In the fall of 2017, Concordia University-Irvine sent a group of students to work and learn in Navajo, New Mexico. Upon returning, they were asked to reflect on their time. This is what one student, named Anthony Draper, had to say:
The mission trip to Navajo in October of 2017 was unlike any other mission trip in Concordia’s recent history. While there were no national borders crossed, upon arrival the team had entered a “country within a country.”1 The Navajo Reservation is only a turn off I-40, one of the main arteries of the southwest, but few travelers turn off the interstate to experience the largest Native Indian reservation in the United States, comparable in size to West Virginia.2
There have been Lutheran missionaries to the Navajo people for over forty years, but the relationship has not always been an amicable one. Mistreatment of the Navajos has led to a deep distrust of the “Anglo Man” and his culture, especially when it comes to religion. This brings out the two main difficulties and challenges in Navajo mission work. Firstly, the missionary must demonstrate that Christianity is not an “Anglo Man” culture. While there are of course American/ European cultural elements deeply embedded in the Christianity that the American missionary is bringing the Navajo, the core of the message is not an anglo one, it is a universal one. Christ died equally for all, including the Navajo people. Secondly, if the missionary is able to present Christianity in such a way that it is no longer seen as an “Anglo Man’s” culture, then the more difficult challenge (and one that the missionary must relinquish control of) is for the Navajo people to discover how the message of Christianity fits in with the Navajo culture. This involves understanding which elements of “Anglo Christianity” are not part of biblical, orthodox Christianity, and also discovering the elements of Navajo culture (including its indigenous religious and spiritual elements) that do not have to be relinquished in order for a Navajo to be Christian. The experience of the mission team that visited in October was that neither of these challenges has been fully resolved; it is, however, an ongoing process.
Preliminary Research of Contextual Issues
The people of Navajo generally speak English, and so there was not necessarily a “language barrier.” There is, however, the native language, Navajo. There are 169, 359 native speakers of Navajo according to the most recent census,3 and there are roughly 170,000 people
living on the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo people refer to themselves as Diné (people,) and their language is known as Diné bizaad (the people’s language.)
Historical Development of the Culture and Any Christian Influence Religious Trends
It is estimated that roughly 60% of the Navajo population continue to practice traditional religious practices, especially because the religion is so closely tied to Navajo culture in general. Another 20% are believed to be involved in some way with Mormonism, although it is generally true that most Navajo do not completely abandon traditional culture, even after conversion. Most Navajos are “associated with more than one religion,” where one of those is usually the traditional Navajo religion and peyotism.4
Existing Christian Mission Activity
This has been a point of tension for some time on the reservation. Historically, Christian missionaries have attempted to strip the Navajo of their customs and beliefs, especially because of how closely linked the traditional religion is to those customs. Through the use of boarding schools, among other means, the “Anglo Man” has not just been disrespectful of traditional Navajo culture, but perversely abusive in the treatment of the children who attended these schools. When the stories of what occurred in those schools are told, they are told with a seriousness not often found in conversation save for those who have experienced great terror at the hands of an oppressor. This has led to a generally negative connotation of Christian missionaries on the reservation.
There are, however, a great many Christian churches on the reservation, most of them quite small, and the denominational fragmentation of the Church translates to an equally fragmented Church on the reservation, largely due to denominational differences among missionaries.
Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church is a fairly unusual mission in this aspect. Pastor Timothy Norton has been there for over four years, and the general perception of the church is one of aid, welcoming, and perhaps most importantly, safety. The Navajo people do not have to be afraid of their traditions and customs when entering this church.
Anticipated Experiences and Goals
Growth in Faith and Knowledge of the Great Commission
This mission trip represented a stark contrast to most of my previous missional experience obtained on the 2016 Around-the-World Semester. On that trip, we really were going and making disciples, as best we could. But on the way to Navajo, I was reminded of Pastor Ruehs’ exposition of the end of Matthew 28, when he said that the verb in the original Greek is not “go” but “as you go, disciple.” This helps me place the context of the Great Commission within one of Christ’s other commands, to love my neighbor as Christ loves me. Søren Kierkegaard writes that “at a distance every man recognizes his neighbour, and yet it is impossible to see him at a distance. If you do not see him so close that you unconditionally before God see him in every man, you do not see him at all.”5 And so my understanding of the
Great Commission has shifted. It is not that we must go, but that we must disciple. We do not have to travel far, for our neighbor is near, and it is our neighbor whom we shall love. When Christ says, “all nations,” I do not mean to ignore this. But our own nation is included in this “all,” and the Navajo Nation is included, also. That is what makes this trip so unique. The Great Commission is being fulfilled in its most literal sense. While we have not needed our passports, we have indeed gone to a nation.
