Touching Lives…

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For an extrovert like me (recharging via people contact) we have the best job in the world. In the 20 months since we arrived here in Navajoland, we have worked hard to build relationships with families and individuals in the Lybrook area. Part of relationship is walking through difficult times with others, such as the aftermath of tragic fatal accidents on January 1st. I wrote a little about that experience in the last post. This time I want to share some of the enjoyable relationship moments of this past week…

oldest brother

Jeremy wants to get more Bible training

On Sunday, I spent a few hours with a family from church, working with their three young adult sons. We talked, and pondered, and sorted through pros and cons of which Christian college they might attend and how to make that decision. We looked at websites and sorted through the process of applying. By the end of our time together, they have a clear list of further information they need to gather and next steps they need to take.

When we were in town on Wednesday evening, I made time to stop by the hospital to pray for Casper (critically injured in the above-mentioned accident). While there, I got to talk with his brother, both to encourage him and to challenge him to help his kids talk about these traumatic events. It felt like praying for Casper was a responsibility; talking with his brother was a privilege.

Miss Nellie

Our fiercely independent elderly friend...

I also stopped by a nursing home in town to visit an elderly friend who is recovering from a fall and resulting broken bones. She was SO excited to see Anna and I. We were just with her for a very short time as she was headed to dinner, but it was good to see her sparkling eyes and be reminded of her fierce determination to move back again to independent living in her beloved hogan. As we were leaving, we were able to spend time with her son, another friend of ours, and listen while he talked about chaos in the family and how de-stabilizing his mom’s injury and diagnosis of cancer has been. Another privilege—letting our friend “vent” about struggles and encouraging him to keep looking to God for wisdom, strength, and comfort.

messy artist

messy hands...great art!

This week also found me busy at the local school—subbing, tutoring, and volunteering. It is quite good for one’s ego to walk into the cafeteria and have cute little 1st graders squeal your name and run to give big hugs! We enjoyed time together at the end of the week when I had the privilege of doing an art history lesson and project with them. You should SEE the wonderful drawings they made of mesas at different times of day, in the style of Claude Monet’s paintings of haystacks.

With some students that I have been tutoring since fall, there were opportunities to challenge them. With other students, time together this past week furthered relationship building. I am NOT in the school to “proselytize”…but within relationships I am able to be very open about my own beliefs and about how God affects my daily life. For some students who are already Christians, I can be an encouragement. For others who live with instability and dysfunction, I hope I can eventually connect them to One who can bring stability and love into their troubled lives.

Finally, as I spend more time at the school, I have more opportunity to build relationships with teachers, administrators, and staff. We may not have “solved the world’s problems” yet, but we have had some interesting, encouraging and challenging discussions about the realities of life out here in Navajoland. What a privilege it is to be part of such lunch-table and hallway discussions!

It is hard, so very hard, to walk through dark times such as the recent tragedies here. But then the sun comes back out, metaphorically speaking, and we enjoy wonderful times of sharing happy times with our friends.

Right now? Life is good in Navajoland!

Circle of…Death?

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There is something so hopeful about the Circle of Life. Babies are born, couples marry and start new families, eventually elders die, and the circle continues over and over and over. Keeping this picture in mind, death is just one part of community, one part of family, one part of life.

Within the idea of the Circle of Life, even unexpected, out-of-sequence deaths can be grieved and worked through. When our son died, it felt like the world had just ended. And yet, our other children still needed our guidance, our support, and our love. Life was continuing and we talked about these patterns with each other and with others within the community who were also affected by the death of our son.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to see this positive circle out here in Navajoland. There seems to be death after death after death, tragedy followed by tragedy, an endless cycle of trauma. It is hard to find hope when it seems like the circle leads over and over again to death, not to renewal and life. (As many of you know, we are currently walking through the aftermath of fatal accidents from January 1st – you can read more about it HERE)

For far too many hurting and angry people in this community, the “solution” to such trauma is to numb the pain with alcohol. This in turn contributes significantly to more dysfunction and death. And the circle spirals downward…

How can this be changed? How can the Circles turn back upward, toward hope and toward life?

