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.
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 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.
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 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 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.