Baptists rise to the challenge in Navajo Nation

May 29, 2020

By Karen L. Willoughby

Daya Antone, a healthcare worker who is a member of Cockleburr Ethne Church, an Arizona Southern Baptist congregation in the Tohono O’odham Nation, holds masks delivered by Brittany Gibbs (far left), Julia Curtis and Eric Gibbs. The masks were donated to Live Love Ministries by churches and individuals in other states.

The massive Navajo Nation that covers about a fifth of Arizona (plus parts of New Mexico and Utah) is in dire straits, and Southern Baptists have risen to the challenge.

While the rest of Arizona re-opened May 15 after “stay home” directives had been in place since March 31, the Navajo Nation remains locked down until at least June 7 because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s persistent impact on the reservation.

Food, paper products, cleaning supplies and toys have been donated by Southern Baptists and others from Arizona, New Mexico and across the United States. On-site leaders anticipate the need will continue for at least another month.

“The help is going actually to three tribes,” said Tommy Thomas, North American Mission Board church planting catalyst for northern Arizona. “The efforts to help the Navajo are overflowing to the Hopi and Apache and smaller tribes as well.

“How much we appreciate the tremendous help given,” Thomas continued. “We believe as we sow into our native tribes that God will bring a great harvest.”

The outpouring of support by Southern Baptists is the result of the unusually great needs on the Navajo reservation. As of Monday, May 18, there were 4,071 positive cases of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation and 142 deaths, according to the Navajo Department of Health. This made it, on that date, the hardest-hit pandemic area in the United States, per capita.

“This is like a third-world country right in the U.S.,” said Mark Williams, church planting pastor of Cornfields Community Baptist Church, 45 miles west of Window Rock. “About a third of the people don’t have water or sewer or power. They haul water in barrels or buckets and cook with wood-burning stoves.”

With funds given by an Arizona Southern Baptist church, Cornfields Community Baptist Church is delivering food to its community in the Navajo Nation.

“A lot of people are nervous, scared, very uninformed,” the Cornfields pastor continued. “They know there’s something out there but they don’t know the whole picture.”

Williams and other pastors among the five relatively new Southern Baptist church plants and restarts in northern Arizona also listed other practices that resulted in the pandemic hitting the Navajo Nation so hard:

  • Multi-generational families living together in small dwellings;
  • Infrequent handwashing when homes don’t have running water or indoor plumbing;
  • Many people speak only Navajo;
  • Limited transportation, when few have working vehicles and the tribe’s public transportation is deemed “spotty at best;”
  • Limited communication, when there is no electricity, no internet and when even telephone signals weaken in adverse atmospheric conditions;
  • Limited understanding of the dangers inherent with the disease;
  • Limited personal protective equipment: masks, gloves, even handwipes;
  • Underlying health conditions – among them, diabetes and obesity – that can make the disease worse;
  • Limited and distant are the “six hospitals, seven health centers and 15 health stations” (according to the Indian Health Service), with all intensive care beds remaining full;
  • Limited shopping – only 11 grocery stores on the entire Nation;
  • Limited connection with the Navajo Nation’s Tribal Council or its 110 Chapter Houses, because like the rest of the Nation, they’re in lockdown;
  • Navajo Nation-wide lockdown from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday through Friday, and from 8 p.m. Friday through 5 a.m. Monday, making a communal people desperate for connection.

“There’s not only a humanitarian need but a spiritual need there,” Patty Kirchner said. She is the interim director of Arizona Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, which on May 23 took $3,000 worth of food and supplies donated by the Navajo Nation Christian Response Team to a distribution point on the western side of the reservation. In an informal partnership, New Mexico Disaster Relief was doing the same on the eastern side of the Nation.

“God is at work on the Navajo reservation and Disaster Relief can represent Him in unique ways,” Kirchner said.

The North American Mission Board’s Send Relief sent 200 five-gallon “crisis buckets” filled with cleaning supplies originally packed for hurricane relief efforts.

But it’s the “boots on the ground” efforts by Southern Baptists taking those items and others donated from individuals and churches across the Southern Baptist Convention to the people who need them that are making the strongest impact, Thomas said.

“Some families are very isolated, and the planters are telling me they have a lot of elderly native families falling through the cracks,” Thomas said. “Our planters and pastors are taking out food, water and wood to these places that don’t have addresses.”

Women’s Ministry in Kayenta, started and led by Navajo Southern Baptist women, now includes women from six churches of several denominations. During their April prayer gathering, the women discussed what they could do to help people in the crisis.

From that, a food pantry started in early May at Kayenta Southern Baptist Church with large donations from two churches, individuals, and from purchases made with proceeds from the GoFundMe page the women set up. Ministry volunteers take boxes of selected items to those in need.

Arizona hosts 22 federally-recognized tribal nations, all of which – like the rest of the state – have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona is the largest, with 18,119 in-state square miles of its total 27,413-square-mile total land area. It is the largest reservation in the U.S.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is the second largest in the U.S. and in Arizona, with 4,446 square miles of land area in the southern desert. The San Carlos Apache Reservation is the third-largest in Arizona, with 2,853 square miles.

All have emergency needs related to COVID-19. Eric Gibbs, director of Live Love Ministries and a NAMB Mission Service Corps missionary, helps meet such needs in what he and others call the “T.O.” Nation.

“It’s really created opportunities for us because the [T.O.] Nation has deemed pastors as essential workers,” Gibbs said. “We’ve been able to organize food giveaways and share the gospel. It’s been awesome!”

On April 6, Gibbs led a prayer gathering for all the tribes. Representatives from the Navajo, White Mountain Apache, Hopi, Gila River, Tohono O’odham and other tribes each spoke “of how we can be praying for them,” Gibbs said.

Prayer coupled with action makes a difference, several said.

With logistics for the humanitarian needs in place, Navajo Nation Christian Response Team Director (and Southern Baptist Pastor) Tim Tsoodle mentally has moved into a recovery phase, he said.

“The biggest part driving me now is that we have taken an extraordinary amount of losses to the pastors,” said Tsoodle, a Navajo. “We have documented cases of the pastor, wife and one of the children deceased. Two and three generations dying days apart.”

Others spoke of between 12 to 15 pastors of several Christian groups having died since the COVID-19 virus emerged in mid-March. Remaining pastors are conferring on how best to supply pulpits and meet spiritual needs of members.

“The greatest need right now,” Tsoodle said, “is an extra-ordinary amount of prayer for wisdom as we work with the stakeholders – those involved in Native ministry – over the coming famine in God’s Word.”

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