‘Not a white man’s religion’
MESA, Ariz. — "Fry bread! Fry bread! Mutton stew! We’ve got…
Three months after they were baptized, Evan and Crystal Todachine endured terrible suffering. Their 18-month-old son, Chase, contracted bacterial meningitis and died within a week.
“This just doesn’t make any sense,” Evan Todachine thought at the time.
But rather than give up on their newfound faith and return to the traditional practices of their people, the Navajo, “we had to make a stand,” he said. “We continued to hold on to the promises found in God’s word, continued to read the promises. God provided a lot of resources for us.”
Now the Todachines — who worship with the Salt River Church of Christ in Mesa, Ariz., where Evan serves as assistant minister — want to share their resources with American Indian communities that are suffering their own terrible losses from COVID-19.
They also want to share their faith.
“We have the peace, we have comfort, having gone through a tragedy like this,” Todachine said. “Our people have to know this peace and this hope.”
The pandemic, which has claimed nearly 1.3 million lives worldwide, found fertile soil in Native America.
The virus disproportionately affects American Indian communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In May, the Navajo Nation, which spans more than 27,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia) across northern Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, surpassed New York state as having the highest per capita infection rate in the U.S. Recently, officials announced “uncontrolled spread” of the virus in 34 of the tribe’s communities.
Poverty and other factors contribute to the danger on American Indian reservations, Todachine said. Poor diet has led to diabetes and heart disease, which are risk factors for COVID-19 complications. There’s a lack of health care infrastructure.
American Indian families tend to live in large, multigenerational groups, making it difficult for those exposed to the virus to quarantine.
Even handwashing can be a challenge, the minister said. About 30 percent of the population of the Navajo Nation don’t have running water, CBS News reports. Many homes are without electricity.
For generations, Native American communities have struggled with unemployment, domestic violence, depression and suicide.
“Even pre-COVID, these things had already created this dim blanket over the reservation,” Todachine said. Now, “they’re just overwhelmed with this darkness. Folks are restricted to just their homes. Fear … has really overtaken the people, and, unfortunately, it has bled over into their spiritual wellness.” For many, “there is no light at the end of this tunnel.”
The Salt River Church of Christ has about 75 members, most of them Native Americans — Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Paiute, Sioux and Salt River Pima.
Related: ‘Not a white man’s religion’
The church was planted in 2013 to serve American Indians who leave the reservations to find jobs in the Phoenix metro. Many of those who are baptized on the reservations have a hard time fitting in with the city’s congregations, and some fall away, said minister Josh Austin. He and his wife, Divine, planted the church to serve those believers “and anybody and everybody that God puts in our path,” he said.
The church’s members have been impacted by the virus — especially those with family on the reservations.
The congregation has marshaled its resources to help, scouring the shelves of Sam’s Club and other retailers to find canned goods, bags of flour, Ramen noodles, hand soap, bleach and scarce items like paper towels and Clorox wipes.
In the early days of the pandemic, as some Arizonans began to hoard these items, “sometimes we had to rub elbows with folks and say, ‘Hey, we need this more than you do,’” Todachine said.
Church members load the items onto flatbeds and make trips to the American Indian reservations. In addition to the supplies, the Christians distribute Bibles, correspondence courses and invitations to join the congregation online for worship. Even in communities without ample electricity, many people have access to cellular data.
During the summer months, members of the Graymere Church of Christ in Columbia, Tenn., assisted in the relief efforts. Kelley Loveless, a science teacher at Columbia Academy, a Christian school, made the trip with her husband, Jeff, and their two daughters. They helped distribute aid at the meeting places of Churches of Christ in the communities of Many Farms and Kayenta in the Navajo Nation and at the White Mountain Apache reservation.
Jeff Loveless helped teach Bible classes via the Zoom teleconferencing program and baptized a woman.
“We were basically two strangers, with our daughters, from the other side of the country,” Kelley Loveless said. The Salt River church welcomed them like family, she said.
“It was very eye-opening to see what was happening on the reservations,” she added. “Basic supplies that we don’t even think about were scarce or nonexistent. We strove to serve in God’s name and show his love, his light.”
In the communities they’ve served, Todachine said, “the mood is so very dark that any glimpse of light is just such an encouragement.
“I can’t help but believe that God, even in the darkest moments, is able to use people to shine his glory and his hope and his message.”
To find peace in the midst of the pandemic, “we’ve got to zoom out,” Todachine said.
He wasn’t referring to the Zoom Bible studies he conducts on Facebook, but to the big picture he sees in verses like James 1:2: “Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
“We understand that life is temporary,” he said. “It is not fair, and we know the ruler of this world is Satan.”
Realizing that his citizenship is in heaven, he said, helped him and his wife cope with the loss of their son. Since Chase’s death in 2014, the couple has brought three daughters into the world.
The minister finds solace in the example of King David, who also lost an infant son and mourned bitterly, but continued to be faithful to God.
“I can’t bring my son back; that’s out of my control,” he said. “But what can I control?”
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