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No ordinary experience

NCR Staff
New Mexico and Arizona

In the Navajo Nation, for almost 20 minutes the rental car radio scanner surfed the ether, first FM, then AM. Nothing. This was remote America.

If there was a speed limit on the 50-plus miles of undulating road between Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Chinle, Ariz., and St. Mary of the Rosary Mission in Piñon, no local vehicle -- three hurtled by -- seemed aware of it. One sign did warn of “stock on road,” but this late afternoon the cattle were dots on sloping land miles distant.

Signs of habitation? A trailer and a small house were separated neighbors, 10 and 15 miles between them. No hogans, the traditional six or eight-sided Navajo dwellings, were spotted.

A second sign, closer to Piñon, said “rough road ahead.” Brief qualms of conscience -- the car rental company would never know what hit its vehicle.

Then, on to the Hopi Nation. That night, worsening qualms. The last 18 miles of unlit road to the highway for St. Joseph’s Parish, Keams Canyon, were unpaved. A pause to inspect the damage after a pothole large enough to swallow one wheel. While outside, a look around. The stars seemed closer than the next town.

In places like Tohatchi, Chinle and Keams Canyon, Catholic priests, brothers and women religious live and work among people who may be poor but have a life-filling spirituality of their own. These are Native Americans whose Catholic baptism may have taken place long ago and far away, in “Indian” boarding schools. What religion the older Navajo and Hopi are -- beyond their own spirituality -- is often the result of the denomination of the boarding school they attended.

Ministry to the Navajo and Hopi is no ordinary experience -- unless one is born to solitude like this, adapted to simple living and a habit of listening more than talking.

For three days, NCR visited some Catholic sisters and priests for whom such a life is second nature.

Most people on the reservations here lack what many Americans would die without -- electricity, telephones, running water, cars. The 55,000 square mile Gallup, N.M., diocese straddles two states (New Mexico and Arizona) and two time zones (many tourists are invariably either an hour early or an hour late for Mass.)

Like distances, numbers cease to be relevant. Priests such as Franciscan Frs. John Mittelstadt and Blane Grein will drive 60 and 80 miles to a Navajo mission to say Mass for six or seven people.

It is a vast region, this Four Corners, where poverty is all encompassing, alcoholism rife and employment a precious commodity.

Time, too, runs on a different clock. At 8 a.m. one morning I picked up a Navajo hitchhiker, a woodcarver, headed to Gallup, 70 miles away, for a doctor’s appointment. The appointment was at 4 p.m. When I dropped him at Window Rock where I turned off, he said he’d make it fine. He’d just keep walking. Someone would stop. If he was five or six hours early he’d find somewhere to sit, maybe someone, another Navajo, to talk to, he said.

Each year, he said, he hitchhiked up to Colorado to a river where he’d collect the cottonwood tree roots he used for his carvings. And he’d hitchhike back with a huge bundle of wood. Some people stopped, some didn’t, he said.

The next day I gave a ride to two sheepherders who’d brought their flocks down from the mountain pastures for the winter. They’d been walking for five hours before I stopped. And they reckoned they’d walk for another three after I let them off.

They live without electricity or running water “or wives,” one said. “Mine left and his threw him out,” the shepherd added, with a laugh.

What moves Catholic missioners toward Native American ministry? Some are called, some are sent. Mittelstadt was sent to Tohatchi. When he complained to his superior that “there’s nothing going on there,” his provincial replied, “That’s the point.” Mittelstadt got the message: Make it happen. He has.

But, as everyone out here quickly finds, things still happen in their own way, at their own pace.

Day One: Tohatchi, N.M.

The evening AA meeting in Mittelstadt’s trailer -- the gathering is called “The Power House” -- wrapped up. Eight men held together by the common bond of staying sober.

The group was a mix of Anglos and Native Americans, the mood upbeat, the night black, no stars. One street lamp illuminated the dirt road, the rutted parking areas around the church, youth center, and clutch of trailers and buildings that is St. Mary’s Mission, Tohatchi, N.M., a village about 35 minutes of fast driving from either Window Rock, Ariz., or Gallup, N.M.

