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 is, for sure, a title worth coveting). It's been "First Presbyterian" for 137 years, "River Bend Church" when it was established here along the Big Sioux River long, long ago.
Read that sign for yourself.
But a church is really no more or less than its people, including the ones out back in the graveyard, where a long history begins to come alive in the outlines etched on the oldest stones.
This one lies in the grass, weathered, but still readable in spots, if you take a few minutes to try.
Look closer. Beneath the dates, the inscription carved into the stone is a familiar line of the gospel one might expect on almost 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 from Luke, in letters I couldn't have read even if they'd been crisp and clear as a morning sky is another wording of the same verse, this one, 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 some stories are readable in every language, because here lies a child, dead 120 years, a Santee three-year-old from somewhere along the Big Sioux River just outside of Flandreau, SD. His grieving parents were Christians, maybe even 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 be spoken of, the story of grief can be told in any language because a beloved child no longer is an absence that is realized around the world. I stood there in the wet grass of a country churchyard as if no time had passed, stood there that morning as if around me were gathered the goodly saints of Riverview Presbyterian Church, a whole crowd of witnesses.
There's not much more to say than what's inscribed there in the weathered stone and lichen. It's lying in the graveyard of an old church up on a slow hill outside a small town in eastern South Dakota; and it marks the grave site of a little boy who died when he was just three years old, a story on a stone tipped over by age and relentless Great Plains seasons.
No matter what language, in a way, we've all been there.