Personal Faith Development
I found my time on the Navajo Reservation to be extraordinarily rejuvenating of my faith, but not in the typical sense. Those who go on short-term mission trips are often thought of having returned with a “new fire” in their heart. This is, of course, to be celebrated, but it is also a dreaded cliché as the fire usually returns to its usual burn within a week or two.
This is what was fundamentally different about visiting the church in Navajo. Despite having gone on a number of mission trips to a variety of locations, serving a variety of people and needs, this trip felt different. I immediately felt a sense that I had to come back before I had any real reason to feel that way.
Understanding the Vocation of the Missionary
Pastor Ruehs, the leader of the mission trip, expressed a number of times that this may be unlike trips that students had gone on before. He explained that we should be ready to let go of any plans we had made if something else needs to be done. “Flexible” was a key word throughout the trip.
In this way, my understanding of the vocation of the missionary was further cemented in the idea that the missionary goes to primarily learn what is needed by the community.
Missionaries who go to a community that they have no established relationship with and put on a “cookie-cutter” type program or VBS that has not been fashioned to suit the particular context or culture can at best only help in a limited way, and at worst, reinforce the stereotype of the “white savior” and set the established missionaries back from the work they are doing.
Throughout the trip, we were essentially extra available persons for Pastor Tim to ask for help with certain needs, along with some organized events, within which a lot of flexibility was required.
What Did You Actually Do While in the Field?
The trip was subject to a number of unique experiences, and I find that three instances in particular capture the essence of the Navajo mission field.7
“Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” - John 8:12
On Saturday morning, Pastor Tim came to the church and asked a small group of us to drive one of the vans to his house in Gallop, New Mexico so that we could load up his truck with firewood and drive to Naabaahii’s8 house on the reservation to unload it. This does indeed sound like a mundane task and is not exactly what one thinks of when imagining missional activity.
However, my love of driving and, perhaps more strangely, firewood, made me the perfect volunteer. I was also the only available van-certified missionary available.
Six of us climbed into one of the vans and followed Pastor Tim to his house, an hour and a half away. Once there, we loaded his truck’s flat-bed with wood, about half an hour’s work. We then drove two hours to the house in need, following Pastor Tim’s truck, watching carefully to see if the wood would spill out onto the highway.
We arrived at the house–a small brick building with no electricity or running water–and proceeded to unload the wood into a pile near the house. Pastor Tim had told us why we needed to bring the wood to her house. Naabaahii has two sons who would usually be helping with these types of family needs, but both of them are addicted to meth-amphetamines (a common problem on the reservation) and are at a meth house “somewhere.” She still took care of her three younger children, all between the age of five and thirteen, and the many cats and dogs that lived with them.
We left them to drive the two hours back to Pastor Tim’s house to load up his truck with more firewood and drove the two hours back to Naabaahii’s house to unload it with the other wood. These many hours of driving gave us time to think about what we were doing. Yes, we were performing a rather mundane task–especially for those not even driving–but it didn’t really seem to matter. Those miles became sanctified by the motivation of our task. For many of us, we either have no need for firewood, or our needs are limited to the luxury of a campfire or the wood-burning fireplace in our house. For Naabaahii and her family, it was the source of light throughout the winter. It was the source of energy. It was how they would heat their home and cook their food. We were, in a small way, bringing life to this family.
Before we left Naabaahii’s home a final time, Pastor Tim told her of the party we were having at the church and of all the different activities we were putting on for the kids. Her children came with us to the church in our van, and she arrived about an hour later, staying until very late.
That same night, there was a significant amount of time that Pastor Ruehs was absent from the party, and he later told the team why. Pastor Tim had told him that a member of the congregation, Adziil,9 was going to leave her husband that night and needed help packing up
things to go live with her sister. Pastor Tim wanted some backup in case her husband came back after drinking and found her leaving, for he had a history of alcoholism and domestic violence.
Fortunately, they didn’t cross paths, but it became clear that missionary work on the reservation involved this type of situation fairly regularly. There is real pain and suffering here that the missionary must, if he is to truly love his neighbor, inevitably become involved in.