Mittelstadt’s 3,000 square mile parish is on the eastern fringe of the 25,000 square-mile Navajo Nation reservation.

“Traditionally,” explained Mittelstadt that first night, “the Navajos didn’t have villages and towns. It’s rather sparse,” said the priest, who has served the area for 36 years and been pastor here for 11.

The four-meetings-a-week AA outreach is a major Mittelstadt mission; he has walked that walk himself. There is a halfway house under construction in the shadow of the church. There’s Franciscan Sr. Pat Bietsch’s new Tohatchi Boys and Girls Club in the youth center by the church, a sweat lodge near the cemetery, and a new, modest, six-sided log hogan-style chapel for weekday Masses. More hogans are going up to accommodate volunteers.

Bietsch, of the Oldenburg, Ind., Franciscans, was not sent here, but felt a call. Years ago, while still a high school teacher, she made a retreat with sisters ministering to Crow and Cheyenne people. “It was a little mustard seed,” she said. She also had a good friend working with Native Americans in Montana. Eight years ago, ready for a change, Bietsch might have gone to Montana, but there was no opening.

There was in Tohatchi. She’s been in pastoral ministry here ever since.

The work involves being present, listening, helping, teaching. “It is about gaining the trust, the friendship of the people I work with,” she said, and furthering the inculturation, the process of adapting the Catholic liturgy and Catholic ways by drawing in elements of Navajo spirituality and practices along with cultural symbols.

Liturgical practices include the burning of cedar instead of incense; blessings extended toward the four sacred mountains of north, south, east and west. At Masses celebrated by Anglo priests, the frequently available cassette player is handy on a nearby bench where one of the sisters or parishioners can push the button for the creed and gospel and chants recorded in Navajo. Sometimes Navajo speakers in the congregation lead prayers and hymns.

There are visual surprises, especially murals, all around the missions. Some are by local artist Linda Benton whose “The Tohatchi - Navajo Cross” patterned with Navajo motif on the 13th century San Damiano Cross, hangs in Pope John Paul II’s private apartment in the Vatican. Her mural “Storyteller Madonna” is a distinctive local landmark.

“The work is to be with the native people,” Bietsch said. “I must be willing to be inculturated myself, open to their culture so that together, and eventually, the dream would be they take their Catholicism and make the gospel theirs.”

Bishop is imaginative

Where inculturation is concerned, “the bishop [Gallup’s Bishop Donald E. Pelotte, himself part Native American] is imaginative,” said Mittelstadt, “he basically wants the Navajos to take over,” a process the Franciscan priest enthusiastically endorses.

The Gallup diocese has three Navajo deacons, and Tohatchi has one of them, Sherman Manuelito, whose wife, Alice, is parish office manager, bookkeeper and a commissioned lay minister. Outside the office, her involvements include the Legion of Mary. Alice was commissioned the day Sherman was ordained deacon in 1995. The couple has two children.

By day a program analyst with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in church Manuelito gives his homilies and leads prayers in Navajo. Of inculturation, he says, “it’s a mix, some [Navajo Catholics] like it, some don’t.” Though familiar with them, he does not regard himself as well versed enough in the traditional ways to add to the inculturation, beyond his use of cedar incense.

There are active missions in Coyote Canyon and Naschitti coordinated by Oldenburg Franciscan Sr. Millie Speed and Syracuse, N.Y., Franciscan Donna Marie Evans, respectively.

Early morning: octogenarian Franciscan Fr. Terence Rhoades is out by the little garden around his trailer shaking the dried deadheads on their stalks. Seeds from the cosmos flowers drop by the scores into his bucket. Ready for the next season’s planting, explained Rhoades, who also doubles as the friary barber, hand clippers at the ready. He’s out at the missions on Sundays saying Mass.

Franciscan Br. Mike Haag is likely to be out there midweek -- he’s the mission electrician and maintenance person -- but he’s also deeply involved in religious instruction to the mission’s special education class.

