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Pilgrims Among the Diné

‘Being the church’ on the Navajo Nation

as a counterpoint to pilgrimage.”  

“It’s been wonderful for me to be able to enter into this Native American world,” Aist says. He relishes the time spent worshipping in Navajo churches, the Diné sense of humor, the ubiquity of southwestern cuisine.

Bishop, 26, with tattoos for the Hebrew words shalom (peace) and menuha (rest) on her arms,  received her calling while doing mission work in Jamaica, where she served in a hospital. Her witness of “love moving in the presence of fear” changed her life, she says. Her call was clarified by the realization of “my holy discontentment. You have to find what you ‘can’t not do.’ Now, I can do nothing but this.”

Since arriving in Shiprock a year ago, she has worked closely with the ministry’s day care center while supporting fair trade, new opportunities for youth, and improved child and family nutrition and health.

Bishop applied for and received grant funding for Faithful Feasting, a food and nutrition program at the day care center. “Shiprock is kind of a food ghetto,” she says. “On every side, you’re pummeled with Burger King or KFC.” The new program includes once-a-month food education with hands-on cooking lessons that emphasize choosing fresh, healthy ingredients to help combat obesity and diabetes.

“Being in right relationship with each other involves everything from how we eat to how we spend money,” says Bishop, who found courses at seminary that stressed the gifts of food, creation, and community. Encouraging people to purchase food locally rather than driving off the reservation to shop in Farmington, she adds, supports the Navajo economy and decreases the area’s carbon footprint.

In addition to her time in the garden, which provides produce for the day-care center, Bishop works closely with Navajo youth, and has taken high school students to visit colleges.

“The wonderfulness of it is the ‘becoming,’” she says. “I’m never going to be Navajo, but I’m a little bit more Navajo than I was. I will always have mutton-and-green-chile memories, fry-bread memories, hearing myself called an ‘albino cousin’. I can only be more Navajo than I was because they allow me to be.”

This hospitality is a measure of grace. The scars are still evident from the Long Walk of 1863-64, when the tribe was forcibly marched to the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico— Hwééldi, or the ‘place of suffering’—and held captive until 1868. Within a generation of their return to their land, the federal Civilization Fund helped establish boarding schools throughout Native American lands. In many cases, children were taken from their families and forbidden to speak their native language. (See “ A Bitter Legacy .”)

Frank Hanagarne Sr., 78, senior pastor of the cinder-block, 20-pew Shiprock UMC, was born in Shiprock and attended the Methodist Mission School from 1937 to 1949. He was baptized there in 1941. 

“One of the things they developed in me was punctuality,” says Hanagarne. After stints in college and the U.S. Army, he worked in the mining industry before returning to Shiprock in 1995. He became active in the church and is a firm believer in its power to change lives. “We’re here to save souls, be a lifesaver,” he says.

Change Agent

Thirteen years ago, Terry Matthews D’78, G’90 joined a mission group traveling to the Navajo reservation. The landscape he saw during the drive from the airport in Albuquerque, N.M.,  across the high desert to Gallup touched a spiritual chord that resonated within the senior pastor of Maple Springs United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., and he has returned to Four Corners at least once a year ever since.

“I realized early on that just going there for a week may assuage a little white liberal guilt, but you had to maintain a consistent approach,” says Matthews, who earned both M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees at Duke. “You had to show you cared over time. They had seen enough missionaries come for a week. The more time I spend there, the more I understand the people and their issues.”

Last summer, Matthews led the first training sessions for pastoral leaders.  “I have to translate Wesleyan theology into the culture of the Navajo, and that’s not an easy thing to do,” he says. “The Navajo language is difficult. It’s a complex culture. The task for Rodney is bringing a sense of coherence to the ministry. He’s a change agent to make that happen.”

Aist, who credits Duke with instilling in him a deep understanding of Christian orthodoxy over the