The Navajo Nation continues to be hit hard by COVID-19. The community has reported nearly 7,000 cases and more than 330 deaths. Leaders have ordered businesses closed on weekends in a community that is spread across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The Navajo Nation’s preexisting conditions like poverty, limited running water, and close living situations make it extra vulnerable to coronavirus.
The lockdowns have made it challenging for people to access the resources they need, says Donnie Begay, who along with his wife, Renee, directs the Nations Movement, a campus ministry that’s part of Cru.
“On the Navajo Nation, there are only about a dozen food grocery stories that cover 27,000 square miles that is the Navajo reservation,” said Begay, who lives in Albuquerque. Many on the reservation live at least an hour away from the border of the reservations and these lockdowns cut them off from the businesses on the other side.
“These lockdowns can be very cumbersome to people who need to drive an hour or more just to buy groceries or necessities and food during the pandemic,” said Begay.
Begay joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the community’s complex relationship with Christianity, why they’re uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19, and how Navajo millennials are making their faith their own.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode 218
Can you give us a deeper, more robust sense of what the COVID situation is the Navajo Nation?
Donnie Begay: Yeah, just to give a quick update, as of June 23rd, 2020, there were over 6,990 positive cases of COVID 19 on the Navajo reservation. Thankfully over 3000 have recovered already. Unfortunately, there are 335 confirmed deaths.
Due to the recent spikes in cases, when things are starting to open up in the state, the Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez had to issue another set of 57-hour lockdowns over the weekend. That's where no one on the reservation can leave or even drive around, to go visit family or to go into town, to buy groceries.
In preparing for this episode, I knew I wanted to reach out to friends who live on the reservation since I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is about two hours from my reservation. So I wanted to make sure I had their voice to update people on what's going on on the reservation.
One of the friends I reached out to is Pastor Jerome Sandoval, and he said during the 57-hour lockdowns, the people become very isolated. And not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. He was reminiscing about when the lockdowns were first lifted a few weeks ago, people just felt this weight lifted off of them.
These lockdowns and curfews can be very cumbersome, especially for people who have to drive an hour or more just to get off the reservation, to buy groceries or necessities. And at one point the Gallup mayor enacted a state law to keep people who don't live in Gallup from even entering the city. This caused a bit of a stir for the people who lived in border towns, who need to go to Gallup to buy certain things.
A good friend of mine, Mark Charles wrote on his blog on wirelesshogan.com, “Every weekend tens of thousands of people from both Navajo and Zuni travel to Gallup to purchase groceries, do laundry and haul water, among other essentials. On the first weekend of every month, because so many people on the reservation live on fixed incomes, travel into Gallup is even more critical as funds grow short and food supplies low. And with almost no notice, the mayor of Gallup and the governor of New Mexico closed access to a critical border town that provides essential services, medical care, and resources to a large portion of the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo.”
On the Navajo Nation, there were only about a dozen grocery stores that cover 27,000 square miles. So border towns are very essential, not just food, but for washing clothes and being able to purchase new cars or to purchase things that people need to be able to live. And most people on the reservation live at least an hour from one of these border towns that offer these necessities.
Can you tell us more about the role churches and Christian organizations have played in the Navajo Nation, as well as their response to COVID-19?
Donnie Begay: The Navajo Nation Christian response team drives to every part of the reservation to deliver food and supplies, either to the chapter houses or to the churches, where [the food and supplies] tend to be funneled into the community. It’s difficult though because there's a huge lack of infrastructure on the reservation. So a lot of people, if they're not connected to the church, are less likely to be able to know that there's resources and foods and supplies available to them.
As for the churches, I don't know any, actual hard data, but I've been to different churches on the reservation. Most congregations tend to be family or people that go to one church are usually all connected or related somehow. The onus of teaching people about the Bible, or even sharing the gospel with other people, tends to fall on family members.
Because of things like VBS, as well as missionaries that come to the reservation, there's a huge influx of the gospel going out. I think most Navajo people would know what the gospel is. I would say 100 percent of Navajo people know who Jesus is and probably know some of the Bible stories and what Christianity is. But I would say that return on actually becoming followers of Jesus is pretty low.
There’s been a very long and fairly painful history with missions and the Navajo Nation. How front of mind is that as people engage with Christianity within the Nation, and as you do your campus ministry work?
Donnie Begay: I think that that history is learned through the home, through stories. So a lot of the history we learn at home aren't necessarily taught in textbooks, especially if we're in the boarding school era, which was very notorious in treating Native people as sub-human.