At 7.30 a.m. the hogan chapel wood stove by the altar is unlit. The morning is crisp, but not cold. There’s a sheepskin on the altar. Mittelstadt blesses the four corners of the world. The first petitioning prayer is a plea that a parishioner might find work so he can care for his family. A job is a lifeline in a region where unemployment ranges from 46 to 70 percent, and unemployment’s consequences rage across family life and structure bringing the poverty, alcoholism, abuse and suicide.

There was poverty when Mittelstadt arrived in Navajoland three-and-a-half decades ago, he said. “They were even poorer then. Hard to imagine,” he said. “Still a few buckboards then, too. Now there are pick-ups. Not much else has changed.”

People survive on sheepherding (the Navajo Redeemer on the wall behind the altar in the main church is a sheepherder), some blanket and rug weaving, some carving and jewelry making, some welfare money. The fortunate have jobs in schools and hospitals.

“Father John’s (Mittlestadt’s) philosophy,” said Speed, “is that the people are far removed physically from the church, so we take the church to the people.”

Which is why Speed, who lives in Tohatchi, spends most of her time in Coyote Canyon at St. Joseph’s Center, a Quonset hut leased from the local “chapter” (Navajo local government), where there’s a Sunday Mass, Wednesday Bible study and prayer, and Saturday AA.

Speed also operates Clothes on Wheels, the thrift store run out of the long-since permanently parked “Old St. Mary Mission” school bus. “The greatest challenge here,” said Speed, “is the poverty. There’s little employment in the Gallup area. The Navajo are like pawns in the hands of local business people who hire them only as third choice. No benefits.

“The major health problem is diabetes,” she said. “Many families do not have drinking water or electricity. A cheap way to get something to drink is to buy cheap sodas at the local markets, and those are loaded with sugar.

“The people no longer do the sheepherding with lots of walking or outside work, so they don’t wear off the sugar. It just collects in their systems. Diabetes is the number one killer out here,” said Speed, 52 years a teacher and campus minister now in her fourth year in Tohatchi.

The tribe does have a community health service, she said, and each chapter has a health representative and a home visitor. But the health and social problems exceed the resources.

Day Two: Chinle, Ariz.

The church of Our Lady of Fatima in Chinle is a 350-seat simple octagon with four small windows. The late afternoon sun has turned the leaded western window into a golden blaze almost severe enough, it seems, to melt the lead strips.

Grein loves this simple, wooden, clean-lines church. He battled to have the baptismal font situated, in keeping with Navajo ceremonial patterns, in the center of the church below the sky hole. The font’s base is in contact with the desert floor below.

Grein watched every move the contractors made as he saw the parishioner’s designs take shape, down to the male and female yeis engraved in the glass panels of the front door. Navajo yeis are protectors, holy persons who walked “a pollen path of peace and harmony,” said Grein.

Before coming here 21 years ago, the Franciscan was 10 years in the rural Philippines, three years with the Zuni Pueblos, and spent time in a New Orleans parish with two African-American missions attached. He and Mittelstadt are classmates. Grein runs the Gallup diocese Native American Lay Ministry program -- and a parish larger than Rhode Island.

Pastoral minister, Dominican Sr. Margaret Bohn handles the program to bring adults into the church, visits the Navajo nursing home and the Indian Health Service hospital, and provides religious education.

In Chinle, Adelaide Link, a Franciscan Sister of the Poor, runs Talbot House, a counseling center for the Gallup diocese. The center emphasizes education, self-esteem and parenting classes.

Said Grien, “The parishioners move easily between their Catholicism and their Navajo practices. They’re a religious and prayerful people. They’re different from the Pueblos who have ceremonies and kivas that involve the whole pueblo. With the Navajo it’s more the individual. Most ceremonies deal with some form of healing or protection. The medicine people will conduct various ceremonies -- if a Navajo is having a bad dream or feels sickly or has been off the reservation for a while and needs cleansing.”

Has Navajo spirituality influenced his own? “It’s almost a cliché, but it’s true,” he said, “that you often receive more than you give.” An Anglo minister, said Grein, brings with him “a lot of garbage” the Navajo people don’t deserve. “You have to let go of that whole way of thinking and acting,” he said.