The Sunday morning before we left, Pastor Tim led the worship service which was in many ways a traditional Lutheran service. However, there were some notable differences. Firstly, it was mostly families who attended the service, and the children sat in the service with their parents instead of being sent to a separate children’s service. Not only that, they were far more free to run around and play with each other than what would be expected during a service. Pastor Tim had a children’s message for them all, and for that, they sat at the front with him. But other than that, they were not held by their parents unless they wanted to be. This does not sound immediately special or worthy of note, but interestingly it never distracted from the service. It seemed quite natural, whereas churches local to Concordia would tend to assume that if children were running around during the service it would be extremely distracting.
There was also a mix of contemporary worship songs sung in English and in Diné bizaad, and our team had the pleasure of supporting the worship in both languages, reinforcing that neither language is “more Christian” than the other. Both work equally well in praising God.
The most striking impression made during this service was, however, the baptism of two parents their three young children. As one of the last things our team witnessed during our time on the reservation, it was representative of the result of this mission and Pastor Tim’s (and ultimately, God’s) work at this church. This work is indeed bringing people to Christ and washing away their sins.
After the service, many members of the church expressed their gratitude to our team. Some thanked us for playing with their children and providing worship, but many thanked us simply for coming. That we came at all meant so much to them, and this helped our team realize,
if we hadn’t already, that the structure and organization that had been planned beforehand wasn’t primarily what was appreciated. It was that we came. That a group of college students in California was willing to “give up” five days of their time to come spend time with them made, I think, the impression that will stay with the church the most.
I think that notion is most symbolic of Christ’s love out of everything that was done during our stay. It is a thread that runs through the three examples described above. Someone cared enough to spend hours driving to provide wood for someone they do not know. Someone cared enough to accompany a woman leaving her husband, knowing the potential danger of the situation. This message, that someone cares enough, is Christ’s message. The members of the church recognized that there was no real reason for us to go there, but we did. Similarly, there is no real reason for Christ’s grace and forgiveness. That is precisely its power. The reason, the real reason, is of course love. That He did not have to die, but he did so for our sakes because He loves us. In this way, we did proclaim the gospel, even though we did not explicitly share the good news with each person (though some members of our team did have the opportunity to do so.)
How Did the Context of the Mission Field Match (Or Not) Your Preliminary Research?
One of the issues with any research of a people-group without real experience with them is that it tends to become quite impersonal. Just as this paper cannot give the reader the same experience as those who went on the mission trip, neither did any of the preliminary research truly match the experienced mission field. The people become real when you are with them, and their problems and difficulties are far more present, especially when those problems relate to the land that you are standing on.
I think perhaps the biggest difference between the preliminary research and the actual experience was, however, the joy that so many of the Navajo people brought to our experience. The darkness that we felt as a team the first day on the reservation was lifted by repeated interactions with the congregation and the local community that were joyous and fulfilling.
What Unexpected Setbacks or Personal Challenges Did You Encounter?
I think the largest challenge that the whole team encountered was during an informal “Q & A” session with two parents that attend the church regularly. They, like most adult Navajos, did not grow up Christian but came to Christ more recently. They were still figuring out their faith. This was especially apparent when they mentioned praying to Jesus “through the four mountains,” mountains that are prayed to in the native Navajo religion. This made a lot of our team uncomfortable, questioning both whether those people even were Christians, and wondering how Pastor Tim could allow members of his church to believe things like that without intervening and showing them the “right way.”
We debriefed this experience with Pastor Tim later that day, and what he communicated to us described many of the most prevalent challenges of the Navajo mission field. He reminded us of our own Christianity, and how it has a lot of cultural baggage that we usually do not recognize. He gave examples such as Christmas trees and Easter eggs, Santa Claus and the Easter bunny, taking off your hat as a sign of respect in a church compared to those who consider wearing a hat a sign of respect. Each of these, he reminded us, are not scriptural, but cultural, and we should not try to impose these elements of Christianity on other cultures when ministering to them. This applies not just to these more trivial things but also to prayer. We have a lot of cultural baggage in our American Christianity. So much so that it’s almost impossible to completely separate biblical orthodox Christianity from the culture in which it’s embedded.
Acts 17:26-27 says:
From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
What this text implies is that “the great variety of cultures around the world and through time, therefore, is not simply the result of socio-cultural processes, nor the result of random accidents; rather it is the will of God.”10 This is a necessary understanding for a missionary in Navajo.
