By Suzanne BuzekJohn Heim, S.J., vacations a little differently than most people. While others pick an exotic place, perhaps a beach, and then plan to do next to nothing for the week, Heim, the director of the Music Series spends a couple weeks in the summer covering for priests in dioceses around the country. The arrangement gives those priests a chance to get away so that they might come back to their home parishes refreshed and renewed. It also gives Heim the chance to explore different places.
“I will find a city or a region that is of interest to me, and I will write to the diocese in that area, offering my services to be a sort of substitute if there are any priests in the area wishing to go on vacation for a week or two,” says Heim. “It’s not like I’m looking for work, but it’s a nice way to get out of town for a while.”
Not surprisingly, quite a few priests jump at the chance to have someone take care of parish matters for a week or so. As a result, Heim has found himself in Mississippi, New York City, Miami, Los Angeles and Rapid City, South Dakota, to name just a few of the areas he’s served.
“Mississippi was an interesting place to work in and visit,” Heim says. “I got to see the area where William Faulkner grew up in Oxford while I was stationed in New Albany, and I talked to people who actually knew him personally.”
While New York City, Miami and Los Angeles were “repeat cities” for several years, Rapid City is another repeat city for Heim, as he worked primarily on the Native American reservations for four consecutive summers.
“Something about the churches and the way of life out there is just so simple,” he says. “I was very taken by the Indians themselves because they are such a nice group of people to work with.”
The Native Americans—the Lakota-Sioux tribe in particular—made quite the impression on Heim. Even though the populations on the reservations are dwindling as younger people move out, the tribe still celebrates its rich heritage and national pride in daily life.
“Working with the Lakota-Sioux tribe on the reservation, I learned that they are very intelligent, yet oppressed,” recalls Heim. “The problem is that since some of them do so well in school, they are in line to get jobs and work in the bigger cities. Once they leave the reservation, they probably won’t come back, then the reservation is poorer for their loss.
“I don’t know what the future of the reservation is,” Heim continues. “There are a lot of people, a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, just things that are disturbing.”
A community outreach group built a new recreation center for the reservation, but the grand opening was postponed because someone had broken in and stolen all of the copper wiring out of the building. Heim and the community members were frustrated and confused.
“We didn’t know what to think,” he says. “It just didn’t make any sense at all, but these people who are angry might look at our lives and think that they don’t make much sense either. It‘s just frustrating for people who are trying to do something positive, and then it is ruined.”
In spite of this instance, the overall quality and spirituality of the tribe’s members are what Heim remembers most.
“They have so much pride in their heritage and in combining Christianity and their traditions. At St. Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit church out there, around the altar, instead of a rug, they have a huge bearskin. And they have all kinds of special sage or natural scents that they burn during Mass, kind of in keeping with their own national or tribal pride.”
Heim’s immersion into the Lakota-Sioux culture—complete with seeing the ongoing 40-year sculpting of the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial—is not his only experience substituting for a predominantly ethnic group of people. He has ministered a Quinceañera for a Mexican church in Indianapolis, and through the American Jesuits has taught English to Jesuit scholastics in Krakow, Poland. On the surface, Heim’s presence may just seem like that of a surrogate priest, but underneath it is about helping a community and enriching its special uniqueness, no matter the type of parishioners or location.
“I’ve found that these people I’ve come into contact with are interested in the Church, and that they have all of the religious problems that anybody would have, whether they are in a big city or on a reservation,” he says. “It was an eye-opener for me to see all of that.”