“You listen to the people themselves and their ways, and gain a really tremendous respect for those ways. Theirs is not a Sunday morning 9 to 10 religion. Here it’s more a part of their whole daily life. A real traditional Navajo will wake up and greet the morning sun and go out and pray, and do that at noon, and at evening time.

“They have their Creation spirituality, their Old Testament. They love to sit and talk about their traditions and their ways. The Pueblo are more secretive, they have secret ways,” he said.

As for the Catholic church’s role in the Navajo’s lives of the past century, “We made mistakes. We did stupid things as church or as individuals,” said Grein. “We suppressed the culture, showed a lack of respect. Same with the Hopis.”

Seeking reconciliation

On both the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the Catholic community is seeking reconciliation and is engaged in dialogue with representatives of the tribes.

There is a 100-member Navajo Ministry group working on the reconciliation, about 40 percent Navajo, with the sisters, priests and the Navajo deacons representing the church. The deacons, as Gallup’s Pellotte explains it, “see themselves as the bridge.”

Does being Franciscan add a dimension to ministering to the Navajo?

“Franciscan spirituality and St. Francis’ ways fit in beautifully. With St. Francis we talk about Brother this and Sister that,” he said. “The Navajo, I think, are surprised by, admire or take comfort in our lifestyle, the simplicity of it.”

Will priests like he and Mittelstadt die with their boots on?

“Most probably,” he said, “I’m 63. The province has a policy that if you’re happy what you’re doing and do some updating and the people are not writing in to get rid of you, they’ll let you stay.”

Racine, Wis., Dominican Bohn has been at Chinle five years, but has been visiting the reservation since 1979. She regards her main ministry as home visiting.

“I see a very deep spirituality among the people in relation to Mother Earth. They teach me. I have a listening ear and as people share with me their joys and struggles I indirectly and yet directly do spiritual direction. I help them walk in the faith and walk with them. If they express a desire to join the Catholic faith, I explain ways in which they can do so.”

At the nursing home Bohn, who previously worked with African-Americans in the Midwest and Washington, D.C., and with Hispanics in different parts of the country, is accompanied by a Navajo speaker.

“She does some of the Navajo way and some of the Catholic way -- for she is very Catholic,” Bohn said. How does Bohn think the Navajo regard her? “The person I go with sees me as a healer.”

The Chinle parish averages 25 a year in the class for people wanting to join the Catholic church. This year it’s 35, including 22 children. The hardest part, for Bohn, is how to reach those who, over the decades, were baptized Catholics, usually at boarding school, but never continued to learn more about the faith.

“But we don’t push,” she said. “I go to homes by invitation. I’m not knocking on doors. As we walk together, changes can happen. That’s the attitude I take.”

At the Piñon Mission, Grein and two volunteers hauled wood and hammered nails to build St. Mary of the Rosary hogan chapel.

The plaintive evening church bell called the faithful to Mass. Only a half-dozen people were present. Navajos Lucille Etsitty and Dollie Whitewater had driven in. They live an hour out, out where modern amenities don’t reach.

“This is not the mainstream,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Rose Beck, the pastoral minister. “People who have a mainstream lifestyle, that perspective, would not like to live out here.”

Beck, who came to Piñon from “16 years in bush Alaska,” said, “I’ve been off the beaten path for so long, I’ve no desire to get back on. I love the Native Americans, their spirituality, their closeness to nature, their simplicity. That all speaks to me.”

Of her work in Piñon, now in its fifth year, Beck said, “Basically evangelization is a two-way street, not one-way. Every culture, every people has a spirituality, something beautiful to offer. My approach is if you can be open to their way, respect it, maybe even take part in it, then they can do the same for you. That’s how it was in the Eskimo culture. If I could live their lifestyle, their way, let them teach me their subsistence style, they could be open to mine.”

