The 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation—stretching across parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah—has surpassed New York’s per-capita COVID-19 infection rate. Among a population of around 175,000, the Navajo people have registered 5,250 cases of COVID-19 and 241 deaths.
While states scramble to respond and reopen, Christian ministries are among those turning their attention to the unique needs of the Navajo, who have less access to basic resources like utilities, the internet, grocery stores, and hospitals, with just four inpatient facilities on the reservation.
Carol Bremer-Bennett is positioned well to lead the charge. The only Navajo at the head of a US evangelical organization, she became the national director of World Renew—the international relief and development agency of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)—after a career as an educator at a Christian school for native students. In the classroom, Bremer-Bennett said she learned to see the God-given potential in every child and help “eliminate as many barriers and obstacles and challenges in the way.”
That attitude has shaped her approach to development work, pushing her to see the opportunity that lies within a community that may have been held back by injustices of the past. As she turns her attention and relief efforts to her former and ancestral home in Navajo Nation, she is rallying the church to join along.
Besides the CRC, other denominations operating in Navajo Nation have joined in to help. Franklin Graham visited last week to meet Navajo President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer and distribute supplies. He offered to set up a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital.
Bremer-Bennett talked with Megan Fowler about her “Esther moment” as World Renew addresses the challenges facing the Navajo.
Tell me about your background. Did you grow up in the Christian Reformed Church?
I did. I’m Navajo, and my clans are To’aheedliinii and Todich’iinii. To’aheedliinii is the Water Flows Together Clan; Todich’iinii is the Bitter Water Clan. As an infant I was adopted. My biological parents determined that they were not going to be able to raise me and wanted me to be adopted into a Christian family. I was adopted, and then I was raised by Dutch CRC people who are not Navajo.
I grew up mostly in West Michigan. When I graduated from Calvin College, I wanted to connect into my Navajo heritage, so I moved out West, not exactly knowing what I was going to do. The Lord brought me into education and to Rehoboth Christian School [near the Navajo Nation in Gallup, New Mexico], which had been started in 1903 by Christian Reformed missionaries. I spent 25 years there.
How are you keeping in touch with Navajo communities as they bear the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic?
I am part of different Facebook groups where we can hear updates, and some private message groups. Some of it is phone calls and emails back and forth.
Now that I’m in the position that I’m in, I had to come to this Esther moment, where I thought, “Okay, Lord, I’m the leader for World Renew US that responds to crises, and this is obviously a crisis hitting my own homeland. How am I supposed to use the power, the responsibility, and the access that you’ve given to me in a way that it doesn’t feel like I’m just advocating because the Navajo are my people? Is it for such a time as this that you called me into this leadership?”
I did a check with my leadership staff and asked them if it was all right if I use my connections and the people I know and the connections I have as the director of World Renew to bring these worlds together. And my staff said, “Absolutely, you do that.” God put these things together for this time, so I’m going to let the Spirit flow and let God do his amazing work, and if that’s through me then all glory to God.
What are you hearing from your contacts among the Navajo right now?
I’m just hearing a crying out. The tears are hitting that red soil that I love so much. I’ve done my fair share of walking at daybreak and feeling like there’s a heaviness and an extra-oppressive weight on indigenous people.
I hear the crying out of how up to 40 percent of Navajos still don’t have electricity still and up to 30 percent don’t have running water. When people are left behind in development, this crisis exposes those injustices so much more. You’ve got people who have to haul their own water and yet are being told, “You also need to wash your hands so many times.” Now you’re choosing between water that you need for drinking, cooking, and your livestock, and also then for making sure that this virus stays at bay. You’ve got kids who can’t go to school and yet have no access to the internet and to remote ways of learning.
Then I hear the stories of loss. I’ve heard about 175,000 live on or near the Navajo nation. It seems quite remote, but within those homes, the Navajos have such a strong family connection. You live with a big, intergenerational family group. When the virus comes through one person into a family, they’re not very isolated. One of the huge griefs is just how the beauty of that close-knit family is being ripped apart because of the virus. Oftentimes, families only have a couple of vehicles, so you all pile in together to go to places. Even for the testing, you end up taking a whole bunch of people with you. And it’s very, very hard to isolate, both culturally but also economically.
I also hear of just amazing strength and messaging. We have an incredible president of the Navajo nation, President Nez, and Vice President Lizer, who are both Christians. They are trying to make really good decisions and model how to wear masks and how to be safe, and are really out there, but also shutting things down. The Navajo Nation has had several weekends now where they’ve had 57-hour curfews starting Friday night all the way through Monday morning, where everybody is being told to stay home and to stay safe. So I’m thankful for that.
