WATERFLOW, N.M. — This is America, sure.
But it’s a whole different world out here on the Navajo Reservation, a 27,000-square-mile patch of desert and mountain terrain covering parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Beer bottles line the sides of highways — evidence of alcoholism and despair among the 250,000 Navajos who call the reservation home. The unemployment rate hovers at 50 percent.
“They can’t get jobs because they’re alcoholics, and they’re alcoholics because they can’t get jobs,” said Oleta Whaley, a missionary with her husband, Ray, at a Navajo church in Montezuma Creek, Utah.
When Joe and Sherri Lyons first moved to Shiprock, N.M., to serve as Navajo missionaries, she was concerned that they had no dishwasher. “Then we started visiting members, and they didn’t have indoor plumbing,” Sherri Lyons said. “It was a shock.”
Such is life on the reservation, where many Navajos still live in traditional round houses known as hogans, some without electricity.
Mention foreign missions to most Christians and they think Africa, Central America, maybe even Asia. But Andrew Felps points to a different spot on the globe — to an American Indian nation the size of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Navajoland, it’s called. Or Dine Bikeyah, as the Navajos refer to it.
“It’s pretty much Third World conditions,” said Felps, a Fort Worth, Texas, church member who has made dozens of mission trips to the reservation. LOST SOULS
To Felps and other supporters of Navajo ministry, the math is simple: 250,000 lost souls in need of Jesus.
Churches of Christ have had a presence on the reservation for more than 40 years. Nonetheless, their influence remains tiny in a world with its own ancient religious traditions -— a world distrusting of white man’s culture.
It’s a world where traditional Navajos see certain mountains as sacred and engage in religious ceremonies designed to show respect to Mother Earth and the Great Spirit. Some traditional Navajos come out of their doors at sunrise and toss a bit of corn pollen in the air, blessing the coming day.
“Most Navajos prefer the medicine man or the peyote religion,” said Bruce Terry, a former Navajo missionary who is chairman of the School of Biblical Studies at Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.
“Navajo religion is built around the idea of harmony with the world,” Terry said. “It is primarily concerned with keeping physically healthy. I think I said more prayers for sickness there than in any Anglo church I have worked with.” PLANTING GOD’S SEED
The oldest Church of Christ serving the reservation is the Hogback congregation in Waterflow, a town of 789 people about 50 miles south of Cortez, Colo.
A few dozen Navajo men, women and children meet each Sunday at Hogback, which sits on a dusty, grass-starved strip of dirt just off the reservation. The old white church -— a one-time Air Force barracks — holds nine wooden pews that fill a rectangular-shaped auditorium with paneled walls, blue carpet and a small pulpit.
Church members, most of whom speak Navajo and English, alternate between hymns, prayers and Bible readings in their native tongue and in — as some see it — the white man’s language.
At potluck fellowship meals, one is as likely to see Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets as homemade Navajo fry bread, which can be drenched with honey or piled high with meat to make an Indian taco. Many of the men wear bolo ties handcrafted by Navajo silversmiths.
“Sometimes, we become impatient because the church is not growing,” Phillip James, Hogback’s native Navajo minister, told the congregation on a recent Sunday. “We just have to wait for God to give the increase.”
The seed for ministry on the Navajo Reservation was planted in 1965, when a school of preaching was opened at Hogback on property bought by the Cortez Church of Christ. The school was short-lived, but the church survived and played a role in the planting of eight other congregations on or near the reservation.
Those congregations, most with Sunday attendance between 15 and 30, meet at Shiprock; Crownpoint, N.M.; Fort Defiance, Ariz.; Kinlichee, Ariz.; Many Farms, Ariz.; Kayenta, Ariz.; Tuba City, Ariz.; and Montezuma Creek. Fifty miles or more separate most of the Navajo congregations, leaving vast expanses of the nation’s largest Indian reservation with no Church of Christ.
“There’s a quarter-million people on the Navajo Reservation, and the vast majority of them have not been evangelized,” said Jeff Foster, minister of the Cortez church, which remains the sponsoring congregation for Hogback’s mission work.
But Navajo missionaries stress that ministry on the reservation can’t be judged solely by numbers.
In some cases, they say, it takes years — even decades — to win Navajo converts.
“The Navajo are a deeply spiritual people, and their traditional ways are deep-rooted,” said Bud Paine, a missionary with the Navajo church in Kinlichee. “It takes time to teach them of God’s love.
“You must show them that your entire purpose is to share the Word, and treat them with love and respect,” Paine added. “You can’t come across as someone who is here to save the Indians.”
Paine, a former U.S. Navy shipboard firefighter, volunteers with a Navajo fire department. “It is a great opportunity to be involved in the community … and to have an opportunity to meet many folks and talk to them about the Lord,” he said.
The Kinlichee church, which Paine said has 10 faithful members, also helps poor Navajos by offering them coats, boots, blankets and food. Moreover, the church has a shower house that it makes available to Navajos who live in hogans without running water.
Everett Eyer, an elder with the Northwest church in Phoenix, brings work crews to Kinlichee about twice a year to do repairs, painting and building projects. Many other churches from across the nation send youth groups to conduct Vacation Bible Schools at the Navajo congregations. But going house to house to win converts is not an option, Eyer said: “To suddenly appear at someone’s house and knock on the door is considered to be extremely rude.”
Felps, a member of the Mid-Cities church in Hurst, Texas, estimates he has brought more than 1,000 Christians to the reservation over the years.
Those church members have helped with work projects, medical clinics and other short-term mission efforts.
Navajos who convert to Christianity can find themselves expunged from the society and even ostracized from their families, Felps said.
“This is a worthwhile work, but it’s going to be slow,” Felps said of Navajo evangelism. “You can’t come in here and say, ‘We’re going to have a three-day gospel meeting and have 50 baptisms.’”
But J.B. Harrington, a former longtime Navajo missionary who is minister of the Eastside church in Farmington, N.M., can’t help but see progress: Native Navajo ministers now serve four of the nine congregations.
“From such a small beginning, God has done great things,” he said.