“Suffering and healing are in the in-breath and the out-breath.
Death and resurrection are everywhere. Go, and have a spirit of unknowing.”
When Ellen Huber saw the posting for the position at St. John’s, she knew it was the one. “I read the description for Cheyenne River — and I just froze. I said, ‘Kurt! Kurt! Come here, you have to read this!’”
That was the start of a whirlwind experience in the midst of COVID the moved Mother Ellen, her husband Kurt, and three of their five children from Monroe, Connecticut, to Eagle Butte last September.
A far cry from Connecticut
The Rev. Ellen Huber, known as “Mother Ellen,” and her spouse the Rev. Kurt Huber, known as “Father Kurt,” now work together as a clergy couple for the first time. For years they worked in parishes in next door towns in Monroe and Easton, Connecticut. On Cheyenne River they are co-missioners of the Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission; a collection of 12 churches including St. John’s Episcopal Church in Eagle Butte.
“Why did we leave the security of what we had back east,” she says, “and a Starbucks on every corner? I’m not sure we can give a practical answer to that question. In all honesty, God said GO, and have a spirit of un-knowing. Bring open hearts and minds, to learn, to love and to respect and walk with the people.”
It’s a far cry from what they are used to, but the Hubers love their new life and their new home in Eagle Butte. The family now has three horses, four dogs, four bunnies, one cat, one gecko, and a new kitten named Donut. Three of their five children made the move to South Dakota; Aiden, 22, Hannah, 17, and Norah, 9. Their two older grown children stayed behind.
Mother Ellen says, “God so clearly has lived here for hundreds of thousands of years, in the hearts of the people and in the raw beauty of the land.” It’s so different from what they were used to that she didn’t want to make any assumptions about the place or the people.
Before making the final decision to uproot and come to Cheyenne River, the Hubers talked with Bishop Steven Charleston (Choctaw), a Native American elder with wide experience in mainstream Christian and Indigenous theologies. He told them, “Walk humbly. Listen carefully. Share joyously. Practice love in all things and at all times.” The Hubers had his words made into a plaque for their house.
When asked what drew her to the posting for Cheyenne River, Mother Ellen said, “I think number one, that it was a ministry of reconciliation and healing. That appeals to both of us a lot, I think. We’ve done a lot of that work in our other parishes. And being rural really appealed to me personally.”
The vast spaces and long distances which were so shocking at first seem commonplace today. “Now, we’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to On The Tree? It’s just a hop and a skip.’ Or, ‘We’re going to Cherry Creek? It’s not very far.’ We love going out to the other churches and the scenery changes so dramatically. Every different town is eye candy, wherever you look. We’re still pulling off the road to take pictures, which don’t at all do it justice.”
Liturgy infused with Lakota worship
One of the quickest things the Hubers learned was how different funerals are on Cheyenne River, how much more personal. The experience of grieving with families crystallized Mother Ellen’s thinking about their role as healers on Cheyenne River.
“Funerals in Connecticut were very sterile. People would cry, but then you just leave the casket and you walk away from the grave. The men who are going to do the shoveling, they’re hiding behind trees until the well-dressed funeral goers leave and then they come out and do this ‘dirty work;’ but it’s not dirty work at all! It’s sacred and beautiful and healing. It’s to be part of that healing process that we’re so honored and grateful to be a part of here,” she says.
She certainly got a quick introduction to officiating at funerals. Not long after arriving, Mother Ellen received a morning phone call from Charlie Rook, at Rooks Funeral Home. He said the minister for a funeral had not shown up and would Mother Ellen be willing to do it instead? “Of course,” she said, and asked what time. “Ten-thirty,” said Charlie. “Oh, you mean like in half an hour, ten-thirty?!?” was Mother Ellen’s reply. She left home on the coldest day they had yet experienced, about -20° F, and went to the funeral home.
Lakota culture, music and prayer are an integral part of worship in the Episcopal churches on Cheyenne River. “I don’t think I could ever go back to doing funerals the way we did them…There’s something so sacred about the sound of the drums and leading the casket outside with the drums going. Even at the cemeteries a lot of times when the family starts to put the earth back on top of the casket, then the drums will pick up again. It just it just makes it so sacred and so poignant.”
Mother Ellen says the infusion of the drums and Lakota culture is, “magical and spiritual and beautiful. And to us it’s all connected. We’re all just striving to find love and compassion and that divine spark, if you will, inside each and every one of us. And these ways, the traditional old ways and Christian, are how we get there.”
Upcoming Services for Holy Week and Easter
On Maundy Thursday, April 1, the Hubers will celebrate eucharist at St. John’s in Eagle Butte at 5 p.m. MDT. There will not be the traditional footwashing ceremony. Social distancing and masks are required according to tribal guidelines.
On Good Friday, April 2, there are two services; noon at St. John’s, Eagle Butte, and 4 p.m. CDT/ 3 p.m. MDT at Emmanuel Church in Whitehorse.
On Easter Sunday the couple are doing four services: 10 a.m. MDT at St. John’s, Eagle Butte; 11 a.m. CDT at Emmanuel, Whitehorse; 1 p.m. MDT at St. Peter’s, Thunder Butte; and 2 p.m. CDT at Ascension Church in Blackfoot.
The twelve churches which make up the Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission are in Bear Creek, Blackfoot, Cherry Creek, Dupree, Eagle Butte, Iron Lightning, LaPlant, On the Tree, Promise, Red Scaffold, Thunder Butte and Whitehorse.