Carrying the Light: A Week with the Navajo

carrying the light, lit candle in hands

High in the Colorado Plateau in New Mexico sits a small chapter of the Navajo Nation, one small dot in the more than 27,000 square miles that contain the land of the Navajo people.

The government issued houses stand in clusters, connected by dirt paths that can barely be called roads. A drive down these roads takes careful maneuvering around car-swallowing potholes. 

During the day, the landscape is both daunting and awe-inspiring. The sparseness of the land is reflected in both the ever-present dirt and the poverty of the people living on it, which is contrasted by the magnitude and beauty of the mesas that surround the community.

But at night, quiet darkness covers the houses. You can feel the presence of the mesas towering over you in the distance and, without the distraction of city lights, the stars overwhelm the sky. Lights flicker out of house windows and the one grocery story, but the streets are quiet.

stained glass

On this particular night, the lights are on at the church, housed in a hogan-style building, down a treacherous dirt road. If you were to venture near the church, it’s likely that the warm glow eminating from the windows, the smell of frybread, and the sound of drums and singing would draw you in closer.

That’s the point – to draw in Native people. We want to walk together, because inside this building is the future of our Native Ministry.

A Week of Culture Exchange

For a week in October, Lutheran Indian Ministries came together with the Navajo.

The purpose was not to lecture or teach or deliver a message and leave. It was, instead, to share cultures and offer this little corner of the Navajo Nation a place to belong and share their stories of pain and trauma, as well as their walk with Jesus toward healing.

For five nights, the Navajo people exchanged food and traditions, songs and crafts, with LIM staff from Alaska and Wisconsin, representing the Inupiaq, the Cherokee, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Pawnee, and a special Alaska-residing Navajo, and trained in trauma related counseling.

From the outside, it can be hard to see Native Americans as anything but a large, homogenous group, but each of the 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse. There are tribes that have been enemies for centuries and those that have been allies for generations. But across the country, cultural sharing between distant Native communities is rare. Most Navajo don’t know how the Inupiaq dance or what the Nuu-chan-nulth eat, but they want to know.

So each night: a different food, a different culture, a different story.

In the past, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Navajo, New Mexico hosted similar gatherings to allow the people of the chapter to come together and talk about issues in a safe setting.

“We always have a good turnout, and people are given the opportunity to share and help each other,” explained Tim Norton, Vicar at the church. “But the hurts are so deep and everyone has them. It’s great to be able to come together and carry each other’s burdens, but when there’s nothing uplifting, it can be exhausting for everyone.”

Culture brings happiness and a sense of pride.

“We want to help Native men, women, and children to put on the full armor of Christ (Ephesians 6:11-17), but before they can do that they must first take off the cloak they are wearing – the cloak of pain and distrust – the cloak they put on when they were abused as children and has since covered their lives with darkness,” explained Tim Young Eagle, LIM Director. “By first sharing their culture, they begin to let down those barriers. They begin to trust again, and that’s when the Holy Spirit can begin to work in their hearts."

Navajo children singing

Tim continued, "It was amazing to see all of the kids. They are learning their native language and can sing their songs, and when they do, their faces shine! They have such a pride in who they are, and that’s an amazing foundation to build upon.”

So build, they did.

With each evening’s new cultural exploration came a story. A story of a Native Christian man or woman, proud of their heritage but hurt by the intergenerational trauma that plagues nearly every Native family. All had suffered through physical or sexual abuse as a child. All had struggled with a way to cope, and all had found healing and grace through Jesus Christ. When they were finished, there was an open invitation to the crowd to speak in private or to the group. Many did.

Everyone has a story

The struggles with abuse, addiction, and suicide are not exclusive to the Navajo people. Across the nation, families need a space to tell their story to properly trained individuals and start the process of healing through the work of the Holy Spirit.

One man recently took his first step out of the darkness.

For the first time in his life, he rose and shared with a group that he had been abused and neglected as a child by a close member of his family. The abuse had lasted for years, but he was told to never speak of it. To do so was disrespectful and shameful.

After years of abuse, this man turned to alcohol to cope with his anger and confusion. And eventually, he became an abuser, like so many victims do.

old man

It was at this point in his story that he turned to his family, who had accompanied him to the gathering and were visibly shaken by the story and confession they had just heard, and he asked for their forgiveness. Three-generations hugged and cried together, consoled each other and discussed how to move forward. When they left that night, they looked different - they were filled with a new hope.

This broken family is starting over. The years of mistrust will take time to heal. They will fall as often as they rise, but the healing has started.

Beyond his family, this man is now a leader in his Native community having taken his first step out of the darkness.

Building Leaders

Lutheran Indian Ministries has long spoken of “Building Native Leaders,” but our leaders are not your typical, stand-on-the-pulpit, direct-the-troops leaders. They are men and women who have committed to breaking the cycle of abuse and addiction in their families and their small communities.

As Rick McCafferty, LIM staff in Anchorage says, “Being a leader means being willing to share your story and help others to do so. We were told lies as children, especially those who were abused: you are not worthy, you are not qualified, you are not okay as you are. But by telling our stories, we bring the evil of our past into the light, and we open our hearts and allow Jesus to do His work.”

Ephesians 5:13-14 says:

But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

When we give hurting individuals a safe space to tell their story at gatherings like the cultural exchange on the Navajo Nation, their hurt is no longer hidden within the walls of a house or the confines of a heart. Once that hurt has been exposed to the light, God can do amazing things with it. He can heal it, and he can use it to His glory. He can mend broken families and repair relationships.

Rick continued, “When someone feels truly seen and truly heard, they can finally feel truly loved, and they can finally understand that God loves them too much to leave them where they are. That’s when real leaders are created, and that’s when we start to see the amazing power of our great God through the hands of ordinary people.”

Going forward

The Native American people have a great pride matched by an unbelievable pain. Nearly every family in every community knows the pain caused by physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, and suicide.

This pain is often hidden within the four walls of a family home and passed on to each new generation. And each generation responds like that last, more abuse, more addiction, more suicide. They put their hope in the wrong things and the wrong people.

 We want to change that.

We want to give them back their voices and walk alongside them. We want to help them to bring these hurts into God’s light and watch Him take control.

Jesus tells us: “Everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.” (Mark 4:22 NLT)

We are carrying His light into the world, exposing the darkness one Native community at a time.