For 17 of his first 22 years as a Jesuit, Fr. John Paul, SJ, was stationed among the Oglala Lakota (“Sioux”) nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
“With so much of my life spent there, it truly feels like ‘home,’” says Fr. Paul, who today serves as the Wisconsin Province’s director of formation, ongoing formation and lay formation; and provincial assistant for native ministry. “The people, and the work we’ve done together at Pine Ridge, are such an important part of how I have been formed as a Jesuit.”
It’s clear the feelings have been mutual. Fr. Paul has been adopted – that is, formally made a relative – into six Lakota Sioux families, via a “Hunka” ritual (an ancient tradition of “the making one a relative” which forms a special bond of kinship). “It says, ‘you are part of this family,’” he explains. “You could find a parallel in the way taking final vows as a Jesuit makes you a full member of the Society. In a Hunka ceremony, you become a full member of a family.”
Relationships like these are why it was important to Fr. Paul to say one of his first Masses at Pine Ridge.
He explains, “My understanding of priesthood and ministry has been greatly impacted by these meaningful and powerful relationships formed early in my life. So when Agnes Yellow Boy asked me, ‘Are you all holy now, or are you still one of us?’ (because I had been ordained), it overwhelmed me. My Native American friends and family members have taught me so much from their human experience, their lived faith reality, that it is inseparable from my own faith reality.”
Cultural Immersion trip provides “true encounters”
Fr.John Paul recently returned “home” as a facilitator for a South Dakota Native American Ministry/Cultural Immersion trip, with Jesuit Partners interested in learning about and experiencing the cultural heritage of the Lakota Sioux, the history of their relationship with the Society of Jesus, and Native American/Jesuit collaborative ministries.
Recently, Fr. Paul had the chance to share this reality when he returned “home” as a facilitator for a South Dakota Native American Ministry/Cultural Immersion trip for laypeople interested in learning about and experiencing the cultural heritage of the Lakota Sioux, the history of their relationship with the Society of Jesus, and Native American/Jesuit collaborative ministries.
“I greatly enjoyed this opportunity to accompany our Jesuit Partners as they experienced how we Jesuits are working side by side with the local people,” he recalls. “I think it was especially valuable for the people on the trip to hear the Lakota voices and see Lakota faces in our ministries there. It’s one thing for a director of a work to indicate what he is trying to do, or to see pictures of a work. It’s much more engaging for the Lakota people to share what gives them life and energy and hope in what they’re doing.”
He adds, “It’s hard to be there and not feel an overwhelming sense of the difficulties people face. But there is also a very real voice of hope, growth and excitement in what is happening. When local people start sharing their stories, it begins creating relationships. After all, how can you not be affected by another person’s story?”
And that is the nature of “immersion” for a trip like this. Says Fr. Paul, “Our Superior General Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, has been talking lately about how an immersion experience is really an ‘encounter’ with someone very different—and this encounter leaves both parties changed.”
There are several ways for people to go about interacting with each other,” he continues. “You can simply live according to ‘tolerance’ – ‘I’m from my background, you’re from yours, we do our own thing and, if we connect, fine.’ Or worse, one person can try to impose his or her cultural milieu on another—‘you’re here now so you do it our way, end of conversation.’ But a ‘true encounter’ enables people to learn from each other’s outlook, and experiences that have shaped that outlook, in order to be affected by it. And that’s what we are trying to do with the various immersion experiences the Province is hosting – in the Kohima region of India, in East Africa and in South Dakota.”
Being back “home” on this recent trip, in that new context, offered an immersion experience for Fr. Paul as well. “I felt changed, too,” he says. “This trip allowed me to form some personal relationships with some of our Jesuit Partners. Seeing how they were moved by their experience enriched my own.”