Published October 17, 2013
BUCHANAN — Members of Polk-Haralson Association who have been part of a ten-year missions partnership among the Navajo Nation describe it as another country that just so happens to be in the United States.
Located in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the Nation covers some 27,000 square miles. Prior to going on the first trip about a decade ago, Cindy Wood had been a part of two missions excursions to Brazil through Bremen First Baptist Church. Working among the Navajo presented some unique obstacles to sharing the Gospel that can only be overcome through a long-term relationship. Therefore the association has been working in the area for an extended time.
“I felt called to work with a Native American group,” said Wood, after her second stint in Brazil. “I contacted the North American Mission Board for training and was connected to a church [working with Navajo].”
The first trip was through First Bremen, but over the years participation has grown among other congregations. The most recent group to go comprised of 32 people from 12 churches in Polk-Haralson Association.
Preparing to work among American Indian tribes requires some knowledge of culture and the stormy relationship between them and the American government. For example, in 1966 Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Robert Freeze enacted a measure to stop a simmering land dispute among the Navajo and Hopi. Basically, the Bennett Freeze, as it came to be known, caused all building and development on the affected stretch of land to cease. The action was finally repealed in 2009 by President Obama. Still, it’s just one example of the inherent distrust felt among the Navajo toward outsiders.
Another example can be found in the ongoing mining of uranium from Navajo land. In the 1940s rich tracts of the radioactive ore was found throughout the American Southwest, with high concentrations under the soil of the Navajo Nation. From 1944-86 nearly four million tons were mined from the area, with numerous Navajo working the mines. Of course, what wasn’t known among the people was the accompanying legacy of cancer and tumors from breathing the radioactive air and drinking the water.
The mining stopped in the 80s, but interest recently renewed among companies clamoring for the estimated 70 million tons of uranium in the area. Understandably, the Navajo are reluctant to comply and such actions lead to being wary of outsiders.
Polk-Haralson Association missionary John McBride said the legacy can have an effect on making inroads for ministry.
“There’s a distrust,” he admitted. “When families lose their land there’s no place left to go. A shortage of housing exists because of that.”
Which brings forward a chance to build homes while connecting the Navajo to their ancestors. The hogan is a traditional Navajo structure with many purposes including as a medicine lodge, sweat house, and home, the latter which was the intention for those built by the Georgia group.
“We usually go to do repair work, but we connected with a fella who has an active ministry there,” said McBride, adding that the crew built two hogans within the week. “This was the poorest area of the Navajo Nation, about an hour from Gallup [New Mexico].”
The real learning curve had little to do with the Navajo, said Wood, and more to do with another group. Earlier mission trips took place in the Nation located in Utah, which posed another challenge.
“It was in a very remote area that was Mormon-owned and operated,” she stated. “Before we would get there it was well-known that the Baptists were coming. Mormon elders would come to our hotel to find out our plans and camp outside the church we worked at to prevent Native Americans from attending Vacation Bible School. Permits would be canceled for places where we were going to have events. Letters were sent to Navajo warning against attending screenings of The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia that we were hosting.
“One little girl told us she couldn’t come to VBS because her daddy worked at a Mormon-owned business. You could tell which homes were Mormon and which weren’t. One could afford to water and care for their yard while the others couldn’t.”
The poverty was as bad as any she’d seen in Brazil, added Wood. “You’d think you were in a third world country.”
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