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On the Salt River Pima–Maricopa reservation, served by the Salt River Church of Christ, hand-painted messages of encouragement are painted on a roadside barrier.
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A roadside on a Native American reservation near Mesa, Ariz. | Photo by Erik Tryggestad

Fighting for souls, and lives, in Native America

Teen suicide is an epidemic, especially among American Indians. A Church of Christ responds: ‘No matter how dark it might seem right now, there is hope.’

MESA, Ariz. — Arlinda Lee remembered the old medicine man’s words: A baby, yet unborn, would suffer from “a problem with her mind.”

Arlinda Lee

Arlinda Lee

He made the prediction during a Navajo healing ceremony for her husband, Nate, after a car wreck. She was pregnant with their third child, Celeste, at the time. 

Fifteen years later, those words haunted her as she sat by Celeste’s hospital bed. The teen, in the throes of bipolar disorder, had tried to kill herself.  

But faith in Jesus sustained them through the ordeal, said both mother and daughter.

So did notes of support from fellow believers.

On a recent Saturday night, Celeste Lee, now 18 and sporting partially dyed hair and a Misfits T-shirt, spread handfuls of greeting cards across a coffee table in the family’s living room. On the walls of the suburban home, east of Phoenix, hung Navajo tapestries, Hopi figurines and the teen’s pencil sketches, proudly displayed by her parents. 

In her family’s home, Celeste Lee shows a few of the many cards — encouraging her and congratulating her for graduating — she has received from Christians.

In her family’s home, Celeste Lee shows a few of the many cards — encouraging her and congratulating her for graduating — she has received from Christians.

Some of the letters were from members of the family’s congregation, the Salt River Church of Christ. Others were from Christians she’s never met. Each was a lifeline of hope when she felt hopeless.

She’s not alone. Every year 157,000 youths ages 10 to 24 are treated in emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. American Indians and native Alaskans have the highest rates of suicide of any ethnic group in the U.S. — more than 3.5 times that of groups with the lowest rates.

For all teens, regardless of race, the problem is getting worse. 

“I don’t even know how I did the stuff that I did … how I could go through what I did and still come out alive.”

The percentage of hospital visits for children attempting or planning suicide nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics.

For Celeste, prayer, counseling and medication have helped. 

On her phone, she pulled up an app that tracks her progress — 149 days sober. Looking back “I don’t even know how I did the stuff that I did,” she said, “how I could go through what I did and still come out alive.”

‘WHAT DID WE DO WRONG?’

Celeste Lee grew up going to church. Her mother first encountered Christ in the courtyard of a trailer park in Tuba City, Ariz., on the vast Navajo reservation. There, a Church of Christ hosted a Vacation Bible School. Arlinda Lee rode the JOY bus to worship (an acronym for serving Jesus, others and then yourself) and was baptized at age 12. A few months later, her mother and father followed her example.

At one point in her life, “I had gone away from church a little,” she said. Suffering from depression, she underwent a nighttime Navajo ceremony in which her friends blackened her body with ash to hide her from evil spirits. A medicine man chanted prayers of protection before she was washed and covered with yellow cornmeal.  

“It was kind of like a baptism” she said, but the effects didn’t last.

Later, she attended the healing ceremony for her husband, Nate, where the medicine man made his fateful prediction.

At home, Celeste Lee flips through a sketchbook of her artwork.

At home, Celeste Lee flips through a sketchbook of her artwork.

Many of Arlinda Lee’s cousins were as young as 17 when they had children, but she was 33 when Celeste was born. “A lot of my friends were already grandmothers,” she said.

Celeste was bright, talkative. She loved to read. In kindergarten, she won the Navajo Nation spelling bee. A year later, her teachers skipped her ahead from first to second grade. 

That’s when the bullying started.  

“They put me in a supply closet,” Celeste Lee said.

Mesa, AZ, USA

She persevered — and excelled. She played trumpet in the school band. Then her family moved to Mesa, where her mother got a job as a clinical laboratory consultant. They worshiped with the Sun Valley Church of Christ in Gilbert, Ariz.

As Celeste started high school, “I noticed that her moods were swinging … and she was showing anger, anxiety, depression,” her mother said. “She’d be awake, awake, awake and full of activities.” And then she’d crash.

“One second I could be fine,” Celeste Lee recalled, “and then the next second I would be having a panic attack for no reason. My brain was, like, constantly looking for things to make it feel better.” 

The sun sets on the suburban neighborhood in Mesa, Ariz., where Celeste Lee and her family live.

The sun sets on the suburban neighborhood in Mesa, Ariz., where Celeste Lee and her family live.

She tried marijuana. She tried cutting herself. The pain forced her forgot the turmoil “for a couple of hours, or for like a second,” she said, but then it all came back. 

It always came back.

So, at age 15, she swallowed handfuls of antidepressants, sleeping pills and her mom’s prescription stomach medication, attempting to end her life. She spent a week in the hospital on suicide watch. 

“I tried to be strong in front of her,” her mother said, “but I would go home and cry and pray.”

Her father struggled to understand what was happening to his little girl. 

Growing up, he had been taught that Navajo men “are part of the sky, the universe,” he said, and “the women are in the house; they’re part of the earth. There was no interaction, even in the household.”

As she watched her daughter suffer, Arlinda Lee did her best to “let God take over,” she said. She read through the book of Job and prayed for answers.

“I was trying to figure out, what did we do wrong?” she said. “Why is this happening?”

