Christmas at the Indian church

I realized today that I didn’t have this old Christmas column on my blog, so I tracked it down on the Mille Lacs Messenger website. It first ran in December of 2001, and I re-ran it in 2009. Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas.

All I knew about my Great-Great Uncle Pete were the rumors that came down via my mom, whose voice dropped in pitch and volume when she mentioned him. “I think he was a drinker,” she said, in tones reserved for black sheep who didn’t fit our family’s mold of church-going and tea-totaling.

Even though I never met him, I caught a glimpse of my ancestor through an old man named Jack Thompson, who told me a story of the Christmas when Uncle Pete visited “the Indian church.”

Back before we had kids, my wife and I were camping in western Minnesota, so we decided to swing across the border to Stockholm, S.D., my Grandpa Elmer’s birthplace. Grandpa died when I was four, so I barely knew him, but I thought a visit to his hometown might add flesh to the skeletons of my memory.

By a chance too slim to be lucky, that Sunday morning was the 110th anniversary of the Covenant church in town — my grandpa’s church. Everyone left alive who might’ve known Grandpa was probably in church that day.

After eliminating two other Elmer Johnsons from the discussion with the church ladies, we finally hit on the right one. Once they knew which Elmer I was talking about, they introduced me to a distant relative, a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to my mom.

That’s when Jack Thompson shuffled into view, with his white wisps of hair standing up in the breeze. You’re Elmer Johnson’s?” he asked, looking through us with eyes glazed by cataracts. “I knew Elmer Johnson.” It turned out that he didn’t just know Elmer, but he also knew Elmer’s mom and dad and Uncle Pete. “C’mon,” Jack said, “I’ll show you where he lived.”

Diane and I looked at each other, then back at Jack’s glassy eyes, then back at each other. We shrugged and followed him to his car.

He took us first to the graveyard and helped us find my great-grandma’s grave. “Mrs. Lewis Johnson” was all the marker said. Then he drove us to the top of a hill, where the fields fell away like the folds of a golden blanket. “This is where the house was,” he said, pointing at nothing. “They had a pie plant that grew right here, along the wall.”

Finally, Jack took us to a small old church surrounded by a chainlink fence. No longer home to any congregation, it was protected because of its historical value. Inside was a guestbook on a wooden pulpit, and old pews facing a barren altar.

“One Christmas,” Jack said, “your Uncle Pete came to church here. He walked in the door, and the Indians were so happy to see him that they escorted him to the front and gave him a big box of apples. They spoke in Indian, so Pete didn’t know what they were saying.”

“Up in the front here,” he continued, waving his hand, “were two Christmas trees covered in blankets. At the end of the service, they pulled the blankets off the trees, and there were rabbits and game birds hanging from the branches like ornaments.”

That was the end of the story. No explanation. No moral. It raised more questions than it answered. Why had he gone to the Indian church? Was it a drunkard’s prank, or a black sheep’s desperation? What were they saying, with their impenetrable language and the mysterious unveiling of the trees?

Jack didn’t offer any interpretations, but it seemed that his questions were the same as mine. After all, the story had stayed with him for all those intervening years.

It stays with me, too, and the answers change with the seasons. Today, it parallels another story I like to read each Christmas, a story about stepping into strange territory, finding welcome in an unlikely place, and reaping a blessing too odd to fully grasp.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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