SOUTH DAKOTA: Brother brings Taizé experience to diocese, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

November 1, 2010

Brother John of the Taizé ecumenical monastic community in France made a historic first visit to the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota Oct. 20-24, meeting with Lakota elders in Rapid City, spending time on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, participating in services at Calvary Cathedral in Sioux Falls, and teaching a world religion class at the University of South Dakota.

His five-day, 800-mile tour covered one end of the state to the other, and also included public meetings and prayer services at Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, and Roman Catholic churches.

"Brother John's visit worked as a catalyst to get different church groups, ages, and cultures together in an unusual and wonderful way, completely in tune with the Taizé mission of reconciliation among Christians," said the Rev. Rita Powell, coordinator for youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of South Dakota.

Powell, vicar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Vermillion, made the invitation for the visit last year, when she led a group of college students to Taizé. The group included Tyson and Tyrone White, of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, who are active in their local congregation and at the diocesan level. The Taizé focus on reconciliation and justice resonated with the young Lakota men, and discussions with the group led to the invitation to visit South Dakota.

"When you look at the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians were always visiting each other," said Brother John, who is the group's representative to the United States and Italy. "It is a way to spread the good news of the gospel."

Powell knows the power of Taizé in reaching young people. Each year, up to 100,000 people under the age of 30 visit the ecumenical community to spend time in Bible study, prayer, and communal work with the brothers. "The Taizé experience is profound, especially for young people at a crossroads in their spiritual lives," said Powell. "For many, it makes the difference whether or not they choose an active Christian life."

The Taizé community, which was established in 1940, has become known for its signature style of worship -- meditative prayer, simple music sung in repetition, and a period of silence to contemplate the presence of God. Brother John says it evolved as a way to involve speakers of different languages in a common worship experience. He says that young people began visiting Taizé on their own, and emphasizes that the community is not a "movement. We are simply a community living as a witness to Christ as best we can."

The community was founded during World War II in the tiny French village of Taizé by Brother Roger Schütz, a Swiss-born son of a Protestant minister. One of its first acts was to hide Jews and other war refugees. It now includes more than 100 brothers from 30 countries living according to a Benedictine style of daily life. The community is uniquely ecumenical, with brothers of Roman Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

Born in 1950, Brother John is a native of Philadelphia and he joined the community in 1974. He travels in the United States and Italy for meetings and retreats with young adults, and is the author of eight books on Biblical topics. When in Taizé, he helps young people learn to read to the Bible to find meaning for their lives. He visited New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before finishing his travels in South Dakota.

"This is a place where interactions mean something," Brother John said of his time in South Dakota.

Powell, a native of Massachusetts, agrees. "Something very unusual and exciting is going on in the Diocese of South Dakota. There is a rich diversity of people who come together in the Episcopal Church in a way that is unique in the state, and I believe, the whole church. I wanted Brother John to see that, and the Taizé community to know about it. We are blessed by his visit."