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By Scott McKillip, SJ | Pine Ridge Reservation

Late one night, my novice brother and I piled into the Toyota. We began our drive on the only road crossing through the vast miles of rolling hills on this side of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. We were in the kind of darkness one knows only beyond the reach of a big city, the kind that makes it nearly impossible to see what’s 100 feet ahead. We came around bend after bend until we reached the top of a hill and pulled over at a scenic lookout, surrounded by nothingness.

We cut the car engine, and the lights went out. We got out and stood amid the silent darkness and gazed upon the night sky, untouched by artificial light. Even though we saw countless stars, we awaited something more. Suddenly we saw it. Flashing in the sky was the aurora borealis, the northern lights, and we stood in awe before the breathtaking phenomenon so rare for this part of North America.

As we stood there beneath the beautiful lights, my mind turned to the significance of those lights for the Lakota people, especially because of one very important Lakota man. Black Elk, a storied Lakota Catholic catechist, shared the faith with the Lakota people; hundreds attribute their becoming Catholic to him. Just before his death in 1950, he said to his daughter Lucy, “You will know everything is okay with me by God sending a sign. If something happens in the sky when I die, you’ll know I’m okay.” And the night of his wake, the day after his death, despite the rarity of these lights on Pine Ridge, the same northern lights appeared in the sky, giving hope to Black Elk’s family that he was okay.

The Northern Lights, as seen from the Pine Ridge Reservation

In my time on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I found myself experiencing these “northern lights” moments, the moments where I found overwhelming beauty, awe and wonder, in the midst of apparent darkness. The darkness wasn’t always brought about by nature.

One experience began when I got my mission to work with elementary-aged students. I wanted to run the other way. My internal voice said, “I’m not made to lead little kids. I’m nervous. I don’t know how to do this. Get me out of this. Help!”

I sat in my self-made darkness.

Yet, about one week after arriving, something beautiful happened. I went out to help monitor the K-5th grade recess. I found that getting involved with the games was the most effective way to keep recess running smoothly. On most days, I found myself playing four square, and this day was no exception. The game began and proceeded with the usual crowd of me and the third- and fourth-grade boys. That was, until Skuya, a new student who had just transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes, joined the four square line.

Skuya, a happy-go-lucky first-grade girl jumped in the first square. The game began, and the ball was sent straight to Skuya’s square. The ball bounced in Skuya’s square as she looked on with her feet planted, innocently unaware of what it meant. We called, “Skuya, you’re out. You need to get back in the line.” She responded with a happy-go-lucky, “OKAY!” and happily ran to the back of the line.

After waiting her turn, Skuya came back into the first square. Again, the ball came to Skuya’s square, and she watched as it bounced right passed her. She stood still, excited to see what it meant for her. And we again voiced to her, “Skuya, you’re out. You need to get back in line.” To which she again responded with her energetic, “OKAY!”

After doing this a third time, it became clear Skuya hadn’t the slightest idea how to play the game of four square. But she kept showing up, happy to be there, confident that she’d figure things out. Then, something marvelous happened. A fourth-grade boy named Chevy asked me if he could stand in the square with Skuya and teach her how to play. And for the rest of recess, Chevy was devoted to teaching Skuya the game of four square.

Scott McKillip, SJ, with students at the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In this moment, God was revealing another kind of northern lights moment. God taught me that in the darkness of my fear about what to teach, about how to teach, and about my ability to keep control of an elementary classroom, his light would come through and teach me. I needed to enter the square (of the Res, the elementary school, the classroom) with courage, even when I felt unprepared. I learned that God was asking me to be like Skuya: to show up with a happy-go-lucky joy and trust that Jesus would enter my square and teach me how to play.

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