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Pilgrims Among the Diné

‘Being the church’ on the Navajo Nation

past 2,000 years, believes that effective cross-cultural collaboration, especially between historically dominant cultures and indigenous groups, requires a new paradigm.

The shift from paternalism to a model that supports self-determination and empowerment—from ministry to others to ministry with others, in deference to the indigenous culture—“can still ignore the critique, evaluation, and discussion necessary for a strong and honest partnership. We’ve got a long ways to go, but I’m open to the idea that something new could take place.”

What won’t take place, Hanagarne insists, is a synthesis with native practices.

“In my opinion, you can’t have Jesus Christ sharing the beliefs of a medicine man,” he says. “In the church, we do not allow medicine men to preach. We will allow them to conduct funerals, but with no pipes, drums, or smoke.”

A Tribal Divide

That stance is at the heart of reconciling traditional spiritual beliefs and Christianity. Each day, Lorena Lynch, director of the ministry’s thrift shop, tries to help her fellow Navajos navigate this tribal divide. For her, it’s personal.

“That’s why I’m without a husband today,” she says. “When I accepted Christ, that was what I wanted for myself and my kids. But my husband was not ready for that. Finally, he went his way.”

A native of Sanders, Ariz., Lynch attended a government boarding school and found her way to Methodism as a 15-year-old at a small mission church. She left the church as a young adult but returned to her faith in 1976, when her oldest daughter began having problems and the Navajo Mission School in Farmington offered a solution.

While she rejected tribal religion, her Navajo identity is expressed through her artistry as a weaver, a tradition she learned as a child helping herd sheep.

“We prepared our own wool, carded it, and that’s what I did when I was with my sheep,” she says. “My mom, she made a living off of it, raised a lot of sheep, sold the lambs, sold the wool. In those days, it was a must that a girl learned to weave. Now when I weave, it’s a relaxing thing to do. You sit there, you pray, you talk to your God.”

At the thrift shop, dubbed by customers the “Navajo Wal-Mart,” Lynch turns prayer into action.

“I know the Lord has put me here to work with my people, to listen to the people’s problems,” Lynch says. “They come, they want you to pray for them, to listen to them. I’ve had a lot of time praying with people in that fitting room over there.”

Lately, Lynch—whom Aist calls “the matriarch of our ministry”—has been counseling a young woman who yearns to learn more about Christianity, but fears the reaction of her family, which follows tribal religion.

“It’s a very tough situation,” she said. “But I tell her ‘There’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible. Just read it. Everyone should read the Bible. It opens your eye.’”

While Hanagarne builds a bulwark against native traditions, Lynch draws a more delicate line.

“Some Navajo people have been told, ‘You can’t claim anything that has to do with the traditional way of life; you can’t even go to the Shiprock Navajo Fair.’ But I go.”

Lynch has attended powwows and the yeibichei ceremony, a nine-day healing ritual. But she makes clear that she is an observer. “We don’t participate,” she says. “We come back and go to church the next day.”

For Aist and Bishop, that delicate line holds promise. Episcopal denominations on the reservation have blended traditional religion into their services, but for now, the congregations of the Four Corners ministry aren’t. “It’s important to me that people have freedom of choice regarding Christ and culture,” Aist says.

‘The power to change the world’

Creating a viable economy on the reservation will require many changes, says Aist, among them more jobs and job training, and the growth of fair trade. Best business practices for supporting these changes are not typically part of a theological education.

The formation that Bishop received at Duke, he adds, is more geared to these issues than his was in the early 1990s. For Bishop, the grounding she received in courses that included issues of social justice such as access to health and nutrition supported her grant application for Faithful Feasting.

“We’re not business people,” says Aist, who looks toward mission groups whose members could bring that expertise to the reservation. “The Christian community can really benefit by having dedicated lay people [who have