Navajo Missionaries on ‘Reverse Mission’ at Vacation Bible School in Hampton – Daily Press
HAMPTON — The 13 believers formed a circle, their hands outstretched toward the skylight of the Fox Hill United Methodist Church sanctuary. They prayed that the “reverse mission” they were planning would flood the congregation with energy and camaraderie.
Eight of them looked exhausted but excited. They had spent 30 of the past 40 hours in a white van, driving from Utah and New Mexico. Navajo missionaries would run the Fox Hill Vacation Bible School, sing songs in the Diné Navajo language, and teach Bible stories.
Historically, Christian missionaries carried baggage beyond suitcases; early European and American missionaries flocked to native tribes to further the political goals of their governments. Some modern missionaries are more missionary tourists, more concerned with serving their ego than the people. But Brian Sixbey, Fox Hill’s senior pastor, sought to reverse that narrative – he believed his congregation could learn more from a ‘reverse mission’ than they could teach.
“Father God,” he said as he led group prayer that Saturday, “help us to become one.”
The Fox Hill congregation was more excited that Sixbey had never seen them for the summer program. The church had an abundance of volunteers and 70 children signed up the first night. Him, his wife Shan and Becky Holland had the idea for the mission. Holland is a 77-year-old Hampton native who leads the clean water ministry.
At a time when churches are increasingly divided along political and social lines, Sixbey said, he hoped his congregation could learn the values he saw when he visited the Navajo reservation in May — a faith pure, grounded and united. Fox Hill raised more than $11,000 to bring missionaries here for the program, which ran July 12-15.
A few weeks ago, however, Sixbey received a call: a group of missionaries had contracted COVID-19. Holland called Hilda Begay, a Navajo pastor from the Beautiful Mountain Christian Center in New Mexico.
“What are you doing next week?” asked Holland. She told Begay about the situation they were in.
“Can you come?”
Begay consulted with her husband, who is co-pastor of Beautiful Mountain. He works as a mechanic and hasn’t had enough vacation time for the trip. But he spoke with his boss, who told him, “As long as you do God’s work, we’ll let you go.
The couple drove from Farmington, stopping only to eat, pump gas and use the bathroom, and arrived just hours before that Saturday meeting.
Sisters Esther Reddoor and Cecilia Wallace came from Utah. The couple spend their summers driving Wallace’s old SUV across the reservation to feed children and their parents, delivering masks and flour in the scorching Southwest heat.
“Becky calls us Martha and Ruth because we’re always there to feed children and families,” Wallace said, referring to women in the Bible.
The Navajo Reservation is the largest in the United States, covering approximately 27,000 square miles, nearly the size of West Virginia. It presents challenges to the Clean Water Ministry, which partners with Navajo church leaders like the Begays and the Sisters to provide resources, including Navajo-language Bibles.
Reddoor and Wallace help lead a Utah congregation built by their late mother. Before the pandemic, the sisters ran canning initiatives and in-person events like movie nights for kids. But the coronavirus was a concern for Esther and Cecilia, who are 70 and 67. Despite the health risks, the sisters spent the early days of the pandemic continuing their work.
This is the first in-person Vacation Bible School in Fox Hill since the pandemic began.
Hampton Leaders and Missionaries recognized that the exchange does not come without a complicated history.
Reddoor, now a grandmother, was one of hundreds of thousands of Native American children who were introduced to Christianity through boarding schools. Indigenous children were removed from their homes and sent to a web of institutions designed to assimilate Indigenous children into white culture, institutions where children were punished for speaking their own language or practicing their traditional faith.
Hampton University, just 4 miles from Fox Hill, was used as a boarding school for older students from 1878 to 1923.
Christianity, said Holland, was an integral part of this assimilation. But her ministry is built on building relationships and helping, not “Christianizing” the Navajo, she said.
“We’ve done so many things in the name of Jesus, in the name of the Lord, and in the name of Christianity, that I know the God I serve has no hand in it,” she said. “I’ve read some of the things our government has done – the bottom line is this nation was built on blood.”
Reddoor remembers having to clean bathrooms with toothbrushes after she was caught speaking her native language. Abuse in schools was common. But exposure to Christianity, she said, was the only good thing to come out of the experience.
Begay had a complicated relationship with both the Navajo tradition and his faith.
She hated peyote, a bitter psychoactive herb consumed before nightly rituals to induce visions. His mother passed it on to her children until she became a Christian in 1979. Begay was 10 years old.
The Navajo language now features prominently at Beautiful Mountain; its bilingual Sunday services last for hours.
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“Shíyázhí”, an endearing Navajo term meaning “my child”, is awarded to people who walk through the gates of Beautiful Mountain. ‘Yá’át’ééh’ — “Welcome, the door is open, come in” — is another common greeting, Wallace said.
“Part of our family values in the Navajo tradition is respect, friendship, respecting each other and doing what you can do for yourself,” she said. “So in this reverence, we’re saying to everyone, ‘There’s a God, he’s there, but it doesn’t have to be English. “”
Pastor Sixbey said the relationship between faith, culture and assimilation is complicated. But this collision of culture and faith is not unique, he says.
“Christianity has always had a cultural element. Jesus came in the flesh—he came as a Jew. … Every believer is going to be inculturated, one way or another. It’s always a back and forth. »
He hopes the Bible School will develop a deeper connection between Fox Hill, Navajo reservation churches and Pure Water Ministry.
“These are people like us, they have hopes and dreams like us. They see the world from a different perspective, they live in a different place, but I can sit down, I can talk to them, I can understand them, they can understand me,” Sixbey said. “We can go back and forth. We can be friends.”
Suzannah Perry, [email protected]