Between the Lines: The sense of communitas

By David Lias

Things were going so well.

Last week was a busy time in Vermillion, filled with lots of good news. Hard work by community leaders, who had teamed up with state government officials, educators at the University of South Dakota, and private industry, means a new employer is coming to town.

It’s the stuff you want to shout from the rooftops, and indeed, the modern equivalent of that occurred. A press conference was held on the USD campus Wednesday, March 13. The news was so important that Gov. Dennis Daugaard took time from his busy schedule to participate.

The next day was sunny and mild in Vermillion, and it ended with our local citizens entering the Eagles Club with a bit of a spring in their steps to take part in the annual Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company’s banquet.

This event rightfully tends to be a congratulatory, backslapping time. It’s a time for a cross section of our city to gather, to enjoy each other’s fellowship, to review and take stock of where we are and what has taken place in the past year.

It is a time to celebrate the successes that we, as a community, have been able to accomplish. It is a time where we may easily convince ourselves that, yes, we have the ability to control the world we live in.

Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, who grew up in Vermillion, fired up the banquet crowd with energetic, humorous banter.  His talk eventually took a serious tone, as he described how growing up in Vermillion was not easy. His father left town, seeking work, and decided never to come back, writing to his mother that he was divorcing her.

He told the story of how time and again, members of the Vermillion community came to his mother’s aid as she struggled to keep a roof over her family’s heads and food on the table. What could be described as a classic tale of neighbors helping neighbors is a true-life story for the Michels family and the people of Vermillion.

An acquaintance was working that evening at the banquet, taking photos of the festivities. It seemed a bit odd, in the middle of last Thursday’s event, that he apparently left and was replaced with another local photographer.

While good food and boisterous revelry was being dished up at the Eagles Club, a tragedy was unfolding in Sioux Falls. Jay and Lara Wallace of Vermillion and their six children had traveled to Sioux Falls on this welcoming, mild day to enjoy the scenery of the Big Sioux River at Falls Park.

Their youngest son, Garrett, evidently while wandering near the water’s edge, slipped into the icy river. His older sister, Madison, who we have learned in the last week often unselfishly thought of others, did what she had to do.

She went in after him. So did a bystander, Lyle Eagle Tail.

The young lad somehow survived the icy plunge and was able to scramble to an area where he could be plucked, unhurt from the river.

Madison and Lyle perished in their attempt to rescue the young boy.

The absent photographer, I later learned, is a close friend of the Wallace family. He dropped everything so that he and his family could do what ever was humanly possible to help their friends.

One of the purposes of Michels’ speech at the March 14 banquet was to drive home the sense that Vermillion truly is a city whose people choose to work together and in the meantime, care for one another. It’s a spot on the prairie that strives to be a good place to live, learn and have fun.

Michels could not know, nor could any of us for that matter, that this sense of community, this communitas, was beginning to play out in real time as he spoke.

Turns out we can’t control what happens in the world. Certainly good things pop up in our lives all of the time. Yet, there are times when a multitude of bad things happen in a blink of an eye. The dust settles. We find our world is diminished in ways we can neither change nor understand.

I watched Tuesday night as the community said goodbye to Madison at her funeral. I left the church with no new insight as to why bad things happen to good people. I was, however, uplifted with the realization (and this certainly isn’t a first for me, personally) that when really bad things happen, when your life gets tossed on its head, Vermillion is one of the best places to receive the support, the solidarity, the caring gestures small and large, to get back on your feet again.

The Wallace family, in turn, did its best to help our community try to get a sense of the happenings of the past week. Tuesday night they shared this quote from Jenkin Lloyd Jones during their daughter’s service:

“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just like people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, and most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is just like an old time rail journey … delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

To that, all one can say is, “Amen.”

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