Following in Black Elk’s Footsteps: Pastoral Associate Joyce Tibbitts

Red Cloud’s new Pastoral Associate Joyce Tibbitts is indeed “a person of prayer and a person of service.” Over the journey of her life, she has nurtured a profound connection to Lakota and Catholic spirituality. Both those traditions, she said, guided her to serve as a parish coordinator at St. Agnes, where she has attended church nearly all her life. Over the years she became a leader in Red Cloud’s pastoral community—becoming a Lay Minister, earning her Masters of Ministry from Creighton University, and championing the cause of canonization of her hero Nicholas Black Elk. Today, she is taking on a new role in order to provide crucial support to all six of Red Cloud’s churches and to the hundreds of community members they serve.

Joyce Black Elk Mass

Where did you grow up & go to school?

I grew up 10 miles north of Manderson in a place we call Lonesome Valley. I spent very little time in high school because I was a teenage mother. I completed my GED at 17 June 1999 and went to Oglala Lakota College that fall and earned various associate’s degrees, finally settling on Social Science in which I earned a Bachelor’s degree. I am the mother of two boys, Jaylend is 21 and Louie who is 13 years old. I also have a daughter in law, Esperanza and an adopted son, Bryan. I still reside in the Wounded Knee district, 3 miles south of Manderson on my grandfather’s land.

How did you first become involved with Red Cloud's pastoral community?

St. Agnes has been my parish for my whole life; it is where I got my sacraments as a child and my family has belonged to St. Agnes since it was built in the early 1900s. I actually fell away from our church for a while in my young adult days. Fr. Phil Cooke and I took a college course together at Oglala Lakota College (OLC). After meeting him, he recognized my name because my family would attend Mass and he invited me back to St. Agnes, so I started going back to Mass regularly. When I graduated with my Bachelors in Social Science in the summer of 2009, I was unemployed for a year, until a position opened up at St. Agnes and Fr. Phil asked me to apply. I started on August 3rd of 2010. I was hesitant at first because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing or getting myself into, but slowly but surely, I got more interested in my faith and wanted to know more about being Catholic while learning how to be a “church lady,” aka the parish coordinator.

What roles have you played as a pastoral staff member? What's been most rewarding for you?

There are many roles to play when you work for a parish. First of all, I learned to be a catechist and, thanks to Sr. Connie Schmidt and Fr. Phil, I learned how to teach the faith and how I can pass that along to the children of our parish and community. I am a coordinator, and this means that I schedule hall rentals, set up for Mass, coordinate wakes and funerals, and schedule any events within the parish. I am the accountant for the parish, handling all the finances and budgeting. I am a supervisor to the maintenance staff, ensuring our halls and buildings are well maintained. I am also a Lay Minister.

I spent four years of formation to complete this process, all the while still doing jail, recovery, wake and funeral ministries while earning my master’s degree. What has been the most rewarding for me is all of it, the whole experience, the whole journey. All these responsibilities I engage in are vital in my life; this isn’t just a job for me, these aren’t just accomplishments. Being all these things and having all these roles makes me who I am today. My family, friends, and community called me the “Rev.” I am proud to be called that because it means that people know that I am a person of prayer and a person of service. They know I am there to help them pray, to help them through difficult times, to be there for them spiritually and prayerfully. Even though I can never formally be a deacon in the Catholic Church, it does feel good to know that I earned that nickname, and Tunkasila has blessed me not with all these jobs but with this profession.

I understand you became a commissioned lay minister; what led you to that journey and how has it changed you?

Over the years I helped Fr. Phil, Fr. Peter Klink, and many other priests during wakes and funerals, and slowly I began to feel a yearning to be a Lay Minister. I began to lead wakes on my own and helped Sr. Connie form the wake teams at every parish, so that the priests wouldn’t be so overwhelmed with services all the time. When the opportunity arose, I took it. And I am happy that I did because being a Lay Minister doesn’t only benefit my parish but also all the parishes and all the communities of the reservation. I try and help my fellow Lay Ministers as much as I possibly can.

I also understand you pursued studies at Creighton; what program and why?

After a few years at St. Agnes I was hungering for something more. I wanted to learn more about ministry and how I can help my community and further my education at the same time. Having an education was always important to me and I always knew that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree at a university. So, with a lot of discernment and prayer, I looked through many, many programs throughout the United States. I knew that I wanted the college to be a Jesuit college, seeing as the Jesuits mean so much to me and I really appreciate the Ignatian spirituality. When I researched Creighton’s Masters of Ministry Program I was delighted and excited about it. Again, with a lot of discernment and prayer I decided to apply. Luckily, I did get accepted into the program and began this journey in the summer of 2014. It was a great experience for me to get out of my comfort zone of the reservation and experience this program with so many different people from all across the U.S. I did most of my coursework online, doing two classes every eight weeks. In the summer, I would travel to Omaha and be on campus to complete courses and go to our annual silent retreat. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA in May of 2017. I was only Native American to apply, to be accepted, and complete the program.

Describe your new role working on campus; what excites you about it?

