GALLUP, N.M. — It’s past 9 p.m. on a Sunday when Norman Chee Atchison, a housefather at Manuelito Navajo Children’s Home, goes to tuck in 3-year-old Monica.
When Atchison and his wife, Cathy, step into Monica’s room, they find her and two older girls on the floor playing.
“Girls! You’re supposed to be showered and in bed already, lights off,” Cathy says, reminding them of school in the morning.
The white hair bow and blue denim dress that she wore to church that night replaced with purple pajamas, Monica crawls under the covers beside a stuffed Mickey Mouse that shares her pillow.
Norman kneels beside her bed and prays, as he does every night.
And he smiles, ever cognizant of the remarkable faith journey that brought him back here — to this patch of desert and mountain terrain where he was raised — after what seemed like a lifetime away.
“When I graduated from high school, I said I was never going to come back to Gallup,” said Norman, 49, a full-blooded Navajo Indian who saw no future for himself in a land of broken dreams.
“I guess the good Lord had other plans.”
BABY’S NEW HOME
Manuelito Navajo Children’s Home began in the late 1950s as an outgrowth of a Church of Christ preaching mission on the Navajo Reservation, an American Indian nation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Navajo families steeped in poverty and ravaged by alcoholism started bringing their children to live with the American missionaries, even though most adult Navajos did not trust the white man enough to accept the Gospel.
The reservation encompasses 27,000 square miles. It’s the size of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Beer bottles line the side of highways — evidence of alcoholism and despair among the 250,000 Navajos who call the reservation home.
A Texan named L.D. “Vernie” Atchison and his wife, Norine, moved to Manuelito, a Navajo town west of Gallup, to work with the children’s home in 1961. L.D. Atchison soon became the home’s superintendent.
At the beginning, the home consisted of two cinderblock buildings in poor repair, with bare concrete floors and no indoor plumbing. Men and women from the Gallup Church of Christ stuccoed the buildings, laid tile flooring and installed inside bathrooms.
In the winter of 1962, a 16-month-old Navajo boy named Norman Chee came to live with the Atchisons.
Skinny and malnourished, Norman might not have made it through that winter, he said, if not for the Atchisons rescuing him.
Norman’s mother had died, and his father drank heavily. A grandmother cared for him, but other relatives were concerned about him and his siblings and asked the children’s home to take them. However, the home needed the father’s permission, and he resisted at first.
“My nana was screaming at him in Navajo, giving him a what-for,” Norman said, recalling the account shared with him by Norine Atchison. “Finally, he shook his head, and my aunt said, ‘Go get them.’”
GRUFF HEART OF GOLD
The Manuelito home leased its original location from Santa Fe Railroad — a site not for sale.
When 23 acres west of Gallup became available for $11,000, L.D. Atchison went on the road and raised money from churches in New Mexico, California and the Texas Panhandle.
In 1964, the home moved to its present location, where it expanded to 37 acres and houses children in seven-bedroom cottages. Perched between Interstate 40 and historic Route 66, the home is about 140 miles west of Albuquerque. The interstate and nearby railroad tracks make for an all-night harmony of tractor-trailer rigs and trains.
At one time, more than 70 boys and girls lived at the home.
Today, the ministry cares for 15 children in two cottages, plus a few pregnant girls and young single mothers and their children.
The decline can be attributed in part to improved living conditions on the reservation, although many Navajos still live without running water, said Jim Christian, the home’s superintendent.
Besides providing residential care, the children’s home operates Gallup Christian School. About 45 students from kindergarten through 12th grade study reading, writing, arithmetic — and Bible.
Joel Peterson, a longtime Gallup Church of Christ elder, worked with L.D. Atchison to build the first cottages on the permanent site.
“Vernie and I were real close. He was just a good, solid Christian man in every respect,” Peterson, 82, said over lunch at a Gallup cafe as craftsmen drifted from table to table and sold Navajo souvenirs.
“A young preacher said, ‘When you talk to Vernie, he’ll seem kind of gruff. But underneath is a kind old man who’ll do anything for you,’” the elder said. “I think that was a real good description.”
MEMORIES OF THE ROAD
As a boy, Norman Chee enjoyed nothing more than traveling with the man who became his father.
A treasured black-and-white photograph shows Norman wearing a brand-new cowboy hat and boots that two church ladies in Texas bought him on one of his dad’s fund-raising trips.
In another photo, he and his foster brother Lee sit on a table in front of a big display for Manuelito Navajo Children’s Home at a Bible lectureship in Oklahoma.
It had been raining, and Norine Atchison, now 90, was trying to keep the boys out of the mud. That night, a lectureship speaker praised the home’s “live display.”