A good friend of mine tells stories of how she was baptized into different religions and Christian churches during her stint at boarding school. She calls herself a boarding school survivor, not necessarily a boarding school graduate.
And so those stories are still lingering, and people still feel those, so I think then there's that resistance to even listen to what Christianity has to offer, or even what Jesus offers, as a source of renewal and being spirit-filled. That becomes more of a barrier to share the gospel.
Some of the good things that have been happening though is the young Navajo people who are becoming Christian, and are followers of Jesus, they're starting to study scripture through their own Native lens. And it's exciting to see how they're interpreting things like theology, leadership, missions, and even church structure by themselves and not necessarily paternalistically from outsiders who teach them what to believe in and how to believe.
I'm not sure of the numbers of young Native Christians or the young Navajo Christians that are doing that, but the ones I come across are all interested in learning more and being able to teach their own people a more indigenous gospel that might be able to cross those bridges that have been built by things like boarding school, which were government-run but in collusion with Christian churches and missionaries and nuns and pastors.
Can you share some of the ways the younger generation is pioneering some new thoughts around indigenous theology? What are some of the areas where they've shown great leadership and have blessed the Church?
Donnie Begay: In our culture, we look to the elders. And so one of our elders is Terry Wildman, and he's been translating the New Testament to a First Nations version of the Bible. And in his translation, he'll take names of people and what they used to mean in Hebrew, or just to change the name, to make it more applicable to a Native-informed audience. So he'll call Jesus, “Creator Who Saves” throughout the text. And then he'll write the stories in a way that just makes more sense for Native people.
And I've seen, especially younger Native people, look to that translation when they're reading, or even when they're trying to teach something about the Bible to their students or to their friends. So they're willing to take what an elder has created to be able to use in their own ministry.
I think another area I can see that’s happening, especially with the younger people, is in music. I've seen different groups come up with different songs, writing their own songs, about and to Jesus, using things like the drum, or using their own language to be able to sing worship to God.
And they're not afraid of being told they can't do that. Cause that's what missionaries did to a lot of the first Native Americans and Navajo people who accepted Jesus as their savior. That they couldn't use their language. They couldn't bring in their drums. They couldn't use the type of songs they sing for worship to Jesus.
But I think the younger generation is more willing to stand against that and bring those things into the church, as well as into their teachings to friends and within their ministries.
Is there pushback against these types of things? Is there more tension in some nations than others?
Donnie Begay: I feel like it's becoming more pronounced and more people are willing. Cause I heard stories of back then, the older generation going out into the forest and sing songs and use their drums with a Christian theme and to Jesus, but they wouldn't bring that into the church or even let people know that they're doing that.
But after reading Richard Twiss’s seminal book, One Church, Many Tribes, he goes through the whole history of why Native music has been condemned. From his work, I think a lot of people have realized that they can worship Jesus in their own unique way, with their language, or with drums or without, or even how they dance in powwows and they know who they're dancing for. So it becomes their way of doing worship.
One of the challenges of the Church in general on the Navajo reservation is the lack of youth involvement. The next generation who are more than willing to learn and to follow, but if they're presented with only a certain way to do things, I think they'll turn their back.
Cause the next generation, millennials, are obviously very questioning. Why do they have to follow certain rules, certain ways of doing things? And so I think that's crept into the Native mindset. They're questioning why they can't use drums, why they can't sing in their own languages. And I can see them trying hard, engaging with their own communities, trying to learn the language, learning songs that are indigenous to their people, and turning around using that for their own worship to God.
Navajo cosmology is very different than Sioux cosmology or even Hopi cosmology, so as you work with Native youth from a variety of backgrounds, how much is the inculturation of the gospel specific to, for example, a Navajo background, and how much of it is focused on a broader Native American background?
Donnie Begay: So I probably wouldn't frame it around inculturation, but it’s probably more of a realization of how can study and interpret scripture. But also knowing we have our own cosmology as well, so the realization of being able to look to those teachings that are good, essentially, as well as looking at the Bible.
I don't see it as syncretism, or combining the two, but being able to look to spaces, places, stories, or narratives that give good teaching on how to live in a good way in this world. For example, how we interact with mother nature, being able to see it our relative—cause we do get everything from the earth. We get food, we get shelter, we get everything we have. We refer to it as a mother, not as an idol or something to be worshiped, but even in Genesis in the creation story from the Hebrews, man was created from the mud, from the ground. So we literally come from the earth. When we see it like that, it just makes sense in our indigenous eyes.
