“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

This verse echoed in my head, deeply unsettling me. So many years of hearing this verse as the thread to tie hope together amidst hardships, trials, desperation was unwinding in a wholly confusing contradiction. What if the light, literally, is being used as part of the problem? What, then, can overcome it?

We stood at the edge of the great Missouri River in the dark, chilly night at The Standing Rock Sioux Youth Council’s prayer vigil. The Council led us here on a two kilometer trek over sacred land with war cries rippling across the different camps and shouts of “Water is Life! Mni Wiconi!” We received tea light candles, and thousands of hands carried the little beacons of prayer. I felt filled by the vibrations of our steps and of their voices.

The group I was a part of stayed close– dear friends from YAGM, Hannah and Gracia; Hannah’s friend and source of good perspective, information and humor, Jace; Jan* with her swelling belly of a baby to be; Jorge*, Jan’s partner, holding their sleeping two year old.

A male voice began to pray over us, a multitude of misfits, hippies, veterans for peace, people thirsty for justice and all of us ready to listen. For water, a source of life. For the generations to come. For the water protectors. For the tribes who have united under one cause. For the DAPL workers as they try to provide for their families.

These were not thin, empty prayers.

Walking with the DAPL lights in the background.

We held the candles with wax beginning to drip on our gloves, our shoes as a woman began to lead us in singing. It was a beautiful song I wish my memory had held in a safe chamber, but alas. As it came so suddenly, it has left.

So why was I so unsettle by the verse in John?

It wasn’t the candle light cradled in our hands. It was the blaring, penetrating, intrusive lights from atop the opposing hill. It was the light blinking from the camera recording us and all activity at the water’s edge across the river.

On land next to the protester camps, across the tops of the rolling hills is a line of abusively bright lights pointed at the camps. They go on before the sun has fully set and burn all night. They make stadium lights pale in comparison, candle lights seem pathetic. Our faces as we stood by the river were lit by these things. The land was never in darkness here and rest was never fully allowed to come by way of night.

Sunset and the lights coming on.

Couple the constant light with the sounds of the helicopters, drones and surveillance planes over the camps flying all night and most of the day. There are so many low flying objects you wouldn’t have guessed this was a government mandated no fly zone. But I can’t speak to how that law works when there are powerful interests and lots of money in play.

As it turns out, this could be understood as a torture tactic called sensory bombardment:

“Sound and light bombardment is used to disorient, cause anxiety, and even contribute to personality disintegration, as well as to deprive the person of sleep.”

This tactic is used to break people down, to wear them out. One of the first things my friends and I noticed as we drove in to the camp was the sense of dazed weariness. At first, I supposed it was weeks living in a rustic camp like setting, working day in and out and trying to fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and all that entailed. After a couple nights there, however, I truly believe a portion is the oil company’s and government’s use of sensory bombardment. Even though we slept in a canvas tent blocking outside light, we still talked and thought about the lights. We still heard and wondered about the planes.

Psychologically, they got to us. They were getting to all of us. Feeling watched big brother style, whispering about suspicions, hearing different accounts of the same things, meeting recent released arrestees from the front line, cursing the drones overhead… It was a sacred, prayerful space but it was not without complications.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

It was unraveling. It was unsettling. It still is. The light is shining and we must be twice as strong, twice as persistent, twice as determined as the DAPL to keep up.

I left that sacred space with more peace than when I arrived. This surprised me but I suppose it shouldn’t have. I learned more about the centuries of oppression we white people have imposed on our native brothers and sisters. More than the pipeline and water, for me this issue is about a step toward reconciliation in this respect. Being with so many people doing just that was uplifting. I learned more about science behind pipelines and oil spills. I learned more about government and environmental policies and processes. But above these things, I experienced the robust communities and their strategies to make this fight sustainable. I found people sacrificing comfort, time, incomes and homes for their brothers and sisters as well as for water in a humbling, caring and commendable way.

People were showing up. Showing up counts.

The literal light is something we cannot look to. But each person I met, each action that was being taken, each prayer warrior praying, each ceremony held… those are the beacons of figurative light which are stronger than any darkness.

*names changed for their privacy.