There is a long and terrible history of Christian missionaries trying to “convert” the Navajo people by stripping them of their native culture and replacing it with “Christianity.” Because of this, the Navajo people are immediately suspicious of any such activity, and rightly so.
What this necessarily implies is that the missionary is not there primarily to introduce the Navajo community to Lutheran LCMS Christianity, but to Christ. Once a Navajo person finds Christ and gets to know him (once he has reached out to him and found him,) then the missionary can help the Navajo person in his theological understanding. This is not to say, however, that he hands him the Book of Concord. The missionary’s main role here would be to help the person stay grounded in scripture. Preferably scripture translated to Navajo. An outsider (the missionary) cannot dictate what parts of Navajo culture are or are not valuable to the Christian Navajo.11 This is something that the Christian Navajo, hopefully within a community of Christian Navajos (all groping for Christ in the darkness,) must learn themselves.
There are several questions that must be worked through, but this would be made easier with the Navajos getting to know Christ rather than being told what Christianity is from an outsider. Then they would have to not only discover what is unnecessary from our own Christianity, but what is sanctifiable in their own culture and can be brought into a distinctly Navajo Christianity, of which the Anglo Man should have very little part in forming. The missionary, then, is seen as a messenger, where before the missionary to the Navajo has acted more like a dictator.
What Did You Learn About Yourself in this Process?
Something that has really stuck with me, even months after having returned from the trip, is the notion of “culture-less” Christianity and “cultured” Christianity. It is fairly easy to understand the differences here when looking at the Navajo culture and how Christianity may work within it (although difficult to understand how this will work in practice, especially being outside the culture,) but I have also been forced to look at my own “Christianity,” and I have been struggling with understanding what has been taken from the culture and sanctified into Christianity, and what must be there in order for there to be a Christianity. What makes something distinctly Christian?
I think this has been a helpful question to ask, strengthening my faith rather than causing me to lose hope. Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes have been of great help:
“All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” - Ecclesiastes 3:20-22
Similarly, the aforementioned Acts passage was a helpful progression from the passage above:
“From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” - Acts 17:26-27
We were not in Navajo long. We were not able to witness the building of a Navajo- Christian faith from start to finish. We simply caught a glimpse of the process. However I can witness my own building of a faith, and it is important to understand two things:
1. Much of what I consider “Christianity” is culturally-constructed. (Ecclesiastes 3:20:22)
2. Christianity requires culture, and God places us in cultures so that we might seek him. (Acts 17:26-27)
For a while, I was trying to strip my Christianity of its culture, but this is not possible. This is where I think Ecclesiastes gains its power, within its context, for it does not stand on its own. This is the exciting news in Acts 17. It was tempting to see the “Anglo Man’s” Christianity negatively because we witnessed the negative consequences of forcing that on the Navajo people. But this does not mean that our culture’s Christianity is wrong—no—it works for us. But that does not mean it works for another culture.
I’ve learned that even my faith is drenched in my own culture. It is deeply affected by it, and for that reason, I cannot immediately point at a different person’s conceptualization of faith and make a judgment. I must have a deeper understanding of the culture that the person is drenched in before any sort of judgement12 can be attempted.
I better learned what my vocation is by learning what it is not. My vocation is not to bring my culture’s Christianity to other cultures. My vocation as a missionary is not to change the culture I am working with to better fit the Christianity I am bringing.
My vocation is, therefore, to usher forth a Christianity within their culture. It is to allow God’s work to continue, for He was working in the culture before I arrived, and will continue to do so after I have left.
The Missio Dei
For a time I was struggling to find a balance between the seemingly opposite messages of Acts 17 and Matthew 28. What does it mean if Jesus told us to “go and make disciples of all nations” if God set up each culture “so that [they] should seek him, and perhaps reach out for him and find him[?]” How can they be reconciled? How can I justify going if I am simply imposing my culture’s Christianity on another’s, especially if they are already finding God in their own way?
But I believe I was missing the main point of what Paul was saying, especially given the context in which he was saying it. It is not that we, therefore, shouldn’t go, for this would certainly be an interesting thing for Paul to state in the middle of his missionary journey. But we should understand that culture is not a result of the fall. Culture is a phenomenon that can be used by the missionary to help bring a people-group closer to Christ through their culture.