First, we need to recognize that more education or yet one more program will make no noticeable difference. There have been hundreds of people out here in Navajoland for generations past, working hard to change the patterns. But the Circle of Death just seems to be spiraling downward faster and faster.

A few tendencies within Navajo culture make it difficult to change the current patterns: family members avoid confrontation whenever possible; hesitating to confront alcoholism for fear it might cause a break in relationship with their loved one. Their fear and avoidance too often enables the alcoholism to continue, leading eventually to shocking deaths (an ultimate break in relationship…). For the friends we know who have stopped drinking and personally won the battle against alcoholism, the trigger for change was most often family members who challenged them to stop and did everything possible to keep the drinking from re-occurring.

In addition, Navajo are taught from a very young age to “be strong,” “don’t show emotion,” and “be a survivor.” Sometimes these ideas can give strength to a person walking through difficulty. But far more often, this lack of allowing emotion causes people to “shut down” during traumatic times. A lack of sorting through emotions and a lack of grieving can cause heart-wounds to fester. When the pain becomes unbearable, with no other coping skills to deal with it, alcohol seems to be an acceptable way to numb that pain. And, again, the Circle of Death spirals, faster and faster as trauma is layered onto trauma, over and over again.

Walking through our own time of grieving, after the death of our son, we realized we would not survive if we remained passive. We had to choose to reach for hope. We had to choose to allow strong emotions to wash over us. We had to choose to move forward into the Circle of Life. That sounds so simple and easy, and yet it is quite difficult. For many dealing with traumatic loss, including my husband, it takes the concern and prayers of many friends to bring one back toward living again. It takes a powerful God to break through the darkness and show light. It takes a radical transformation of heart and mind; a glimpse of hope given by a God of joyfulness and love.

Some days the darkness here seems overwhelming. Some days we just want to run—back to a suburban or rural haven where there is no obvious Circle of Death. But we choose to stay…to walk through these tragedies with our friends: to listen when they need to talk, to allow them a safe place to express anger and sorrow, to cry with them and to pray with them, to help them reconnect with the Circle of Life and with a God who can give them true strength.

Some days we recognize our overwhelming need for support. We are grateful for friends who encourage us, who donate funds, who pray for us. With the help of team-members scattered across the world, we can stay. We can walk with our Navajo friends through joyful times and through tragedy. We can enter in to their Circle of Life!

Peace on Earth

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worship the king

Worshipping the Prince of PEACE...

This is the season to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. The time of year to remember the news announced by the angels: “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward all people.” The time of year for God’s gifts of peace, and hope and love. And oh how those messages are needed here in this little corner of Navajoland…

The following stories are from just the past six weeks:

One friend’s cousin was killed in a horrific accident riding (drunk) with a drunk friend who lost his license a zillion driving-while-intoxicated convictions ago. In the other car, one adult was killed and two children are still in serious condition at the hospital. This was the fourth death of close family members this year for our friend. Where is the PEACE for her this season? Where is the JOY?

Our (Navajo) pastor’s family is also walking through the aftermath of tragedy. Their son and daughter-in-law went out for a drive while drunk, got in a verbal fight, and the daughter-in-law was killed when she jumped out of the moving car. Pastor and his wife are now taking care of their 3 year old granddaughter—just when their “nest” was almost empty with their youngest son a senior in high school. They are struggling to keep contact with their older son. They are questioning why this happened, and how this happened. They need HOPE this holiday season…

A fist fight broke out among a few of the girls at the local school a few weeks ago. They were getting even with one girl who had attacked the honor of their family. Black eyes, bloody noses, police involvement, and suspensions followed. But the attackers calmly looked up at the policeman and stated that he won’t be there all the time and some day, some how, they will finish what they started. Peace? Yes, it is dearly needed to settle long-standing family feuds around here.

