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Break-dancing Navajo ministers to people of Italy


Growing up among the canyons of northern Arizona, Randall Eric Kee thought all children knew how to climb rocks, handle rattlesnakes, ride horses bareback and drive a truck with standard transmission by age 10.

His world was the Navajo Indian reservation that surrounds the town of Tuba City. Twenty years later, Kee has traded sandstone for marble, the natural wonder of Arizona for the gilded splendor of Florence, Italy.

A graduate of Harding University, Searcy, Ark., Kee, now 30, moved to Europe in 2002 to teach English using the Bible and minister to the local church.

Florence hardly resembles Arizona. Aside from the language barrier, all of the buildings just seem too close together, Kee said.
But the skills he acquired working on the family farm and exploring the mesa near his grandparents’ house have proved useful in the heart of Tuscany.

Kee befriended a group of Italian youths who enjoy break dancing – the hip-hop-fueled craze that swept the United States in the early 1980s. When he wasn’t practicing complex spins and twists with the group in Piazza Della Republica, Kee (left) was studying the Bible with them.

He also joined a judo club and began reading the Scriptures with the club’s owner and other jujitsu enthusiasts.

Kee, who has studied martial arts for 10 years, said he sees parallels between the physical and mental discipline demanded by judo and Christianity.

“You must increase your knowledge if you want to be effective against your opponent,” he said, whether that opponent is “sin, the devil, demons … worldly things.”

REBIRTH ON THE RESERVATION

For Kee, adjusting to life in Italy was no less of a culture shock than adjusting to life outside the Navajo reservation.

Navajos constitute the second-largest tribe of American Indians in the United States, behind the Cherokee, with a population exceeding 269,000. Nearly 25 percent are unemployed, and about 42 percent live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census. More than 30 percent lack plumbing in their homes.

The few missionaries who live among American Indians say that the reservations are among the most under-served mission points in the world. Paul and Ann Ghee, who built the Tuba City Church of Christ to serve Navajos, host youth and college groups for short-term missions on the reservation.

Though raised by Christian parents, Kee didn’t consider baptism until age 19, when he encountered a mission team from the Ham Lane Church of Christ, Lodi, Calif. Youth minister Ken Shackleford baptized Kee in the freezing waters of the Colorado River. Paul Ghee began studying with the young Christian and encouraged him to become active in the Tuba City church.

Kee said he was impressed by Ghee, who has worked patiently since 1987 among people who rarely trust outsiders.

“One thing he told me that has stuck with me for a long time was that getting a chance to preach the Word to a nation other than your own and overcoming the culture barrier is an accomplishment,” Kee said.

AN UNEXPECTED STOP IN SEARCY

After high school, Kee attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. He earned an associate’s degree, but remained unsure about his future.

His love of road trips convinced him to drop off a friend at Harding University before heading back to Arizona to work as a substitute teacher. Harding recruiter Glenn Dillard met Kee and saw an “unbelievable talent in art, specifically pencil sketches,” Dillard said.

After a visit to the art department, “I ended up staying,” Kee said. “I had $150 in my pocket – just enough money for gas and food for the trip back home.”

Dillard, now the school’s director of enrollment management, remembers that Kee “called home from my office and had his parents send his clothes and personal belongings to Harding.”

Paul Pitt, professor of art at Harding, said Kee displayed a high degree of maturity. “There were occasions when he was stressed, and to feel better he would borrow one of my flutes, go into the art gallery, which has a great echo, and play his stresses away,” Pitt said.

In Pitt’s sculpture class Kee developed the skills to craft his own Native American flutes. Today he sells them, along with original oil paintings, on his Web site to raise funds for his mission work.

MINISTERING IN MICHELANGELO’S HOME

During his years at Harding, Kee worked with teens at area Bible camps and preached sermons during visits home to Tuba City. He completed his bachelor’s in art in spring 2002 and moved to Italy in October as part of Avanti Italia, a two-year missionary program in Florence.

As the home of one of Kee’s heroes, Michelangelo, Italy seemed like a good choice, he said.

In addition to teaching English through the Florence Bible School, Kee and his Avanti Italia teammates worked with the 60-member Florence Church of Christ.

Italians rarely meet American Indians. “We are almost mystical to them,” Kee said, “so approaching them (is) the easy part.”

Asking them to study the Bible is more difficult, but Kee said he’s been able to steer the conversation from Native American culture to what he calls “the big picture of eternity.”

Gary Williams, who oversees the Bible school with his wife, Jennifer, said Kee is one of the ministry’s most dependable workers. “Gifted with a gentle spirit and a tender heart, Eric is often one of the first to help resolve conflict or serve those who need special help,” Williams said.

Kee completed the Avanti Italia program, but “a lot of work I was doing there was unfinished,” he said. After raising funds in the United States earlier this year, he returned to Florence, where he hopes to stay for at least two more years. The Ham Lane church oversees his ministry, but Kee continues to seek support.

“I don’t know what God has in store for me,” he said. “Every plan I have made has been altered by one of those curve balls that God likes to throw at us from time to time.”

SEE KEE’S ART ONLINE at erickee.chiesadicristo.org

  • Feedback
    I am very proud of the work my niece Ann and her husband Paul have done in Tuba City.
    Annabelle Lawrence
    Vultee Church of Christ
    Nashville, TN
    USA
    June, 6 2013

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