Also in Piñon are Blessed Sacrament Sr. June Fisher, a school nurse, and Franciscan Sister of the Atonement Leila Spaulding. Spaulding, who had been in Arizona only a few months, described the difference between doing pastoral ministry in Piñon and in New York state, where she came from, as having “to learn to take things as they come a little more. Sometimes things are going to happen and they don’t happen. A meeting is announced and people don’t turn up.” She is coping with the distances, the isolation. “I’m getting used to it. I like to come home.”

To the cozy Piñon trailer alongside the church.

In the hogan chapel, smoke curled up from the cedar leaves resting on the charcoal in the Navajo dish. Grein spoke softly as the gathered few walked together the Catholic way through the liturgy. Occasionally the tape recorder whirred and clicked for the Navajo portions of the Mass. The simple gathering finished as the brief twilight settled in and almost immediately turned to night.

Day Three: Keams Canyon, Ariz.

“When I first came three years ago,” said Vincentian Fr.Clayton Kilburn, pastor of the stone church of St. Joseph’s in the limestone cut that is Keams Canyon, Ariz. -- and the Hopi Nation -- “if I had 10 at Sunday Mass I was happy. Now we’re up to 20 and 30.”

In this region, the sandy soil settles. Every wall in every parish building had cracks in it when Kilburn arrived in 1996. But Kilburn, a trained engineer, could tackle those problems. The church had no money, so he borrowed the manpower -- trusties from the local jail.

“I consider that a ministry,” he said, “because they like to get out. And I always cooked a good meal for them at noon.” The work program reduced the inmates’ time inside. He also began to meet more Hopi that way. Which brings up Kilburn’s larger challenge.

There are about 8,000 Hopi on the reservation, and more off. The people live in about a dozen isolated villages and make most of their decisions at the village level. “They strive for a life of simplicity and peace,” said Kilburn. “There are a lot of things that are very admirable about them.”

However, for reasons dating to back 19th century incidents, relations between the Hopi and the Catholic church have been strained. Kilburn has been joined by a core group of Hopi who want to repair the breach.

Two years ago, after talking with the bishop, the soft-spoken Kilburn, a man of calming demeanor, took the first step in a process of future reconciliation with one Hopi layman. They called a meeting. Pelotte, Kilburn and two Hopis sat and talked.

“The bishop explained that what we were hoping for was to meet and talk about the past,” said Kilburn. “We’re trying to explain that what we’re looking for is not just some document that’s says we’ve been reconciled, but something that goes from heart to heart.”

A second meeting was suggested. Kilburn went to the Hopi villages and talked to people. Pelotte flew in. No one showed.

Pelotte and Kilburn agreed to try again; meanwhile Kilburn was invited to talk to the Hopi Cultural Preservation Board, a meeting of 15 village elders. The Hopi wanted to know if this approach was just coming from him or from Gallup. Kilburn was able to explain Pope John Paul II’s call for reconciliation. “I spoke for 20 or 25 minutes and opened it up to questions,” said the Vincentian.

“I guess I was there an hour and a half. They asked serious questions in order to be able to understand. They also asked about some articles that have certain religious significance for them that might have been taken and preserved somewhere by the church.” Kilburn said he would inquire.

Last October, a group of some 30 Hopi decided to host a return meeting with Pelotte and Kilburn. Protests from a more traditional Hopi group led to the meeting’s cancellation.

Negotiations are delicate and not to be hurried. “I’ve been told they don’t have a word for reconciliation in their language,” said Kilburn. The core Hopi group and Kilburn will persist.

Keams Canyon has probably never had a pastor quite like Kilburn. He grew up the only Catholic boy in Wilson, Ark., 60 miles from the nearest Catholic priest, and as a priest was expelled from Burundi.

Between boyhood and priesthood, engineer Kilburn in India set up a foundry, and in America sent up satellites. In India, he designed and applied for a patent on the country’s first flush toilet mechanism, The Clayton Flushing System. (His employer had a heart attack; Kilburn has no idea what happened to his patent application.)

More vitally, the young man “experienced and lived among the really poor.” Back in the United States, working in aerospace but thinking about India, Kilburn “came to the conclusion that what the world needed was not more engineers, machines or material things” but more people “to be with the poor.”

