Being Church In A Pandemic
Pandemic Learnings in Navajoland
Leon: Ya’ at’ eeh, all is well. I greet you today in my Dine’ Bizaad, Navajo language. My name is Leon Sampson, a curate priest serving at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona. The Southeast region has three churches that serve the majority of the Navajo people on the Navajo reservation. Established in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation reservation is about the size of West Virginia. The Navajoland Area Mission has churches in all three states and serves about 170,000 enrolled tribal members on the reservation.
I served the church in my home community of Bluff, Utah, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission for four years as a transitional deacon, and graduated with a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in May of 2019. In July of 2019, I was ordained to the priesthood and called to Good Shepherd Mission to serve as curate priest with Rev. Cathlena Plummer. I have been here in Fort Defiance for a little over a year and have learned so much from this community. I am also learning what seminary could not prepare me for in practical ministry.
A new kind of ministry begins
In February of 2020, our Executive Council approved the postponing of physical church activities in all our church buildings. Shortly after, Navajo Nation mandated curfew hours for travel for all non-essential workers. All evening and weekend travel within the borders of the Navajo Nation reservation was prohibited, with a thousand dollar fine and time in jail as possible penalties for violating those orders. I started getting calls from church members requesting assistance because of the travel restrictions. Many were unable to get to the grocery store, which for some can take the whole day.
Other struggles became apparent when restaurants, Navajo Nation government and schools shut down, leaving many unemployed workers unable to buy food for their households. Families started seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, and whole family compounds had to stay isolated, unable to get essential supplies to sustain their households. The Executive Council and regional leaders of the Episcopal church in Navajoland decided that we, as a church, needed to respond to the needs of the community. This was the start of a new kind of ministry for us.
First, a list of possible recipients for food boxes was created, which mainly consisted of church members and their families. This effort began with about fifty boxes, twice a month. After a month, our parishioners started referring neighbors who were having a difficult time feeding their families or in quarantine for possible exposure to the virus. From February to November, our numbers in the Southeast region jumped to about 200 boxes and deliveries once a month. Many organizations, including the Navajo Nation emergency response management team, called on local state resources to help provide drive-thru stations where members of the community could pick up a food box. Good Shepherd Mission staff, serving as volunteers, gave out on average 600 to 700 food boxes a day.
Navajo Nation is still experiencing great need within our communities. Many of the organizations that have provided food boxes and essentials have stopped because they now lack funding or labor. We remain committed to delivering food boxes and other essential items to those who cannot travel to distribution locations and deliver to eight communities surrounding our church. Those deliveries range from a fifteen-minute drive to a four-hour drive, round trip, to meet a family member at a gas station who will distribute food boxes to their communities.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has encouraged us all to begin holding church outside our buildings. To me this is exactly what church looks like – meeting people in their most vulnerable places and showing them that someone loves them and cares for their wellbeing. Many of our food box recipients are not regular attendees at Good Shepherd, but they can tell you that they have been praying to God for help.
Food for body and soul
Our food boxes do not just contain food. We also offer personal protection equipment, clothes, cleaning supplies, Episcopal weekly lectionary readings, Forward Day by Day meditation booklets, family planter boxes with a cubic foot of potting soil and two packets of seeds, a UTO blue box and a Southeast region offering envelope. We are not only feeding a community, we are strengthening their faith in God and allowing the recipients to make the choice to seek Christ while respecting their autonomy.
We ask all recipients to fill out a form that provides personal information and lets us know their basic needs and access to running water, electricity and heating. The form helps account for the funds donated to the Episcopal Church in Navajoland, and also helps us direct them to Navajo Nation Chapter House programs. We may be helping people in the short term, but we’re also looking out for their long-term support from local resources. The many social needs among the Navajo Nation have been passed over for so many decades, and living this way has hurt the community physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. That is why I believe our younger generation has higher numbers of suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, poverty and unemployment. At times I feel that we are not making a dent in the needs of our community, but I know that things cannot go back to the way they used to be. We need to be there for the community to offer love, hope in Christ and space for healing.
GJ: One year ago, I sat at Winter Talk in Seattle, Washington, an annual gathering where Indigenous peoples from across the Episcopal Church meet in song, dance and storytelling to nurture our souls in culture, while learning and building/strengthening friendships. We planned to find ways to prepare for General Convention. How do we engage in the wider Church to show that Indigenous People are part of the Episcopal Church? How do we amplify our voices and find friends that will listen? But first, how do we engage with each other to build bonds and share our rich cultures? We planned trips, visits and mini-conferences, so larger community representatives could engage in conversation and witness each other's culture.
One week after we arrived back in our respective communities, news broke that we had just left ground zero for the first COVID-19 cases in the United States. Then on March 13, Navajoland Area Mission notified our congregations that we would close our doors and move online via social media, email and phone and text messaging. At first, we had mixed feelings about the virus and how severe it was.
Navajoland is in what most know as the Four Corners. The Navajo Reservation is about 25,000 square miles and sits in three states: New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. From our creation stories, we are told that the Navajo Nation sits within the Four Sacred Mountains, the foundation of our life. The mountains hold the stories of those who lived before us. The prayers, songs, chants and voices of generations of people still linger in the canyons, caves and crevices of each of the mountains. We are given all that we need by the mountains – food, water, a home – and they also provide us with understanding if only we listen.
Responding to need in Navajoland
In late March of 2020, the Navajo Nation began reporting cases of COVID-19 in rural communities. The Navajo Nation President began issuing stay-at-home orders and closed the Nation down. With so large an area, shelter-in-place orders and roadblocks, our people had a challenging time, like many in the United States, to provide for their families’ necessities. The main reason being, that as the whole world was struggling and COVID-19 became a global Pandemic, the Navajo Reservation, in all its 25,000 square miles, has only 13 grocery stores!