My new role on campus is called Pastoral Associate and what I do is help Fr. Brad in managing all the churches of the reservation. I specifically focus on the Religious Education programs, which means I help with all the sacramental ministry in the parishes. I provide training, workshops, and retreats for catechists, parish staff, Lay Ministers, wake teams, and the pastoral team. I also assist Fr. Brad with the parish budgets, capital projects, and assist the parish staff in finances whenever they need help. I assist and train the parish staff in making sure they know how to use their technology properly. I also do a number of things for the Diocese. I am a Safe Environment coordinator, I sit on the Diocesan Pastoral Council, and I sit on a couple of smaller committees for the Diocese, like the Native Ministry committee and the Office of Native Concerns committee. I am also a Sioux Spiritual Center board member. Being the Pastoral Associate excites me because I get to be there to help all the parishes, not only to maintain what we are currently doing, but also to help them dream and coordinate new ideas and possibilities.

You've been extremely involved in the work around Nicholas Black Elk's canonization; why is that so important?

Yes, I have been involved since the beginning, seeing as St. Agnes was Black Elk’s home parish. St. Agnes was built as a direct result of his conversions. St. Agnes is as near and dear to my heart as it was his. Upholding his legacy for St. Agnes has been very important to me. I was invited to join the Black Elk Working Group in the canonization process: I took minutes at the monthly meetings, and I helped plan all the Masses that were held at Holy Rosary and St. Agnes for the various stages of the process. I was also interviewed by Fr. Joe Dauost to give official testimony of Black Elk’s holiness. Since the local diocesan phase is complete, the Working Group now meets on a quarterly basis to promote the cause and keep each other informed of what is happening around the Diocese concerning Black Elk.

It is important to me because Black Elk is my hero; he spent decades catechizing our people and being a beacon of hope for them in a time of great transformation for our people. In this day and age, we are certainly walking that same difficult road as he did, and like Nicholas I want to take the Red Road. I strive to be like him by being a catechist, by being Lay Minister, and providing an example to my parish, my community and my reservation. Like Black Elk said, “Let every step you take upon the earth be as a prayer.”

Joyce at St Agnes

I know there are many ways the parishes support members of our community: can you describe some of those supports and how important they are to our parishioners and their families?

There are many ways the parish supports our communities. Christ the King and Sacred Heart both offer AA meetings to those who are in recovery. St. Agnes and Christ the King partnered with the Icimani Recovery Center in Rosebud to provide the Family Recovery Program to our reservation. St. Agnes has partnered with Catholic Social Services and our sister parish to host a number of trainings and programs throughout years to provide the community with awareness about alcoholism, drug abuse, young parenthood, codependency and grief.

Our Lady of the Sioux reached out and helped with the bad hail storm last summer. Sr. Barb personally pulled together a lot of resources for the community of Oglala and assisted them in repairing damaged homes. Sacred Heart reaches out by providing food for needy families and the homeless. They have a food bank and sandwich ministry that helps people on the streets have something to eat. Sacred Heart has a rummage room, so the community has a place to get clothing and other items at a very decent price. They have also partnered with other organizations to provide relief for the people that were flooded this past spring.

As with most of the churches on the reservation, St. Agnes has an annual coat and blanket drive, ensuring that community members have warm blankets and coats for the winter. Our Lady of Sorrows gives out turkeys and all the trimmings around Thanksgiving time, which ensures that community members have a Thanksgiving meal. St. Agnes and Christ the King partner up every Thanksgiving and host a dinner for the community of Manderson. This year will be our third year and it has been a great success. There are many other events in all the churches like the annual bazaars, and Sacred Heart’s Halloween Alley for the kids, St. Agnes hosts a scary movie night on Halloween; Christ the King does an annual Walk of Faith during Holy Week, all of which are not only fun but support the children of the community and give them something positive to do.

Can you talk a bit about the relationship between Lakota and Catholic spiritual traditions; how do they connect for you?

I am Catholic and I am Lakota. What this means to me is that yes, I grew up Catholic, I celebrated all my sacraments and went to Mass. When I went to OLC I earned an Associate’s degree in Lakota Studies because I was very ignorant in knowing what our traditional society was like. I was interested in our culture, in our ceremonies, and the language. I was fortunate enough to get some of the best Lakota instructors like Calvin Jumping Bull, Wilmer Mesteth, John Around Him and Rick Two Dogs. They all helped me broaden my horizons and understand what our culture was like and what it is like now.

I was also fortunate enough to have a friend that lived the Lakota way of life and helped me experience it. I began go to some traditional ceremonies like inipi, yuwipi and Sun Dance, all of which I still attend. The mixture of the two has helped me grow in enormous ways; both traditions have taught me humility, taught me patience, and taught me that God-Tunkasila is everywhere. That is another reason why Nicholas Black Elk means so much to me—because he practiced both, he was Catholic and he was Lakota, there was no line, there was no parting the two. It is the same way for me, there are no lines, it all just comes together in a harmonious way in my life. It balances itself out and it helps keep my mind focused on what is important. I believe that is the way that Black Elk felt—that one enhances the other, that we need both to walk the Red Road. I am just taking his lead.

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



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