Sister Barbara Ann’s Servant Leadership For the Life of the World

Water is Life, Give Drink to the Thirsty

Water is A water pipe on the parish parking lot is a free source for safe drinking water for families without running water at their homes.


Sister Barbara Ann Lives Out Her Faith in Amazing Ways

As another summer ends I am reminded where I was in September 2017 when the news arrived that Sister Barbara Ann Bogenschutz was a finalist nominated for the Lumen Christi Award for her work with the Oglala Lakota people in Oglala, South Dakota. It was there where I met the people she served and got a better understanding of the monumental tasks she takes care of each day, at all hours of the day.

My job was to witness Sister Barbara Ann’s ministry, the people she ministers with, and the people she serves. Sister Barbara Ann does extraordinary work in mostly hidden ways, but her faith community and the people she serves know about the empowering impact she's had on their lives.

In the short time I was there, I witnessed a lot and took in what it meant to be part of the community on the reservation.  I won’t pretend to say I understand, because I just can’t.  There are complexities inside the reservation that would fill several lifetimes to fully understand.  Some of the places we visited are sacred and could not be photographed.  It was a privilege to be there, and the privilege was earned by Sister Barbara silently building bridges over the years.

I witnessed Sister Barbara Ann’s point of view up close and saw she was an example of a servant leader. She quietly makes a visible impact in the lives of people around her by being fully present without any fanfare.

The Wounded Knee massacre site memorial and mass grave at sunset.
The Wounded Knee massacre site memorial and mass grave at sunset.

Sister Barbara Ann is present with the people that live on the reservation and deeply listens to their stories.  She has a unique ability to hear what an individual’s truth is and give them a space to be vulnerable. She does her best to brush off the biases she brought with her and makes it known that she is constantly learning.  She has many difficult confidential conversations and is known to be trustworthy in the community.


Building Community
Sister Barbara would take communion to Elizabeth (Liz) Makes Him First and listen to her stories. Liz was a teacher at the nearby Lone Man School teaching the Lakota language. Liz told us several stories that were very important to her, mostly about her family.  Her son was a powwow dancer and she was very proud of him. She ran a dance club for 15 years.  I remember listening to a story she told about the granddaughter she raised. Apparently, she was a bit of a wild kid, but Liz formed her into a fully functional adult because she ended up honored by Oglala Lakota College as a teacher of the year a couple of times. It was a very personal story, and we were privileged to hear it. That kind of intimacy was earned over a long time.

Sister Barbara officiated over Liz's funeral service in early January of 2018. As with all the Catholic services at Our Lady of the Sioux, there were elements of traditional Lakota Services.  Liz's fmaily spoke Lakota in her house from sunrise to sunset each day. Not a lot of people who go off to school or leave the reservation continue to speak the language. Today they teach the language at Red Cloud School, so it has a chance of living on and flourishing. Sister Barbara knows the traditions but makes sure outsiders go to the source rather than give her interpretation.  She knows authentic community building comes from a long process of building trust. Her patience and persistence to be present is the reason she has been able to be a part of the community.  Most people would have given up long ago.

Elizabeth (Liz) Makes Him First
Elizabeth (Liz) Makes Him First

Once in the middle of the night she was woken up by a knock on the door for a person needing something locked away the church and adjoining buildings. Her work hours do not begin and end in any sort of predictable hours or days of the week.  She knows the viewpoint of time from many perspectives and bends to be there for the community when they are in need.

Some people who attend mass struggle in profoundly visible ways. Some people come to the church struggling with alcoholism. Some have to excuse themselves to get sick from a hangover in the bathroom during the service.  All are welcome.  All are forgiven. The meals afterword is a community-wide event. A warm breakfast on Sunday is a certainty in an unforgiving and unpredictable land. Sister Barbara took the time to meet with each person listening to the tales of their week or just giving a nod and a quick handshake. The community’s presence and trust in Sister Barb’s presence is a continual restorative gathering that builds self-worth.

Sister Barbara Ann has lived with the Lakota community for years and the Native American community for over twenty years.  Her commitment is real.

Commitment to the Growth of Others
Sister Barbara Ann has a water pump the church property that gives fresh clean water to anyone that needs it.  I took a photo of people popping in to fill a jug and wash their faces.  It was a simple reminder that water is life.  There are plenty of ways that people can be involved with the parish and they are very active every day.

