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Planting a Crop of Relationships in Navajoland

This is the first of two reports from the Episcopal Church in Navajoland. The second report is here.

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. – Ordained last year at age 45, the Rev. Leon Sampson, curate at Good Shepherd Mission here on the Navajo Nation reservation, is still getting to know the local community.

Inez Velarde at St. Luke’s in the Desert

But on days when there’s food to deliver, Fr. Sampson shows up like a trusted old friend at homes squirreled away in trailer parks and clustered in hillside carveouts. He knows which wandering horses will trot up to say hello, which dogs require special handling, which homes have a disabled person inside, and which ones have been ravaged by COVID-19. With coronavirus infection and death rates on the reservation nearly twice as high as in the hardest-hit states, a food-bearing Navajo priest gets a warm reception.

“In this house here – she has lots of grandchildren, so we’ll give her diapers, too,” Fr. Sampson says as he pulls up with a 10-by-6-foot trailer in tow, packed with provisions for the monthly delivery. He opens the door of the church’s GMC Yukon and announces his arrival.

“Hey, we’ve got some food for you!” he calls, and Debra Wauneka comes outside with a smile. “And here’s a starter box and some soil to help you teach your grandkids about gardening.”

Sampson’s micro-level insight stems from this new ministry that was spawned by the pandemic, a lifeline for remotely located Navajo. Fueled by churchwide generosity, the ministry is breaking the ice, not only between Sampson and individual Navajos, but also between the Episcopal Church and the tribal community. It’s enabling the church to start addressing a raft of material needs and plant a crop of new relationships.

Fr. Leon Sampson

What began as a food outreach of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland (ECN) to church-affiliated families has grown to encompass 300 to 400 households per month. Some recipients have Episcopal ties, but most do not. These families live too far from the distribution hubs to be noticed by other humanitarian outreach projects, says ECN Bishop David Bailey.  Thanks to this ministry, Navajo families can stay at home and eat healthily, and get relief for other needs, from clothing to heating fuel.

“The food boxes help us out a lot because it keeps us from having to go out and get exposed to the virus that we know is out there,” says Jolena Yazza, who shares her trailer home with four other adults, including her 88-year-old father who suffers from dementia and is high-risk for virus complications. “I know a couple people who’ve had it and recovered. These food boxes make [the virus] avoidable.”

Sampson finds his burgeoning flock where modern infrastructure ends and interdependence is a way of life. His route winds from Fort Defiance up through Blue Canyon on lumpy dirt roads. All the while, his high school-aged daughter rides shotgun and keeps track of deliveries on a handmade map.

They pull into dirt-patch hovels where vehicles on blocks don’t run but plenty of unsaddled, unfenced horses do.  So do packs of collarless dogs, when they’re not lounging five or six to a home. Here prefab units and other modest designs rely on plywood patches to cover exterior holes. Worn-out tires are repurposed for all sorts of tasks: holding down roofs, fencing off boundaries, and getting piled high into “snowman” sculptures just for fun. An estimated 30 percent of Navajo Nation residents lack running water, which explains the outhouses, metal water tanks lined up outside, and hoses snaking from tanks into windows en route to a sink.

COVID-19 has been devastating under these conditions. As of October 10, 6.1 percent of Navajo Nation residents had tested positive, versus 3.7 percent in Louisiana, the most infected state. The death rate on Navajo Nation was .33 percent, as compared to .28 in New York City and .18 in New Jersey, the state with the highest death rate. Put another way: the likelihoods of contracting or dying from COVID-19 are nearly twice as high in Navajo Nation as in the most high-risk states.

It’s easy to see how COVID-19 has left such a trail of destruction. Many who’d left the reservation for service industry jobs returned home to Navajo Nation when virus-driven shutdowns led to layoffs. Some reportedly brought the virus with them. Overcrowded housing, poor sanitation systems, lack of running water, and high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes have all helped the coronavirus wreak more damage here than elsewhere.

A volunteer prepares to deliver food boxes

Encouraging Navajos to stay at home and boost immune systems are primary goals of the new feeding outreach, an uphill challenge here in this vast food desert. Only 13 grocery stores serve an area the size of West Virginia. That’s a big reason why deliveries include not just citrus and nutrient-rich vegetables, but also soil, seeds, and cedar planting box for starting a vegetable garden.

The food-growing component “teaches a generation how to sustain itself,” Fr. Sampson says. “We don’t just deliver and feed people because they’re in need. We also give them a choice for how to dictate their own future. Respecting that gives them a sense of pride, a sense of identity. It’s not just a charity case.”

This outreach would not have been possible as recently as one year ago. ECN had no obvious entrée and no wherewithal to engage people like Ms. Wauneka in her neighborhood tucked away in the wooded hills outside Fort Defiance. Nor did ECN have the financial muscle to spearhead outreach beyond its other hubs in Farmington, New Mexico, and Bluff, Utah.

Despite acute material needs on the reservation, where 43 percent live in poverty, ECN has been limited in what it could do over the past 10 years, according to Bishop Bailey. As the only area mission in the Episcopal Church, ECN receives funding for operating costs, and priorities are set in consultation with the Presiding Bishop. The mandate has focused on building up indigenous leadership, rebuilding physical infrastructure, and ministering to the Episcopal flock, who are concentrated in nine congregations and two house churches. Impactful relief work in the wider community has been largely beyond reach – until now.

“This is a whole new ministry for us, and it’s been caused by the pandemic,” Bishop Bailey says.

