parishioners in small rural communities separate by many miles. Priests and parish staff are responsible for a range of religious services and church-based programs: in addition to organizing Sunday Masses, baptisms, and funerals, they also manage religious education, youth and family outreach, substance abuse programs, and much more. With limited resources and only a few pastors serving at any given time, however, it is sometimes impossible to be present at every single service.

Several years ago, Sister Connie Schmidt, SSND, Red Cloud’s Assistant for Evangelization and Formation, recognized the need for more local leadership within the parish. Faced with the reality that funerals and wakes occur frequently on the reservation, she set out to create a new wake ministry: training Lakota lay leaders who could stand in to serve parishioners, their families, and their communities. In November of 2014, Sister Connie began traveling to each of the parish’s six churches to speak with those who expressed interest in taking on a role. She coordinated several trainings throughout that winter to teach participants how to oversee a wake service, and she wrote a new manual to outline the common rituals and prayers.

Today, this group of approximately 22 Lakota men and women are serving as leaders in the parish,  offering families spiritual support when it is needed the most.

“The needs of the parish were very real. And this group wanted—and has welcomed—the responsibility for offering care and support to community members as they are mourning,” said Sister Connie. “Families across the parishes have expressed such gratitude for their presence at wakes. They are so thankful there was someone there to comfort them and lead the rosary on behalf of their loved one. Our wake team ministers are truly community leaders who are bringing needed peace and consolation to these families during some of the most challenging times anyone can face.”

“The first one was kind of hard and unexpected because we initially thought a priest would be there,” White explained. “But we just picked up where it was needed and drove on because it’s our responsibility to provide a good service for the people and for their loved one.”

Wake services often involve praying the rosary and, at times, leading a scripture or psalm service. Sister Connie’s manual helps to guide wake team members when questions arise. But comforting and consoling grieving families is something that comes with being a part of the larger church community. 

It can be challenging and exhausting. But for Ruth Cummins, another wake team member, it also presents an extraordinary opportunity to connect with her community.

“I feel like it’s the very last thing I can do for the family—to console them and see if I can do anything to help them in their grief. As a team, we go to the church on the night of the wake early enough to visit with the family to try to figure out if there is anything special they want to do to honor their loved one,” Ruth explained. “We follow our manual if it’s a traditional Catholic service. And if it’s not, then we follow our hearts.”

“It just gives me a lot of encouragement, to see how strong some of the families can be. Sometimes when I go and see people who hardly have anything, they will still bring what little they have and share it for the meal or the giveaway. It makes you feel good when you see that kind of generosity.”

During their recent retreat, the wake ministers came together to reflect on their evolving role in the Church, and to pray together for strength and resilience. Because of the great distances between churches, some wake ministers had never met one another, and they welcomed the opportunity to gather as a group, to share a meal, and to support one another as a full team. Father Peter Klink, S.J., vice president for mission and identity, led a missioning service to officially recognize and honor the group as an essential ministry. And Pastoral Coordinator Veronica Valandra, who worked closely with Sister Connie to plan the retreat, spoke about the importance of empowering more Native lay leaders in the church.

For Sister Connie, seeing these Lakota wake team members claim their own leadership role in the church is one of the greatest blessings of this work.

“Walking with the people on this reservation, you begin to understand that they know—much more than I do—what is needed in their church. They know how to inculturate wake prayers so that Catholic and Lakota traditions are intertwined so beautifully,” she said.

“It has been amazing to see this group build courage and stand in front of their own communities to lead these prayers and claim that serious responsibility. But it’s also very much a two-way street—I learn from them each and every day. Now I’m just trying to stand back and let them do their own work. Because ultimately, they are becoming the faith and foundation of the Lakota church.”



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