We have tons of gas stations, however, so people have enough fuel to travel off the reservation to some racist border towns to spend money while price gouging continues in some of the reservation grocery stores. In December 2020, images surfaced of a market on the reservation selling 50-count disposable face masks for $89. But I digress. These last two sentences are at least three articles in themselves.
Let’s get back to the story. So, Global Pandemic, and now all the toilet paper is gone.
In all seriousness, the Navajo Nation was struggling before the Pandemic with lack of employment, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, physical abuse and families suffering from food scarcity. A third of the reservation homes are in remote communities and do not have running water, and a fraction of the reservation does not have electricity. With the world shutting down and the numbers of positive COVID cases on the rise, we have become vulnerable to its ravages. Soon into the Pandemic, the majestic, breathtaking Navajoland became headline news worldwide as news agencies reported that we had the highest COVID-19 cases per capita next to New York and New Jersey. As our people began to succumb to this virus, families lost jobs due to closures, food became even more scarce due to frantic buying, and schools, where children are fed two main meals daily, closed.
The Episcopal Church in Navajoland and other groups across the reservation heard the voices of distress and acted. With the worldwide reporting of the ways COVID was affecting Navajo people, donations started coming in the mail. Homemade masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies and monetary donations. A few of our churches had small food pantries that served a few families a month, but with the Pandemic, we now serve more than 2000 families. We've partnered with Giving Children Hope, which provides food and clothing to add to food boxes and purchase fresh produce and meats with online donations.
Using technology to be the Church
How do we remain the Church during the Pandemic? Before the Pandemic, our online presence was not significant. Two years before the world came to a halt, Navajoland created a ministry called Cheii's Dev Shop. Cheii's Dev shop introduced technology to our churches and provided training and teachings to our people who are not tech-savvy. It provided monthly basic web development classes and computer skill instruction. It was a slow process due to funding, but we were able to create our website which offers information about our people and churches.
Then we began talking about how we could engage more on social media. For the first time, we have four new seminary-trained Navajo priests. Pre-Pandemic, Navajoland was planning our future as Navajoland Area Mission. The clergy were busy and focused on building up our nine congregations. New, vibrant ministries developed ideas about cultural revitalization and programs to support individuals in need of spiritual sustenance while walking the road to recovery.
COVID time takes a toll psychologically. How do we continue to provide ministry and support while not meeting in person? While we can never get the full effect of meeting in person while meeting online, tools like Zoom and the various social media platforms have enabled us to reach out in new ways. We use Zoom for all meetings, Bible studies and prayer times. We also use it to offer two crucial sessions to our Navajo People. With the help of assisting bishops and clergy, these sessions cover topics like “Coping in times of COVID” and “Caring for our families and neighbors in times of COVID.” They provide a safe space for small groups to talk, reflect and pray.
Living in isolation and watching the media flooded with news about death and outbreak can take a toll on one's psyche. Each day a mini prayer session can be created at home by reading the daily lectionary and the accompanying reflections and prayers that clergy write. These reflections are sent to our Navajo people via text message because wifi and internet connectivity are not always reliable.
Using technology for Church, we now reach Navajo people who did not know we existed. This time has forced us to stop, listen and serve. We heard the needs and were able to help more. The old ways are gone, and we may not go back entirely. We cannot wait for something to happen. We actively go out into the community because our livelihood relies on it or our ways will become extinct. The world needs healing, and we can offer our prayers, meditations and voice to help heal, comfort and fill space. We stumble, we fall, but we get right back up again.
Breathe and pray
The biggest take away for me during the Global Pandemic is to breathe.
At times everything feels overwhelming, but with a prayerful heart
and dedication to make our world a better place, I begin to see the silver lining.
The practice of prayer is holy and creates a space for inward thinking.
In the morning at dawn, before the sun rises,
we bring our offering of corn pollen to Creator God.
The morning is calm and quiet.
As we stand to the East, we take some time and meditate to wake our senses.
We smell the many fragrances of the earth. Damp, earthy, woodsy, and warm.
We begin to hear life waking up all around us. Birds begin singing and rustling branches.
We see the changing colors of the horizon: light blues and many shades of yellow.
We touch mother earth with the palms of our hands,
blessing ourselves in thanksgiving for life on a new day.
We offer prayers of thanksgiving, adoration and supplication.
We taste but a small portion of corn pollen and sprinkle the offering to Creator
as the sun begins to make its ascent in the sky.
All is whole again. Amen.
The Reverend Leon Sampson is a curate priest at Good Shepherd Mission Church in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Raised in the Navajoland Area Mission, he has lived there all his life and was called to serve God with the Diné people. His passions are farming, culinary arts and helping young families know Christ in their lives. He loves teaching and learning about who we are as the Episcopal church in Navajoland. He lives with his wife and children.
Gerlene Gordy (GJ) is Navajo from Coal Mine, New Mexico. Her clans are; One who walks around born into the Salt People. Edge Water is her maternal grandparents, and Mud People are her paternal grandparents. Clanship is essential to Navajo people for greeting and establishing relations. She is the Communication Director for the Episcopal Church in Navajoland (ECN) and a web developer for Cheii’s Web, which was founded by ECN. She wants to help share our stories. She has a 5-year-old daughter and husband. She has worked with children for 12+ years and enjoys sweet tea on a hot New Mexico afternoon.
- COVID-19 Resources by the ECFVP Editorial Team, an ECF Vital Practices blog, March 13, 2020
- Abundant Love in Scarce Times by Gerlene Gordy, Vestry Papers, September 2020
- Worry.... And Heart by Anna Olson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, August 13, 2014
- Navajo Millennial by Gerlene Gordy, an ECF Vital Practices blog, June 20, 2019