Pandemic Crisis in Native America

I am the Pastor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American Parish, in the mountains some 35 miles west of San Diego. But my ministry is actually in many parishes. It covers a number of Native American Reservations, and at times I am asked to celebrate Masses, hear confessions and do funerals in many other Reservations in places like Jamul, Campo, Manzanita, and Santa Isabel near the Mexican border; and to the north, Pala, Rincon, Pauma and even up to the Cahuilla Reservation near Riverside. First Nations Peoples are extremely sociable and gregarious. They are always visiting each other and the news of whatever is happening in one place immediately spreads to all. In this dangerous time of Coronavirus I worry for my flock, and I pray that their health is not compromised by their visiting friends and socializing. I also pray that the Lord gives me the strength and good health to serve my endangered flock.

Many of my parishioners are high risk seniors with various systemic diseases and low levels of immunity. They follow protocol, take the necessary precautions and quarantine those who have been exposed to the virus, and I thank the Lord that up until now we haven’t had even one case. Covid-19 has forced many of us, myself included, to learn how to use social media, stream Masses and adjust sacramental rubrics to California protective protocols. In this I have been fortunate to have the help of the Tribal Government of Barona and its IT Department. Step by step they helped me create a Facebook account and use my iPhone for the streaming. It was nerve-wracking at first, but I learned from my mistakes and gradually improved.
Now the greatest difficulty is always having to change venues—from the Church, to the Clubhouse, and now outside, to our beautiful Blessed Mother shrine.

The biggest event for my Native Peoples—one that draws great numbers from all directions—is the Native Funeral. All must be present to send off one of their own to the next life. All the activities including the viewing, the Mass, the burial, the eulogies and reception take place over several days. Here the pandemic crisis has been an almost unbearable cross for my people. The two painful funerals that I have celebrated up till now have been only burials and without Masses. One, which was for a 98 year-old woman, was held outside the reservation. It had to be completed in only 30 minutes, and only 10 were allowed to attend. How could this sum up her long life and all that she meant to the community? The other, for a young man who had suffered a sudden death, was held at the reservation. To my surprise, a crowd of up to 300 relatives came. At first, I was worried because the number exceeded that allowed. But there were also five police cars there and then I remembered what one of the elders had said to me: “The laws outside of the reservation do not apply inside.” The funeral lasted the whole day and included a huge banquet for all. Afterwards, just to be safe, I washed all my clothes and took a long shower.

Sometimes doing God’s work entails taking great risks. But we need not fear the challenges of our ministry when we remember that Jesus is with us as he was with the disciples on the stormy sea.

Fr Herman Manuel SVD

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