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Pilgrims Among the Diné

‘Being the church’ on the Navajo Nation

the training and experience] to support things like fair trade.”

For all its difficulties, life on the Navajo reservation does hold promise. Navajo jewelers and weavers enjoy global renown for the caliber of their work. In the 1970s, the reintroduction of the Churro sheep—a desert-hardy species nearly decimated by government cross-breeding programs—proved a boon for the weavers, who prize the animals’ lustrous fleece. Although many of the Navajo Code Talkers have passed away, these WWII heroes are revered for developing an unbreakable military code used in the Pacific theatre from 1942 to 1945.

Against these strengths, Aist battles a daily tidal wave of needs: the Shiprock church, built in 1957, desperately needs a new heating and cooling system at a cost of $15,000; attracting young people to lead the church’s future is complicated by language, distance, and lingering distrust; and the persistence of drug and alcohol abuse seems to subvert the gospel message of redemption.

As Aist prepares to preach on a Sunday in August, clouds cluster on the horizon, looking like mounds of shorn Churro fleece—a mix of gray and white with traces of sandy brown. A mission team from Foundry United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, brings the congregation to more than 70, almost filling the sanctuary.

Hanagarne asks the congregation to call out their blessings and prayers. A new granddaughter is on the way. “It’s my birthday, and I invite everyone to share my cake,” says a parishioner. A neighbor has cancer. Farmington foster homes are caring for Navajo children whose parents can no longer afford them. “Pray for my grandson,” a woman says. “We buried his father.”

Aist takes the pulpit, then moves to stand directly in front of parishioners. His sermon begins with the story of Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing of Hiroshima. It was Sasaki’s subsequent death from leukemia that led to a 1958 peace statue in Hiroshima Park. The anniversary of the bomb blast, Aist notes, was the date many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration.

“Since 1945,” Aist says, “the Feast of the Transfiguration has been different. For those who’ve celebrated that Christian feast, the image of Christ in glory on the mountaintop has to be compared with the image of the mushroom cloud.

“But maybe it tells us something that it was dropped on the anniversary of the great feast of hope. All of us have the tendency to destroy and disfigure. God has given us the power to change the world through love or through hate.”

Parishioners accept pieces of bread from Aist and dip them into a chalice held by Hanagarne. As the service ends, Aist and Hanagarne file out, and Hanagarne’s strong voice calls out: “Let’s go be the church!”

Outside, the Churro clouds prepare to unleash a torrential “father rain,” the term the Navajos use for storms so fierce that they often wash out bridges and flood fields of corn. Commerce is picking up at a nearby open-air flea market. On the road to Farmington, vendors are offering roasted lamb, calabacitas (squash), ceremonial corn pollen, and $5 hay bales.

The worshippers spill out of the crowded fellowship hall into the dirt parking lot, sharing birthday cake, admiring the view of Shiprock, and mapping out the week’s construction work. In this place of contradictions, where spectacular beauty meets unrelenting needs, they are threads of hope, joining together, one by one, to weave something new.

Kate Nelson, a former newspaper writer and editor, has written about New Mexico for more than 20 years. She lives in Placitas, N.M.