The Bishop’s E-pistle: Days with the Diné

I spent two days last week in the Episcopal Church in Navajoland.

I began at Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona, getting a tour with two recently ordained Navajo clergy: the Rev. Cathlena Plummer and the Rev. Leon Sampson. They spoke eloquently about the way their churches are learning to be authentically Navajo and Christian at the same time. A beautiful series of Stations of the Cross with Navajo figures surrounds the nave, and the kneeling cushions and altar cloths are Navajo weavings. Good Shepherd has just been substantially renovated with a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis foundation, and it is beautiful.

On the same property as Good Shepherd is Shima of Navajoland, a project to make soaps and other products from local herbs and plants.

After lunch (of Navajo tacos), I got in the car with Bishop David Bailey and hit the road north. We drove up to St. Christopher’s in Bluff, Utah, where one of their crucial ministries to the local community is free access to their artesian well.

Bishop Bailey and I continued to Farmington, New Mexico, where we spent the night. After breakfast, it was up to All Saints Mission in Farmington, which is also the location of the newly completed Hozho House. Once the program is up and running to match the new facility, it will be a women’s wellness center. The basement level of Hozho House is home to Cheii’s Dev Shop, a web development and graphics company run by two Navajo Episcopalians with the twin goals of offering local employment opportunities for Navajo residents, and training elderly Navajo in computing skills.

We took a side trip to St. Luke’s in the Desert, which is southeast of Farmington. It’s a tiny church, but was full to bursting, hosting a Vacation Bible School and a group of teens from Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, VA. Then back west, over the mountains to Fort Defiance. All told, we drove 380 miles in two days, which gives you an idea of the scope of that diocese.

As I drove back to Phoenix, I reflected on how the story of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland is one of a generational shift in our approach to mission and ministry. The churches were originally founded in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century as medical missions because the Navajo were not allowed to receive treatment at hospitals for white Americans. As medical care shifted, and the church moved from ministering to native peoples to ministering among native peoples, the worshipping congregations began, but mainly served by white seminary-trained clergy, or locally formed Navajo clergy. It has taken another generation to send candidates for ordination off the reservation to get their MDivs at Episcopal seminaries and welcome them home to clergy leadership.

I am grateful for my learning last week in Navajoland, and look forward to continuing my new relationships with their clergy and institutions.