And that we also have access to the Holy Spirit to tell us which teachings are good, which teachings may not be ideal for how to live in a good way, or even to be more Christlike. And I can't really speak for other tribes—I don't even speak for my own tribe; I can't speak for them. I'm only one tiny speck in all the people that live on the reservation and so I won't even try to speak for other tribes that are engaging in the same conversation.
We talked about some of the challenges concerning socioeconomic status and resources at the top of the show. Can you enumerate more about what the situation looks like on the reservation? What is catalyzing or facilitating this rapid spread of COVID-19?
Donnie Begay: The Navajo Nation has been affected a lot more than other places, even places with a lot more people. Per capita, Navajo people have been exposed to COVID a lot more. Some of the reasons, I think, for the high numbers comes from just realizing the backdrop of Navajo people and culture.
Navajo people have large families. And when I say families, I'm not referring just to the nuclear family, but they care for and are responsible for large extended families. So on the reservation, one of the biggest challenges has been keeping people from visiting their extended families and people who are within their clans. That has been very difficult because they do feel responsible for them.
Like my brother who lives on the reservation constantly is checking up on my parents, and even his siblings, like me. Because there's an obligation that's just built into our culture to care for all family members and not just your own family in your household. And so it’s a difficult job curtailing the virus among people who feel safest when they're with their family.
Because in moments of crisis, like this, people want to be near their family. They want to be near grandma and grandpa or your aunt or your uncles, or even your cousins. So that's been one of the reasons it's led to the higher numbers on the reservation, because Navajo people live life through relationships, and they're even willing to risk catching a deadly disease to help another family member.
Some of the other reasons, many families still lack running water and electricity. And when we hear the public service announcement on TV or social media, the big thing is to wash your hands. But how can Navajo people do that when they don't have access to running water?
And so this pandemic in many ways is just uncovering the systemic issues that have plagued Navajo people for the last 160 years. So the issues of not having enough grocery stores, not having clean water, lack of infrastructure, all stem mostly from the removal from their traditional territory in 1864, then the subsequent return in 1868 to a smaller reservation, where most of their land has had been sold off to outsiders, and the continued broken promises from the government.
In times of crisis non-Navajo people who are inside and outside the church often will just give charity, but in the long run, charity won't fix the oppressive forces that are put on Navajo people. People donate water without asking why don't Navajo people have water to begin with.
What would you say are the church's biggest challenges overall with regards to discipleship and being able to equip future leaders?
Donnie Begay: So I already touched on one already. There's just a lack of engagement with young people. I think when you don't engage with them, once they leave, it's hard for them to come back to that.
And also as I talk and engage with Jerome Sandoval, he said, it's interesting on the Navajo reservation because Navajo congregations usually desire their pastors to be white and not Navajo. And some of the reasons he gave was because they believe Navajo pastors aren't qualified, that they have a lack of perceived qualification because they didn't attend a certain college.
Another reason, he said, was because they believe Navajo pastors don't possess the ministering spirit that white missionaries possessed. And so part of his job has been trying to tell his people that the same spirit that white missionaries, white ministers, rely on is available to everyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus.
What do you think that the American church at large could learn from the Navajo church?
Donnie Begay: I'll defer to my elders, Elmer Jerome. But when I asked him this question, Elmer said, when you present the gospel, there should be no time limit.
He loves the idea of the indigenous time concept that we live in a different time zone than the world. That there's still a focus to get the job done, whatever that may be ministering or reaching out to the community, but it's not done in a frenzy.
And Elmer said with the white churches, there's always an anxiousness to accomplish things. Things like vacation Bible schools that go to the Navajo reservation for one week. They go there with their time perception and believe they'll make a difference in a few moments. But in reality, it takes years to even build trust with Navajo people to be able to teach them the gospel.
Another thing the larger church can learn from Navajo people, according to Pastor Jerome Sandoval, is that we know how to live by the Spirit. We know what living by the Spirit means. That we know the Spirit of the Creator by how we live in and with creation that surrounds us. He goes on to say, we also know the spiritual world is real because of the negative, spiritual side of living on the reservation.
Worship of the creator has always been part of the Navajo culture. Even simple things like sitting in a circle and seeing everyone's face to witness their joy or feel their pain. And it's only then that we can—when we see their face, see their joy, their emotions, their anger, their grief, their sadness—then we can know how to pray for them. That worship needs to be more inclusive.
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