Church communities across Cheyenne River are adjusting to new norms of worship with coronavirus and the threat of COVID-19. Worship services have taken to new media, like radio and Facebook live, in addition to holding services outside, limiting occupancy, and being intentional and creative about Communion. The challenge of ministry in the time of coronavirus touches on themes of church autonomy, sacramental theology, and the meaning of worshipping together.
Cheyenne and Rosebud Episcopal Missions The Rt. Rev. Dr. Jonathan Folts, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota, laid out the challenges of setting guidelines for how to hold church services. His diocese holds almost 80 churches, ranging from Calvary Cathedral in Sioux Falls to the Cheyenne River Mission, a collection of eleven churches on Cheyenne River. In addition to being new to the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota, (He only arrived late last year and was immediately faced with the pandemic.) Folts also has to deal with the diversity and independence of his congregations.
“Churches in South Dakota are about as diversified as you can possibly find. We have everything from the cathedral in Sioux Falls and Rapid City Emmanuel, which are our two largest churches, to congregations that meet in a building that could maybe seat a hundred, a hundred and fifty, that have five people coming to it.”
“We’re also dealing with a number of different reservations in South Dakota, and every reservation is its own sovereign nation. Meaning that they make up their own rules and their own regulations. So we could come out with rules and regulations and a plan one-size-fits-all, but we could be very easily overruled by the dictums of any tribal council,” said Folts.
Instead of issuing instructions to all those churches, Folts opted to allow each on to make a decision based on their local situation, so long as they consulted with him. He said, “By not coming in and saying, “This is what we’re going to do across the board,” we gave each congregation the freedom to choose “How are we going to close down? How are we going to minister to our people this time?”
“We turned around and said, “We’re going to ask every church. You know what your context is. You know what the numbers are. You’ve got the know-how and access to the research. Make a decision. And across the board, almost across the board, they made the decision, ‘We’re going to stop in person worship.’”
The Rev. Dr. Lauren Stanley, Superintending Presbyter of Rosebud Mission West said, “Once we had to close down, we instantly invented Church on The Go. We made a banner that says, ‘Love in the Time of Coronavirus.’” People would come in their cars, receive a wafer and have the opportunity to pray for their special concerns. At one point the line of cars was three blocks long.
Since indoor gatherings over 10 people are not allowed on the Rosebud Reservation, the seven congregations there gather for one outside service at Trinity Church in Mission. “You are spaced six to twelve feet apart, because I have trees in the yard, and so there’s shade. We do the regular service, but I do a shorter sermon and a shorter kind of Communion.”
Many churches have not used a Communion cup since February or March, since sipping out of a common cup or dipping bread in the wine is too dangerous. Stanley has innovated a way to get consecrated wine onto the Communion wafers. “You lay all your wafers out on a cookie sheet. I use a wooden chopstick and dip it in the wine and then you tap on each wafer, so that there’s a little purple stain on each wafer and then you let them dry. We now give out the Body and Blood. When we started doing that, people were so happy!”
Cheyenne River Catholic Churches Kim Traversie-Colliflower is a parishioner at St. Joseph Catholic Church, Ridgeview, one of the eight Catholic churches on Cheyenne River. She said coming together for church on an ordinary Sunday isn’t a problem, “since Ridgeview Church is basically just my family, and a few others. For the most part we all live together. The other couple families that come sit very distant. We have basically an empty church so you can certainly distance. We used to eat together and stuff but we’re not doing any of those things anymore.”
When Traversie’s father, Red, died in June they hosted over 200 people outside for his funeral. They set up a tent between the church and the church hall. “We had an abbreviated funeral Mass because it was warm outside and we didn’t want to be in close quarters and people weren’t – it was very spread out. People stood all around.” Masks and hand sanitizer and individual waters were provided. “We didn’t feed. Normally we’d do a feed and we didn’t do that. And instead of having a full Rosary the night before, we just had the family.”
Free Lutheran Churches Mark Richardson, Pastor of Emmanuel Free Lutheran Church in Eagle Butte and Bethel Lutheran Church in Faith, said when they do Communion once a month someone is masked and gloved and passes out the wafer and little cups of wine. His congregation has shrunk a little bit due since concerns over the virus have caused those with health issues to stay home. Richardson streams both Sunday in-person services on Facebook for those who cannot make it.
The church leadership decided not to have church outside. “We had talked about being outside but it was so hot for a while,” he explained. “People said, ‘You know what? We’ll do social distancing inside. Every other pew is roped off. Someone will wear a mask if they want to, it’s up to them. But we’ll just meet inside.” Richardson said, “When we greet, when we visit people, it’s after, outside. We go in, do service, we go outside to visit. So we’re basically only inside for an hour to have service.”
Being closed for so long was a concern, “Because other places didn’t close down as long, so we’ve had people go to some other churches in other areas. We’ve had some people who lived a half hour away, forty minutes away and coming in who said, “You know what, for now we’re going somewhere else.’ It was tough. People were concerned and wanted to follow the reservation rules, but they just didn’t like not being together and even just watching it on video’s not the same thing.”
Baptist Church Pastor Ben Farrar said, “For the longest time, we figured that we just had to shut down. And we only had the online services.” A parishioner read the city and tribal restrictions and together the church concluded that there were two things restricting then from going back to church. “The first was, but they were not allowing more than 10 people in a building at once. And the other was that they were only allowing people to go out of their homes for essential activities and they listed what those essential activities were, One of those essential activities was called outdoor activities which was extremely vague.”
Based on this interpretation they decided that church outside would be acceptable. Since then they’ve had church outdoors. “People park right there in front of the church, and we put up our chairs there on the sidewalk. We’re socially distancing. And I just have service right there.” He says about 10 or 12 come on a Sunday.
Farrar’s experience summarizes the challenge of many clergy in this time. He says the biggest change has been in the type of work he’s been doing. “Most of my work in the past has been centered around personal intimacy with individuals. Getting close to them, and talking to them, or keeping the church open for regular services.”
“We’ve been forced to make our ministry different in a lot of ways. We’re online. We’re on the radio with our weekly service, both on our website and on Facebook Live and playing on KIPI, the local radio station.” He says there is some advantage to not being able to use the interior of the church. He’s using this time to go through a build up of more than 10 years of paper and stuff that needed to be organized. “We’ve never been able to really get around to it. But now that we have time where nobody can be in the church. I have all of the opportunity in the world to get all that stuff out and sort through it and organize it and clean it up.”