A taste of Mississippi in South Dakota

Click here to view the full gallery of photos from the Mississippi visit to St. Joseph’s Indian School.

“Ours is a mission to be compassionate, meet people where they are, and share the good news”

Claire Nehring, Houseparent, St. Joseph’s Indian School

“I have not been able to stop thinking about the Mission Education trip to South Dakota,” said Cynthia Johnson, housing coordinator for Sacred Heart Southern Missions. She summed up well the comments of many who took part in the April 23-24 Mission Education experience at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, S.D.

Nicole Mosley, the cook at the SCJ community in Nesbit, prepared two southern lunches for St. Joseph's students and staff. She is pictured here with some of her admirers.

Twenty-three students and staff from Sacred Heart Southern Missions in Mississippi were in South Dakota, sharing a bit of Mississippi –– including GENUINE SOUTHERN COOKING –– with their counterparts at St. Joseph’s. While teachers and staff heard presentations about the history, ministries and people of Sacred Heart Southern Missions, students at St. Joseph’s learned about Mississippi history and culture from three pairs of students from SHSM’s Holy Family School in Holly Springs and Sacred Heart School in Southaven.

The Mississippi visitors also learned a bit about South Dakota, first during a day of site-seeing as they traveled from Rapid City to Chamberlain (including stops at Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument, and the Badlands), and later, during a tour of the Lower Brule and Crow Creek Reservations.

For over a dozen years the U.S. Province has hosted national Mission Education gatherings at ministry locations around the United States. Held every two to three years, they are a time for staff, volunteers and others associated with the Priests of the Sacred Heart to spend time together and learn about the congregation, Fr. Dehon, SCJ spirituality, and the many ministries of the province.

Generally, just a few representatives from each ministry attend Mission Education on the national level. It is difficult and costly to bring everyone from a local ministry to the province gatherings.

Briget Brotherton Martin, principal at Sacred Heart. Both she, and the principal of Holy Family (Clara Isom) are alumni of the schools they now lead.

Looking for a way to extend the Mission Education experience beyond the larger conferences, staff from St. Joseph’s Indian School and Sacred Heart Southern Missions teamed up to expand the Mission Education experience between them.

“We couldn’t bring all of our staff to St. Joseph’s so we brought St. Joseph’s to Mississippi,” said Fr. Jack Kurps, SCJ, executive director of SHSM.

In 2010, approximately 20 students and staff from South Dakota gave an in-service day to SHSM staff. This year, it was SHSM’s turn.

However, given the nature of the school, the program had to be expanded from one day to two. St Joseph’s is a residential institution. It wasn’t possible for all of the teachers, houseparents and other staff to do an in-service at the same time. So the Mississippi program was split between two mornings; half of the staff attended Monday morning’s presentation and half attended on Tuesday.

Kathryn from Sacred Heart demonstrates an art project for St. Joseph's students.

St. Joseph’s students also were split, with the younger students having the treat of spending Monday morning at the movies while the older ones were taught by Mississippi students. Tuesday, it was the older students’ turn to head to town while the younger ones learned about the history and culture of the South.

Using multimedia presentations and hands-on projects, the students from Holy Family School and Sacred Heart School, taught the St. Joseph students about blues and gospel music, Mississippi artists, and about Mississippi authors.

Speaking to a class of first-graders, two students from Sacred Heart talked about famous people from Mississippi, including several who had started their own businesses; they were “entrepreneurs,” said one of the Mississippi students. Stepping in to lend a hand, Bridget Brotherton Martin, Sacred Heart principal, explained to the first-graders that an entrepreneur is “basically someone who comes up with an idea and then makes something from it.”

“Like God?” blurted one of the first graders. “He had the idea to have people and then made us!”

While the Mississippi students tried to explain what entrepreneurs were to primary school students, teachers, staff and houseparents learned not only about the history and ministries of Sacred Heart Southern Missions, but about the experience of growing up as an African American in Mississippi and the impact of the civil rights movement on the state.

Sr. Emily Morgan, Clara Isom and Orlando Parham share a laugh while preparing for the opening prayer.

“I grew up in an all-white rural small town in Illinois and it is incredible to me to think how different our lives were,” said a St. Joseph’s staffer after a presentation by Karen Jeltz, SHSM human resources director. Karen, an African-American, spoke about a time when the law mandated the separation of people based on their color. She recalled her mother reprimanding her for going to a “whites-only” bathroom and talked about other lived experiences of segregation as well as the turmoil that came during the civil rights movement.

“I was shocked to learn that while segregation is no longer law, there are still two very different worlds in Mississippi, with so many African Americans living in poverty,” said a teacher from St. Joseph’s. “I was amazed to learn how many people are living below poverty level and the conditions that many still live in.”

Many participants, both from Mississippi and South Dakota, noted similarities in their ministries of reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised, of learning the needs of an area –– not just those of Catholics – and seeking ways to address those needs.

“We are both fighting a centuries-old battle against inequality, discrimination, poverty and despair,” said Claire Nehring, a houseparent at St. Joseph’s. “In both places oppression is more deeply ingrained in the fabric of the culture than the laws that were meant to relieve it.  What struck me most was the commitment to join in community.  I tend to shudder when I hear the word ‘missionary.’  Out here in Indian country, that’s kind of a loaded word, full of images of wrong-minded people trying to do the right thing and tearing the place up in the process.

“When the speakers talked about being part of a mission church I realized that they were talking about something else entirely different. Ours is not an arrogant mission to ‘swoop down’ and save people. Ours is a mission to be compassionate, meet people where they are, and share the good news.  So whether people are in the Delta or on the ‘Rez,’ they can have a good school for their children and a church that responds to their needs… If we are going to be called Christians, it should show not just in our words but in our actions.”

The spirit of Claire’s words were echoed not only by her co-workers at St. Joseph’s, but by several of the Mississippi visitors.

“This visit reinforced for me the idea that even though we live and work in very different areas, what we are doing is similar,” said one of the Mississippi staff. “It all follows the call of the SCJs’ founder, Fr. Dehon, to ‘get out of the sacristies.’”

Students from St. Joseph's taught their Mississippi visitors about archery and Native American dance.

After being treated to demonstrations of Native American dances, archery and crafts (demonstrations that included an invitation to the Mississippi visitors to learn and take part in the various activities), Sr. Nancy Hubeny of SHSM said that she was “especially impressed with the way the culture and heritage of the Native Americans is being taught to the children… what a powerful experience to have witnessed the love, care and understanding that is lived out at St. Joseph’s Indian School.”

Of course, it wouldn’t have been southern hospitality without a good dose of southern food. Nicole Mosley, cook at the SCJ community house in Nesbit, prepared southern-style lunches both Monday and Tuesday. Three barbeque grills, including a restaurant-sized extended grill, were put to use on Tuesday to accommodate all the meat for that day’s pulled pork sandwiches.

In return, the kitchen staff at St. Joseph’s treated their Mississippi visitors to buffalo burgers before they headed off to Sioux Falls for their flight back home.

“What did I like about this?” said one of the Mississippi students about the Mission Ed experience.

“Everything, I liked EVERYTHING!”

The next national Mission Education gathering will also be at St. Joseph’s Indian School. It is scheduled for April 8-9, 2013.