‘WE KNOW IT’S A LACK OF HOPE’

About five years ago, the Lees started worshiping with the Salt River Church of Christ — a congregation planted in Mesa to minister to Native Americans living in the Phoenix metro and the small reservations nearby.

Worshipers from at least five different Native American groups, including Navajo, worship with the Salt River Church of Christ in Mesa, Ariz.

Worshipers from at least five different Native American groups, including Navajo, worship with the Salt River Church of Christ in Mesa, Ariz.

Josh Austin, the church’s minister, is a second-generation missionary to the Navajo. He grew up on the reservation and knows about the temptations young Native Americans endure. 

High rates of poverty and unemployment, combined with a lack of access to mental health services, are factors in the suicide epidemic, he said, “but ultimately, we know it’s a lack of hope. If I don’t know Christ, what do I live for?”

The specter of youth suicide “is everywhere,” said Austin’s wife, Divine. “Kids that we don’t even suspect would have depression issues or suicidal tendencies do.”

Josh and Divine Austin

Josh and Divine Austin

One of the church’s first converts, Evan Todachine, now serves as assistant minister. A Navajo who grew up on the reservation near the Four Corners, he understands the despair.

“You’re living in a world that’s saying you have got to seek material wealth, you’ve got to seek physical blessing, and that what makes you happy,” he said. “Well, if you grow up in a state where you don’t have running water and electricity to begin with, chances are you’re not going to reach those mountain peaks that you see on billboards and in magazines.”

In communities plagued by domestic abuse, alcoholism and homicide, “If there is no God in the picture, it makes sense to end my life,” Todachine said, “to forgo all of that pain.” 

‘IT HURTS, BUT WE KNOW WE’LL BE OK’

In recent years, Native American communities have developed surveillance and prevention programs, one of which resulted in a nearly 40 percent reduction in suicides among the White Mountain Apache tribe, east of Phoenix, researchers found.

Yet the epidemic remains. 

Todachine believes that the love of Jesus and the sense of purpose he’s found in the church can help save his people. But even for Todachine, the grandson of a Navajo medicine man, sharing his faith with young Native Americans is difficult. Many are quick to note the atrocities done to their people in the name of religion.

So Christians here seek to build personal relationships with the people they serve, through door-knocking campaigns and volunteer work in Native American communities. They distribute House to House/Heart to Heart, an evangelistic magazine, and “Letters 4 Life.”

“No matter how dark it might seem right now, there is hope,” reads the letter, printed on cardstock. “Life is precious, and our Creator gave His Son to die so that we might have life.”  The cards include contact information for the congregation and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Church members add personal messages.

Crystal and Evan Todachine

Crystal and Evan Todachine

Todachine and his wife, Crystal, draw from their own grief as they minister to the hurting. Three months after their own baptisms in 2013, their 18-month-old son, Chase, contracted bacterial meningitis and died within a week.

Rather than abandon their newfound faith, “we just held on to the promises in the Word,” the minister said. Despite the pain, “underneath everything is peace, joy, all the stuff the Bible talks about, and we’re OK. 

“It hurts, but we know we’ll be OK.”

‘GOD WAS THERE FOR US’

Aaron Sayles

Aaron Sayles

In addition to the letters from her congregation, Celeste Lee got messages of support from across the nation. Aaron Sayles, a member of the Salt River church who teaches the teen class, contacted about 150 of his fellow alumni from Southwestern Christian College — a historically black college in Texas associated with Churches of Christ — and Oklahoma Christian University. He shared the teen’s story and asked for prayers and encouragement.

“I thought African-Americans had it rough,” said Sayles, who is black. “Native Americans have had it rough, too. There is a close relationship. We feel together, and that’s really nice.”

“I just wish people would not be afraid to speak up about what they’re feeling.”

Notes Celeste Lee received from a Southwestern alum named Gwen were particularly touching, she said. As she read and reread the letters, her mother read book after book on understanding bipolar disorder.

“I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and start learning about the sickness,” Arlinda Lee said. “I learned what her triggers are, what her moods are. I kept a diary. I graphed it on my computer.”

And even in the darkest hours, she kept worshiping with her church.

“Arlinda has been a rock,” minister Josh Austin said. “You can tell that she had nothing else besides God.”

Things are better now. Mother and daughter and know each other better, though they realize they will face challenges in the years ahead.

“I actually lost a friend to suicide a year ago,” Celeste Lee said. “I just wish people would not be afraid to speak up about what they’re feeling.” 

She understands that “you’re afraid you’re going to set the wrong impression, afraid you’re going to get hospitalized again.”

Her mother can never forget the medicine man’s prophecy all those years ago. But neither can she forget the almighty, benevolent Savior who has stood with her family through their trials.

In December, Celeste Lee graduated from high school — resulting in more cards of encouragement. 

“It was really nice at graduation to know that God was there,” Arlinda Lee said. “This is how he had planned it. And he has plans for us.”

Celeste Lee and her friends hold hands during a closing prayer at Salt River.

Celeste Lee and her friends hold hands during a closing prayer at Salt River.

Recently, a friend at a group therapy session told her: “What happened to your daughter is a way of her saving your whole family.”

Nate Lee remembers his bright little girl as a toddler — sitting in her car seat and singing the McDonald’s jingle every time they passed the golden arches.

Now she’s singing again. 

“Sometimes I’m sitting at my desk and I can hear her,” he said. “She’s got a voice like her mother’s.”

Filed under: American Indian Churches of Christ and suicide National Native American Christians Native American Churches of Christ Native Americans and suicide News suicide teen suicide Top Stories

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