How Did Your Presence and Service Support and Assist Existing Mission Work in the Field?
I think our team was able to help Pastor Tim’s work in a number of ways. The Navajo Reservation is a desolate place and can feel very empty. In fact, Pastor Tim asks those applying for the summer internship he offers about how they handle long stretches of time alone, especially with no internet or cell service, because that is something that must be confronted while staying at the church. While Pastor Tim has his family and the community where he lives in Gallop, he very much appreciated the sheer number of people at the church willing to help in any small errand he had. I think the transporting of the wood is a prime example. Moving that wood would have taken one person about ninety minutes, whereas it took a team of eight about half an hour minutes, during which conversation could take place and relationships could form. And as was said earlier, simply the fact that we came was a representation of Christ’s love. The same can be said for Pastor Tim’s presence there. The simple fact that he came there, and stayed, is that same representation. But sometimes it takes a new coming to remember that.
How Could Future Mission Trips and Activities in This Location Be More Effective?
I do not think “effectiveness” is a good word to use for mission trips. If anything, this trip taught our team that the vocation of a missionary is not to be “effective.” In fact, I am not sure exactly what an “effective” mission trip would look like. I think if “improved effectiveness” is a goal of a future mission trip, it is the wrong goal.
A better question, perhaps, is “How could future mission trips and activities in this location continue to represent Christ and communicate his message?” Indeed, is this not what the Great Commission asks of us? (And perhaps this is what is meant by effectiveness.) To go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that He has commanded us? And this teaching is not, as history, unfortunately, shows us, to be done in a classroom, in a school. It is to be done in a relationship. And therefore I believe that that best thing that future mission trips to the Navajo reservation can do is to go, for Christ reassures us that He is with us. Just the act of showing up is representative of Christ’s love. And, importantly, showing up with no agenda other than to help the already-existing missionary in his needs, knowing that he understands the field far more than any short-term missionary possibly could.
1 Rothman, Lily, and Liz Ronk. "‘A Country Within a Country: Inside the Navajo Nation in 1948."
2 “Navajo Factsheet.” Discover Navajo.
3 Ryan, Camille. “Language Use in the United States: 2011”
4 Wilkins, David Eugene. The Navajo Political Experience, 9.
5 Kierkegaard, 89.
7 In sharing these stories, I find it most appropriate to change the names of the Navajo people involved for a number of reasons. I want to emphasize the stories, the narratives, more than each person’s particular troubles and difficulties. This is to respect the person’s privacy and the Navajo people, for it was gracious for them to allow us into their lives and onto their land for the four days we were there. It is also to emphasize that while these are specific stories experienced by members of the Concordia team, these are not isolated incidents. Each represents a wide-spread problem on the reservation, and one that deserves more attention than just numbers and statistics provide.
8 Navajo for “warrior.”
9 Navajo for strong in character.
10 Schultz, Jack. Anthropological Considerations of Acts 17.
11 I find, considering the argument being laid out here, that “Christian Navajo” may be more appropriate than “Navajo Christian.” It serves as a healthy reminder that at this point in missionary work on the Navajo reservation, it would be far easier to strip someone of their biblical, orthodox Christianity than it would be to strip them of their Navajo culture. It may be argued that the Navajo person should, if truly Christian, identify first as a “Christian” and then as a “Navajo,” making them a Navajo Christian. However, this already assumes an understanding of self that is born of Anglo-American culture, and would not help in this Navajo context. This distinction, therefore, is a reminder for us.
12 Judgment here does not have the negative connotation so often associated with it. Judgment is not inherently negative, simply placing a value on something, good or bad. I think it is important to refrain from making judgments until we have a sufficient understanding of the context surrounding the phenomenon being judged, but that we should not refrain from judging completely, for this leads to a complete lack of moral and social responsibility and accountability. Judgment, therefore, takes place within a relationship.
Rothman, Lily, and Liz Ronk. "‘A Country Within a Country: Inside the Navajo Nation in 1948."
Time. November 24, 2017. http://time.com/4118996/navajo-heritage-photos/.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. Translated by Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.
Schultz, Jack. Anthropological Considerations of Acts 17.
Wilkins, David Eugene. The Navajo Political Experience. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003. 9.
Ryan, Camille. “Language Use in the United States: 2011”. American Community Survey Reports. United States Census Bureau, August 2013.
“Navajo Factsheet.” Discover Navajo. discovernavajo.com/fact-sheet.