We could look at these events and get discouraged. (And sometimes we DO…) But, at this time of year we are reminded that God has already sent his Prince of Peace to earth. He has already announced goodwill to all people. He has already given the gifts of peace and hope and love. Easter has already come, and Jesus has already announced “It is finished.”

So our job is to walk in these gifts and through our walking and our listening and our sharing from our own lives, to help our Navajo friends see and receive these gifts God has already given.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, join us in asking God to truly bring His PEACE to the lives of all hurting peoples, even those here in Navajoland…

Community Christmas Outreach

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special christmas service

Celebrating Christ at Christmas...

This past Sunday Pine Hill Church partnered with little Day Mesa Church for a Community Christmas Outreach. The revival tent was set up in the snow (and mud), food was cooked by both churches to be served to all those who came, and gifts were quietly donated by a partner church in Louisiana.

The pastor of Day Mesa Church has been discouraged. The congregation is tiny. The church recently had most of its windows broken out. Pastor Darlene was questioning why she continues to lead this group and she questions where God is. She was feeling alone…

And then, Pine Hill Church joined with her little church to reach out to the local community to show God’s love. Plus, she got a phone call from a family in Dulce New Mexico (an hour and a half away). They have a tradition of providing gift baskets for needy families at Christmas. This year they couldn’t get Day Mesa Church out of their mind. So…they joined us for the service and brought candy and baskets of supplies to be given out.

During the service, Pastor Darlene gave testimony to God’s faithfulness, and expressed gratitude for others standing with her. She no longer feels so alone…

To us, as Anglos, the most exciting thing about this service was that it was Navajo Christians reaching out to their neighbors. The church in Louisiana was graceful enough to allow the gifts to be given in the name of Pine Hill church. In this place where Anglos are expected to be the givers and Navajo are seen as the receivers, this service showed a different model. Navajo CAN be the givers…and can do so joyfully!

(To see a full photo album from the event, click here.)

Remember…

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A few Sundays ago I presented a scrapbook to our church family. It was a collection of photos taken at the recent camp meeting during which we had a dedication service for the revival tent which was donated to the church. On the first page of the scrapbook, I included some verses from Joshua and Deuteronomy where God asked the Israelites to gather stones and build a memorial to what God was doing in their lives. The memorials would be conversation starters to help them remember and remind each other of God’s faithfulness. In a similar way, I hope this scrapbook becomes a memorial for our church family to remember how God answered prayers in a miraculous way and provided more than they dreamed possible for holding revival services and spreading God’s good news across the reservation. (In case you missed these photos, you can find them in the albums at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pine-Hill-Church/191667180894259)

While Randy preached the sermon that day, I took the children into another room for an impromptu children’s worship time. I continued the theme of the scrapbook being a memorial. We read those verses again. We acted out each family moving a big stone to build a physical memorial. We agreed that wouldn’t be so practical today.

REMEMBER what God has done

I passed out an index card to each student, all “churched” kids, and asked them to write or draw some way that God has helped them recently. The kids just looked at me with blank expressions.

I was shocked at their lack of response. Maybe it was a cultural hesitation to speaking out loud in a group setting, I thought. So I encouraged them to just privately write or draw something. Still no response.

I tried to give examples. I tried to get them to brainstorm ideas. After all, in most Sunday School classes where I come from, students would be wiggling in their seats, flailing their hand in the air, eager to answer such an easy question.

Eventually, most of the students came up with SOMEthing to put on their index card. Many copied one or more of the examples I gave: strong muscles for sports, horses or a working truck, food to eat. Others branched out a little and talked of God’s protection or healing from car accidents or brains to be smart in school.

We taped the cards, like rocks, into a pile on a piece of poster board. We made this into our own “memorial” of what God is doing in our lives. We will put this up in their kids’ classroom back at their church. I pray they will REMEMBER this lesson. I pray they will look for other examples of how God cares for them.

