No one was quite aware of the significance of Pastor Byron Buffalo’s presentation at the Nebraska Conference United Church of Christ Annual Meeting last June would become. The pastor from Bridger, South Dakota — a very small, Lakota congregation in the Dakota Association of the South Dakota Conference UCC — presented about the horse ministry that he had developed to reconnect at-risk young people to their Native American heritage and themselves.
In a few short years, he reached more than 20 at-risk young people by introducing them to the traditional Native healing practice of horse riding. All year, the young group rode with Byron on Sundays after church services at Bridger UCC and throughout the week to prepare for the annual ritual of the Wounded Knee Memorial Ride — an arduous ride in which young people and adults ride horses from Bridger to Wounded Knee in the cold and snow from Dec. 22-29 to commemorate the 1890 massacre of the Lakota people at the hands of the U.S. Government.
“To me it was important [that] we learn about each other,” said Sue Shear, chair of the Nebraska Conference Board of Directors and part of the Annual Meeting planning team that invited speakers from the three conferences that make up the Tri-Conference Ministries (TCM) staffing collaborative — Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Then the unthinkable happened. In July, Buffalo died of a sudden heart attack while he was preparing for a ride with his young people. The devastating loss, felt most acutely by the young people, the churches and community he served and his widow and ministry partner, Toni Buffalo, had ripple effects through the South Dakota and Nebraska conferences and the wider UCC.
“I think of him often, as does my husband, Stan,” said Beth Peterson, secretary of the Nebraska Conference Board of Directors and member at First-Plymouth Church UCC in Lincoln, NE. “I pray for his wife and family and hope that the ministry will continue in his absence. I have told many others about his ministry.’
Rev. Dustin Bartlett, president of the TCM Board and pastor of Custer Community Church in South Dakota, noted the power that Buffalo’s presence had on the gathering in a short amount of time. “His spirituality was palpable in any space he was in,” Bartlett said. “He was a quiet man, didn’t talk real loud or real fast, but he was incredibly engaging.”
After Byron’s sudden death, grief overwhelmed the horse riding group, but they resolved to continue. A few young people and Buffalo’s son-in-law, Ruben Washburn, have shouldered the work once undertaken almost solely by Byron Buffalo.
“His heart was in that ministry,” said Toni Buffalo.