He entered the novitiate in 1972 and was ordained in 1978 at the age of 35. His first assignment was Burundi in 1979. The Daughters of Charity (the Vincentians’ sister community) were already there, and “all from different countries -- Poland, Spain, I think Yugoslavia. The common language was French.” After five-and-a-half years, with the Burundi government looking for reasons to expel foreigners, Kilburn was given 24 hours to get out.

Next he learned Spanish. He worked in California’s San Joaquin Valley for 10 years, took a sabbatical in Guatemala before Keams Canyon.

Again, for Kilburn, there are Daughters of Charity sharing the work. English speakers. This time it’s Srs. Mary Kay Schreier and Sherry Barrett.

In the mid-1990s the five Daughters of Charity provincials agreed the sisters would collaborate with Vincentian priests moving into Northeastern Arizona reservation missions previously operated by Franciscans and others.

Volunteers were sought.

Finding her way

For nine years, Schreier had been pastoral coordinator of a priestless parish in Robbins, Ill., a 7,000-population African-American town outside Chicago. She thought it was time for an African-American to take over and took her decision to the provincial who asked her what she wanted to do next. Schreier said she didn’t mind, as long as it was with the poor.

She hadn’t counted on anything so remote. Keams Canyon, hours from a town with stores, movie houses and libraries came as some contrast with urban life with everything “10 minutes away at most. Probably the most difficult thing for me,” said Schreier, who arrived in August 1998, “is finding my way around on the dirt roads. The Chicago area always has street signs and maps.” The Hopis have addresses in perhaps “First Mesa” or “Third Mesa,” meaning they live in a village or a dwelling somewhere in an area occupying hundreds of square miles, one devoid of landmarks except to the experienced eye.

There’s a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Keams Canyon with students are from a half dozen tribes including Navajo and Hopi. Schreier and Barrett, known as “the church ladies,” teach an elective weekly “values class” at the school. “It’s sort of scripture introduction,” said Schreier. “We’re kind of planning from month to month to see what seems to fit.”

On a Wednesday evening, there’s a religious education program at the home of one of the parishioners. “We might end up with 10 -- two classes of younger and older. Probably three are Catholic. The others have some connection, maybe grandparents or a mother who was baptized.”

The work “is just letting people know there’s a Catholic church here and it’s open. And we’re here to help however we can.”

One of the things she brings, she believes, is the ability to encourage people who are “very hesitant” to gradually assume leadership positions. Schreier goes to the jail every other week to hold a prayer service for the women and show a video. Most of the inmates are Hopi. “A lady from the parish, Hazel Siow, has been coming with me, for which I am thrilled,” she said.

Barrett taught school for 27 years, mainly in South and Central America. She became what she describes as “a disaster sister.” Earthquake in Bolivia -- there goes Barrett. Last August she agreed to take the opening in Keams Canyon.

She is carefully casting around, seeing where she can best help. She sees herself as “good with children,” and when she visits people with Schreier, she’s also keeping an eye on people’s health needs, to relay to the local health service.

Basically, she says, “I’m good at filling in. Whatever needs doing.” In Bolivia and Guatemala, with her language skills and familiarity with the culture, she worked the makeshift tents. “It’s like social work -- anybody sick? What do you need? But teaching all the time.” Especially the children.

That “good at filling in” could cover a lot of territory. Barrett is also “the maintenance lady” -- handy with a screwdriver and, with disaster work behind her, not a bad electrician either.

On the road again

Back on the road to Keams Canyon, Ganado, St. Michael’s and Gallup.

Two hitchhikers, high school age, a boy and girl. Navajos, educated, bright, inquisitive. And, coincidentally, Catholics. As we talked they wanted something to tell their friends about the area that their friends wouldn’t know.

So I told them they were in the only diocese in the world reputedly created on site by a future pope.

During a 1930s U.S. visit, Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII), saw this huge area from a small plane when it landed to refuel. He asked what the area was. When told it was made up of Indian reservations, he remarked it should all be one diocese.

In March 1939, Pacelli was elected pope. In December 1939 the Gallup diocese was created. Pacelli might have had second thoughts had he been traveling by car.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000