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Out back at River Bend Church

By August 19, 2016 4 Comments

The sign out front claims this well-kept church on a hill just north of Flandreau is “The Oldest Continuously Used Church in South Dakota” (all caps because it’s a title worth coveting). The old church has been “First Presbyterian” for 137 years, “River Bend Church” when it was established here along the Big Sioux River long, long ago. 

Well, read it for yourself.

But a church is really nothing more or less than its people, including the ones in the cemetery out back, where a long history begins to come alive in what little is etched on the oldest stones. 

This one lies in the grass, weathered, but still somewhat readable in spots, if you take a few minutes to try and maybe scrape some lichen.

It’s a child, a boy, I think, although the name isn’t easy to read. The dates are still here and clear enough to see that he was only three years old, and that he was a Weston, and that he died long ago, in 1894.

Look closer. Beneath the dates, the inscription is a familiar line of the gospel comfort, from Luke, something one might expect on any child’s grave: “Jesus said, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, . . .for of such is the kingdom of heaven. . ‘” 

But beneath that line, in letters I couldn’t have read even if they’d been crisp and clear as a morning sky is yet another wording of the very same verse, this one, in a bit larger font, in the Dakota language. I’m guessing, of course–I can’t read the words.

I stood right there on Saturday morning in the dewy grass, and told myself that language didn’t matter much finally when that boy died because some stories are readable in every language under the sun. What more can be said? Here lies a child, dead 120-some years, a little Santee three-year-old from somewhere along the Big Sioux River just outside of Flandreau, SD. His grieving parents were Christians, probably bilingual, but still Santee enough to want to read the comfort of Jesus’s own words in their first language, which is always, for everyone, the blessed language of intimacy.

When, after a time, the death of a child can actually be spoken of, the story of grief can be told in any language because the horror of an absent child creates a sadness like none other, something realized around the world. I stood there in the wet grass of a country churchyard on Saturday morning, an old white man, as if no time had passed, no culture crossed, as if all around me were gathered the goodly saints of RiverBend Presbyterian, a whole cloud of witnesses.

There’s not much more to say than what’s here and readable on an old weathered stone that’s lying in peace in the graveyard of an old church up on a slow hill outside a small town in eastern South Dakota, a stone tipped over by age and relentless Great Plains season, but still marking the grave site of a little boy who died when he was just three years old.

No matter what language, what culture, what state, in a very real way, it seems to me we’ve all stood there.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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