And the scene comes back to mind over and over…blank looks when asked what God is doing. An overwhelming focus in the churches here on how wonderful it will be in heaven, rather than looking for God in daily living. This feels so sad to me…

So, I will keep talking about how God is walking with me in every day life. And I will keep asking those pesky questions. I’m looking forward to the day when even these kids wiggle in their seats and wave their hands, eager to answer such a simple question: “What is God doing in YOUR life today?”

Living in a “Black Hole”

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We live in a "black hole"

Black holes are part of big adventures. They are a significant plot-devise in sci-fi movies and books. They add an element of uncertainty and tension—will the main characters survive a trip through a black hole? Or can they avoid being sucked into the black hole, to disappear forever?

We are discovering that we live in a “black hole.” Yes, there is plenty of adventure here. But we are trying to avoid getting sucked in to the dark nothingness of working-hard-but-getting-nowhere. Looking back at the history of this location in remote New Mexico, it seems that no matter how many resources are poured into the area, they are absorbed, and families continue to live on the edge of crisis.

There is a significant lack of economic opportunity in the area. Other than a very small number of jobs at the local school and at the few carryout stories nearby, the closest jobs are at least 45 miles away. The distance plus a lack of licenses and reliable transportation means that earning a regular income is difficult for those living here. Expenses are high out here as well. Groceries are quite expensive at the carryout stores and other consumer goods are not available unless one travels “to town,” 45-60 miles away. In addition, a “survival mentality” makes it difficult to develop local jobs with local employees. The current pattern tends to be that people work very hard for a few hours or a few days, just enough to earn what they need in the moment. They often see no need to work more consistently if they have no immediate need for the income.

This area tends to be a challenge for providing or receiving social services. To obtain financial assistance such as food stamps, families are often asked to show up for appointments at offices that are many miles away from here. Again, transportation becomes an issue. Many local people also struggle with the idea of using calendars to keep track of days and weeks. Many friends have failed to show up for appointments and are baffled that they can’t just meet whenever they happen to arrive. Being some place at a specific time on a specific date is not part of their typical cultural patterns. Even showing up for the weekly food pantry hours at a nearby mission can be a challenge!

This is a very remote area, with most people living back on dirt roads. They may live 20 or more miles off the main highway, which often means they lack electricity and running water. These families rarely see a need for gaining those utilities. (If it was important to them, they would just move to town…) On the other hand, hauling water and gathering wood for heating can take a significant amount of time for daily living.

Because of the mix of land ownership in the area (private, Navajo nation, and federal lands), law enforcement can also feel like a “black hole.” Unless there is life-and-death violence involved, there is often little or no response to a call for assistance. Even when officers respond to a call, they often argue over whose jurisdiction it really is, trying to avoid having to do unnecessary paper work. Even when jurisdiction appears to be clear, cases can later be taken over by the federal government or by the Navajo Nation, regardless of who initially took control.

Finally, this area is a “black hole” when it comes to emergency services. If there is a significant injury with a call to 911, it can take over an hour for emergency personnel to arrive because of the distances involved. Local families often have no knowledge of first-aid, so are unable to do much treatment or stabilization before the ambulance or life-flight arrives. Again, remoteness and life choices contribute to a lack of resources in this area.

How can we bring "light" to the darkness here?

We haven’t quite figured out what our response should be to dealing with this “black hole.” We do know that we see no reason to just continue dumping resources (time or money) into this sucking pit. We are looking for ways to make a significant long-term difference. For now, we are talking with a few Navajo friends who are looking for changes. Jill is getting involved with the volunteer fire department 45 miles away to become a first, first-responder for local emergency situations. We are beginning the work to develop a specific plan and financial backing to focus on helping at-risk local young people who rarely finish school.

Pray with us as we look for ways to bring “light” into this area, ways to help individuals and families find healthy ways to stay living in this area, ways to close the “black hole.”

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