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Pilgrims Among the Diné

‘Being the church’ on the Navajo Nation

Shiprock, N.M.—Pawn shops and trading posts boasting the best in Native American artistry hug the edge of Diné Bikéyah , or the Navajo Nation, a 17-million-acre expanse that weaves together the beauty of the high desert, an ancient culture, and, despite daunting poverty, dreams for the future.

From his office at the Four Corners Native American Ministry, Rodney Aist D’92 can see beyond convenience stores and gas stations to the craggy neck of an ancient volcano. The Navajos call it Tsé Bit’a’í , or “winged rock,” a daily evocation of the great bird that delivered the tribe’s people to their ancestral homeland. Since the 1870s, U.S. mapmakers have called it Shiprock.

For Aist, who arrived as director of this United Methodist ministry in 2008, such landmarks hold special significance. During 1996-97, he spent a year visiting holy sites and Christian ministries in 20 countries. Later, during breaks from graduate study at the University of Wales, where he earned an M.A. in Celtic Christianity (2002) and a Ph.D. in theology (2008), Aist walked 800 miles of Spain’s Camino de Santiago. His doctoral research on Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem before the Crusades included a research fellowship at the W.F. Albright Institute for Archeological Research in East Jerusalem, and in addition to Israel and Wales, he has lived in Denmark, Germany, and Scotland.

After years of pilgrimage to holy sites across many cultures, Aist, 44, fully appreciates the significance of Tsé Bit’a’í , or Shiprock, which generations of the Diné have looked to as sacred, resisting efforts to open it to hikers and rock-climbers. For them, the land of their ancestors, of their traditions and of their culture, defines their place in the cosmos. For Aist, the Navajo’s struggle to honor and preserve their homeland resonates with parallel struggles among indigenous peoples around the world.

“Before leaving Jerusalem for the Navajo reservation, I had more than one person point out to me the interesting parallels between the two contexts,” Aist says. “Both Zionism and Manifest Destiny have used the reading of a sacred text by a dominant political culture to justify the acquisition of land and the subjugation of human rights.” Some in Jerusalem, says Aist, believe that the United States is reluctant to respond to the Palestinian question because of similarities that can be raised with the treatment of American Indians. 

That treatment includes five centuries of an often brutal history, from the Spanish conquest to Manifest Destiny to unemployment and crystal meth. Among the 165,000 Diné who live on the reservation, half are unemployed. Most jobs are with government agencies, and most of the income is spent beyond tribal borders. (The closest town is Farmington, N.M., an oil-and-gas rich area where the largest employers are BP America and Conoco. Among Farmington’s 48,000 residents, nearly 75 percent are Anglo.) Navajos are more likely than the average American to die of diabetes, suicide, homicide, pneumonia, or influenza. The alcoholism death rate eclipses that of other Americans eight to one.

Bound by these realities, Aist and Heather Bishop D’09, a US-2 missionary with the young adult programs of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries, seek to walk faithfully with their brothers and sisters through this grinding litany of needs. The questions, Aist acknowledges, far outnumber the answers. 

“What should the role of Christianity be today?” he asks. “What should a mainline denomination look like here? You’ve got a broken society—kids engaged in drugs, generations of alcoholism, diabetes, sexual abuse. If we believe in Christianity’s power to transform lives, then this is where we are called to be. But how are we called to be here?” 

One thing that is clear to Aist is the imperative of reaching beyond the pulpit with a boots-on-the-ground ministry that addresses issues of social justice and basic human needs. “Anglo-Europeans have destroyed a lot of native cultures in the name of ‘civilization’ and Christianity,” says Aist.

‘Becoming more’

Beyond the deck of Aist’s house, a gentle rain—what Navajos call a “mother rain”—is falling across a neighborhood filled with satellite dishes, feral cats, and roaming dogs. Inside, Bishop and Aist talk over coffee about what drew them to the reservation.

“The opportunity to practice the Methodist traditions of hospitality and social justice here was intriguing,” Aist says. He was appointed to Four Corners by Bishop D. Max Whitfield, who had once served as Aist’s district superintendent and knew his background in, and commitment to, cross-cultural ministry. Throughout his spiritual journey, he says, “I’ve been interested in hospitality