But I’m also hearing from my friends who work in the hospitals in Gallup just how maxed out they are. They converted the Miyamura High School [in Gallup] into an overflow field hospital for COVID patients. One of my friends is the chaplain at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, and the nurses and the doctors are testing positive [for COVID-19], and they didn’t have enough nurses and doctors on staff already. And at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, they only have six ICU beds there. It’s just devastating to me.
In Navajo, things happen in circles, so our joys and our sorrows are closely tied in our hearts together. I hear about the hospital where the other staff of the hospital said, “We can sew masks. We can sew the personal protective equipment. We don’t have enough gowns but we have lots of the bedding that is disposable,” so they made this assembly line. Navajos are very adaptive people. It’s really great to see the innovations and the coming together that happens when a community is in crisis.
You mentioned that President Nez and Vice President Lizer are Christians. What place does the Christian church have among the Navajo?
I have heard that up to 60 percent Navajos would say that they’re Christians. When missionaries came, as many mistakes as they made in spreading the gospel, the truth can still persevere even when people are using it for power or to colonize or whatever. It’s amazing to me to see how Navajo Christians have sorted through a lot of that and continue to sort through a lot of the message that has been brought, also realizing that the Creator God is our Redeemer and our friend and our sustainer.
Because President Nez and Vice President Lizer are Christians, they’ve had a special insight into how a church can be a center for community outreach and community assistance. Early on President Nez set up a response team called the Navajo Nation Christian Response Team and put someone in charge of helping Navajo churches respond to the needs of their community.
What are some ways that World Renew is responding to the needs in the Navajo community?
World Renew is partnering with [churches], and one of the main collecting and distribution sites is at Rehoboth Christian School. A lot of the money that we’ve been able to raise is going to that location for them to then use and to distribute to people who are in need, especially those that are most remote, most vulnerable and elderly, without the running water, and so forth.
When World Renew goes in and helps in a disaster situation, or even a longer-term community development context, we know that we aren’t going to be there forever. We work and partner with local churches so that people don’t see us, but that people see that light and truth and love of God, and can know Jesus as their Savior.
We’ve also been able to send some personal protective equipment out when that was very scarce. We’re also granting funds to churches. We’ve been working closely with the Reformed Church of America too, who has funded some of our work in the Southwest, to look at how can deacons be those hands and feet of Jesus. How can churches, who are ready and able and working in communities where there are vulnerable populations, how can they help serve?
Are there unique challenges in the Navajo nation that have caused the outbreak to hit so hard?
The Navajo culture is part of the solution and part of what’s going to help overcome the virus. The challenges are things that had been forced upon the people in the past, so some of those injustices—the discrepancy in access to running water and electricity—are certainly hurdles. The great distances are also a hurdle.
There are only 13 full-service grocery stores in all of that 27,000 square miles of the Navajo nation. It’s a food desert. People have to travel a very long way to get to those bigger, full-service grocery stores. Because you’re going a long distance to the grocery store, you’re probably going with a lot of people in one vehicle.
Because of the economic disparity amongst the Navajo, there are higher rates of health conditions that are often paired with economic injustices and vulnerable populations—diabetes, heart disease, and cancers—a lot of different diseases and health conditions that make the Navajo people more at risk for catching the virus but also having a higher mortality rate because of the virus.
How do you want the body of Christ to be praying for and helping Navajos?
During this time of crisis, I would certainly encourage people to donate. There is a huge need, and it’s still climbing. We’re called to compassion. And we can do that, even if we’ve never met that person. If we’re far away from that person, we can engage in their stories.
As Christians, I hope that as the coronavirus goes around the world, that we will realize we have more than enough, and we can be generous—not to become numb but to become even more engaged.
What is your biggest prayer right now and where are you finding encouragement in Scripture?
My biggest prayer is that we don’t have COVID fatigue. When I look to the Scriptures, Romans 8 talks about suffering and how we are called to be in places of suffering but we also realize when we’re in that great suffering, there’s great joy that is coming ahead. And creation is suffering. The red rocks and the sagebrush and the far-and-few-between rivers on the Navajo nation and the mountains, they are groaning in expectancy for that renewal that God promises to us, and God’s children as well, crying out for that renewal. That’s where our hope comes from, that’s where our joy comes from.
I look into Romans, probably Romans 8:24, where it talks about through all that creation and all that groaning, it’s in God’s hope that we are saved. It’s a hope that’s not seen. That’s where our faith calls us to be.