In a 1964 cover picture on a newsletter called “Along the Navajo Trail,” Norman and other children pose in front of a 48-passenger GMC school bus.
Individual church members and congregations had donated 2,700 books of S&H Green Stamps to purchase the bus.
“Navajo Children’s Home — Church of Christ,” said the black letters on the side of the bus.
As a teenager, Norman went to a Navajo government office and filled out paperwork to unofficially “adopt” the Atchisons as his parents. He placed a notice in the Navajo Times and changed his name to Norman Chee Atchison.
Norman recalls that L.D. and Norine — “Dad” and “Mom” to him — always treated all the children in their care as their own.
“That’s what love is all about, what family is all about, what caring for one another is all about. Dad wanted the kids to know what a home was like,” Norman said of L.D., who died in 1988.
“He didn’t want it to be known as a foster home. He wanted to treat it as a home, just like your home, your family.”
TRIALS OF HIS LIFE
Norman grew up going to church. In junior high, he accepted Jesus as his Savior and was baptized.
But after high school, he left home and moved to Texas. He drifted away from his faith.
Like many of his fellow Navajos — including people close to him — he started drinking heavily.
He used drugs.
He married, had kids and divorced.
In short, he wrecked his life.
The realization hit him when his Navajo half-sister died of alcohol-related causes and he gained custody of a niece. When the girl ran away, Norman found her. But she refused to come home.
“I’m tired of you coming home drunk,” she told him. “I’m tired of taking care of you. I don’t love you anymore.”
That experience caused something to snap in Norman. He began rebuilding his life and has been sober for 17 years, he said.
Later, he met Cathy, also a divorcee, and they married seven years ago. They were attending the Lewisville Church of Christ, north of Dallas, when they learned that Darrel Henderson from Manuelito Navajo Children’s Home would be making a Sunday presentation. The Atchisons invited Darrel and his wife, Beverly, to lunch.
“Are you guys hiring houseparents?” Norman asked, much to the shock of his wife. At the time, Norman worked for a sign shop. Cathy was a medical assistant.
A few weeks later, Norman and Cathy traveled to the home to deliver a U-Haul full of supplies donated by a closed church.
They walked around campus and visited with Merle and Annette Roehr, who have served 19 years as houseparents. Like Norman, Cathy started feeling a nudge to take the plunge.
She said she can’t explain it, “other than God moving me.”
Or as Norman put it, “You never know how your life’s going to end up or where God’s going to put you.”
‘HOPE FOR A BETTER FUTURE’
These days, Norman and Cathy care for a houseful of children, including Laramie, Michael, Heather, Tisharae, Brandon, Everett, Monica and Norman’s biological son Daniel.
At Gallup Christian, Norman teaches art and physical education and coaches basketball.
Cathy maintains the home’s clothes closet, organizing donations and preparing excess items for delivery to the reservation.
Reminders of Norman’s Navajo heritage fill the Atchison cottage.
Authentic Navajo arrowheads decorate shelves. Indian paintings cover the walls. A Native American mat hangs over a portrait of L.D. and Norine.
Before a Sunday night dinner of Italian meatball sandwiches — topped off with a dessert choice of blackberry cheesecake or peach cobbler — Norman, Cathy and the children hold hands and thank God for their blessings.
Most nights, they read a Scripture and talk about it.
Yet some of the children believe in skinwalkers — people with a supernatural ability to turn into any animal they desire — and other aspects of Navajo religion.
“I try to encourage them to keep their language, to keep their culture,” said Norman, noting that Tish and Laramie speak Navajo in addition to English.
“But by us being here as Christians, we have a responsibility to teach them God’s word, to let them make that choice of what the separation is” between Navajo culture and the Christian life.
“When you see them get baptized,” he added, “they’ve made that decision, and you feel like you’ve done your job. But the job doesn’t stop there.”
Norman has baptized a number of children since his return to the home in 2007, including Tish. Laramie accepted Christ this summer at Four Corners Christian camp.
“Norman knows the full range of emotions these kids deal with,” said Jeff Foster, the home’s development and church relations director. “Since he’s Navajo, he understands the culture, the history and the people.”
At the same time, Foster said, “He is extremely laid-back, just a very easygoing guy. He cares passionately about this work, and he’s basically invested everything in it. He and Cathy both have. They’re very spiritual, very humble and ideal, I think, for taking care of kids.”
Norman doesn’t hesitate when asked why he came back.
“To give back what was given to us,” he said. “Mom and Dad gave their lives to make sure that we were able to have a life. That’s what this home is all about — to give the kids hope for a better future — and I’m grateful for that.
“That’s why I came back.”