Sister Barbara Ann leads every conversation in a nonjudgmental way and always moves others to naturally find their way to do the right thing.  She can be tough and direct when it is necessary. She needs the strength of character to be there for the good and bad times. The politics of the tribal chair-people and the history with our government might make unique circumstances she needs to be aware of and respect to make long-lasting relationships.

Sister Barbara is under no illusion that she is is going to magically solve all the problems for the people living in the area. They know the meaning of resistance in a way that must be witnessed to empathize with. Understanding is not possible for white people. We bring with us ideas of introducing our methods to help them out of poverty or even demanding that they submit to the standards of living we expect them to achieve.

In the past, Catholic schools punished them for using their language, cut their hair to conform to a unified look, and wouldn’t allow them to have rituals. Down the road is the creek their ancestors crawled through with bloodied bodies after surviving the Wounded Knee Massacre. She is aware of the Doctrine of Discovery stating the chosen people could remove, kill, and take all the possessions from anyone on “the promised land” as soon as their feet hit the ground. She is aware of the divide that still exists after colonizers made contact. She is aware that prayerful water protectors stood their ground while oil drilling invaders occupied their land, again. She is aware that pollution could destroy the land and drinking water.  She is aware that radioactive waste is being dumped on their land. She is aware that The Great Sioux Nation people are the rightful owners of the Black Hills and have been since 1868.

Sister Barbara Ann knows how to choose the right amount of ways to put her faith in action.  She knows what will serve the greater good and keep the buildings and grounds in good shape. It is a delicate balance and she has done it gracefully.  The unforgiving weather damaged buildings and vehicles, and the occasional break-in caused substantial setbacks.  Sister Barbra Ann always has enough for the community and for her to keep going.  Depending on her day, she doesn’t always get lunch. She needs to set up bingo, get backpacks full of school supplies to kids, visit the sick, and make sure everything is set up each Sunday.

The “big picture” is always in the back of Sister Barb’s mind, but she responds to solve problems in creative and thoughtful ways as they materialize. Her life has a few predictable patterns, and interruptions arise daily raging from people asking for gas money to a catastrophic family crisis. Death is a part of Sister Barb’s life as Parish Life Coordinator. She has seen a lot of pain and knows how important it is to keep the memory of those that have gone before them.  She is there for them at their worst times and their best times. She is there when they are grieving and when they are celebrating accomplishments. She is there in chaotic times and the mundane. Simply stated, she is there.


Lakota elder Basil Braveheart
Lakota elder Basil Braveheart

Lakota elder Basil Braveheart gave me a parting bit of wisdom I won’t soon forget: “Our moral compass, our spiritual landscape is being tested big time.” Basil is a Korean War warrior who struggled with alcohol until he had embraced the spiritual practices he compartmentalized and avoided.  Many people of many generations feel out of touch with truth and the sacred. The power of ritual is something he brought back to the forefront of his life. Every breath he took he took meaningfully.

Basil said his grandma's wisdom, teaching, and Lakota traditions were the reason he sobered up and stopped the drinking he did to cope with PTSD from war and what the teachers did him as a kid.

Basil said, "I got to church every morning. Sister Barbara Ann can tell you." Sister Barbara Ann regularly visits him in his home down the road.

His faith  is admirable because of the way he was treated. He was punished for speaking Lakota in school. They would put him in a dark room for a long time or put laundry soap, with painful lye, in his mouth. It stung him badly.

He was taught that his hair was like an antenna to the spirit world and could only be cut by his grandmother or someone in his family.  When he was forced to cut his hair by teachers and they walked over it on the floor he felt it was a deep spiritual violation.  He recalled the first time he was taken to church and saw a man on the cross. He was taught that this was Jesus and he was crucified. He had long hair. He still clearly remembers his feelings like this was yesterday. The hypocrisy stunted his trust.

A nun took a rubber band and forced him to bite down on it as she snapped it back after she pulled it back as far as she could and let it go. This abuse was common. "You know where the pain was more profound?" Basil asked me. "Not the lips," as he motioned to his chest, "In my heart and in my soul." Basil went on, " You know what they were really saying? You don't count. You don't have a soul. Before you can be a Christian we have to teach you to be a human being. You know why I am still here? My grandmother taught me to forgive."

Sister Barbara Ann's intuition about the people she serves might be her superpower. She has the right instinct and sensitivity to be there for the people when she is needed and is respectful to the cultural traditions in a way that only a dedicated person living in the community for years can do.


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