Jim Ellison and Rosie James receive food from Good Shepherd Mission

Support for the work comes from a patchwork of donors of monetary and in-kind gifts. Supplies for distribution come in part from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and from a California-based nonprofit called Giving Children Hope. Costs incurred by ECN include those for long-distance transportation, such as refrigerated containers and trucking fees.

Once-a-month food distributions (down from twice a month over the summer) cost about $30,000 to fulfill, Bailey said. Individuals, congregations, and dioceses have largely bankrolled the work. Donors have given four freezers and two trailers, he says. The Diocese of Northern Michigan has organized national fundraising efforts for Navajoland. The Diocese of the Rio Grande diverted its wholesale account with Sysco to help keep Navajoland pantries stocked last spring.

Now Bailey hopes the giving will continue as the church strives to help not only with food but also with heating assistance this winter.

“My biggest fear – and I’ve expressed this to a number of dioceses and others – is that we’d get into the deep fall and winter, and people wouldn’t continue to see the need” and stop giving, Bailey says. “This is not going away for us in Navajoland. I do not see us being able to have any relief from this until there’s a vaccine.”

The Navajoland Area Mission was created in 1978 with a vision to raise up indigenous Episcopal leaders. Today ECN receives $1 million in the triennial Episcopal Church budget for 2019 through 2021, but that hasn’t been enough to shield staffers from sharing in pandemic hardships. An across-the-board 10-percent salary cut this year has forced priests and others to cut back on personal spending.

“For me, it’s meant giving up meat, living on beans, going vegetarian,” says the Rev. Michael Sells, priest in charge of All Saints Church in Farmington, on the reservation’s edge. “If somebody gives me some chicken, I’ll cook that. Living on beans gets a little boring.”

But even as clergy weather hardships of their own, the new feeding ministry is giving them an opportunity to make a difference for their fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen – and to make ministry connections where they hadn’t before.

The Rev. Canon Cornelia Eaton

Fr. Sells, Fr. Sampson, and the Rev. Canon Cornelia Eaton, canon to the ordinary, are all Navajos. They are among seven ordained indigenous leaders who are helping fulfill the ECN vision. Through the food outreach, the wider community is encountering the new, long-awaited face of the church.

“People are becoming more aware of what we’re doing here,” Canon Eaton says. “I think what they see is Navajo clergy. And when you have Navajo clergy, Navajo clergy understand… With some of the natives, they don’t trust Christianity. They don’t trust churches. They don’t trust any of that because of the painful legacies brought upon the indigenous peoples. But I think they’re beginning to see us now as a church that is not about that. We’re a church that is about repairing relationships, reconciling and meeting them where they are.”

When Eaton and Sells set off from Farmington to deliver food on a warm fall day, their first stop is the micro hub for outreach: St. Luke’s in the Desert, a tiny stone church on a sagebrush-dotted hill overlooking an austere, sunbaked landscape. It is the church of Inez Velarde, a 68-year-old COVID-19 survivor, lay leader, and friend to all in need. If anyone needs help in this barren land 30 miles southeast of Farmington, they know to tell Velarde. Her connections make it happen.

Once a few food boxes are set up in St. Luke’s hall for anyone in need to pick up, Velarde leads Eaton and Sells to bring food to a family she hears is hurting. Dirt roads lead to an isolated trailer home. The only neighbors are vehicles, scattered in a de facto automotive graveyard where car windows get used for target practice. On the ground are empty snack wrappers, worn-out tires and six dogs. Two teens come out for the food.

“My mom and dad are home but they just don’t like coming out and talking,” the teen girl says.

“That’s understandable,” Eaton says. “I’m a priest down there at San Juan Mission at the Episcopal Church. We try to get food out to families. Is it helpful?”

“Yeah,” she says. She goes on to answer Eaton’s questions, explaining that the only way to complete her homework now is via cellphone.

Jessica Tso has two teenage daughters sharing a twin mattress

Such moments capture how Navajo priests are building new ties beyond the Episcopal community. Loading boxes and other food-related chores alongside other men gives Sells a window into their lives, he says. The experience tells him who needs work, who needs diapers, how many live in a given home, and so forth.

The insights help. Talking with Jessica Tso during her food delivery, Sampson learns she has two middle school-aged daughters sharing a twin-sized mattress. He tells her about a new program targeting the Navajo Nation bed shortage: it can get her a new mattress, box spring, and frame. He says her family could get help in other areas, too, such as securing coal for this winter’s heat and hauling water.

Down the road, Sampson learns Wauneka, the grandmother, isn’t just feeding herself and a few grandkids. She’s feeding nieces, nephews and other relatives. If any vegetables spoil, she feeds them to horses roaming the area in search of food and water, but most of it gets turned into meals for the neighborhood, where she says everyone is related.

Before the pandemic, “I used to feed like maybe 15 or 20 people per day,” Wauneka said, noting that she would feed children whose parents worked late, and others. “Now I usually call them and tell them to pick [the meal] up somewhere that I can leave it. They come and get it.”

Getting familiar with neighbors’ needs can shed light on unexpected dangers. Hand sanitizer, it turns out, isn’t for everyone. Sampson warns pantry volunteers to watch out for one particular family. Sampson has been to their home, which had no exterior door until the church supplied one, and he knows what they do with sanitizer there. They dilute it with water and stay drunk all day, nursing what becomes for them a toxic cocktail known as “ocean.”

As more material needs and challenges come to light, the church intends to keep responding as long as support for doing so holds up. And those on the frontlines are hopeful about where this array of new relationships might lead.

“The pandemic for us has been horrible, but the other side of the pandemic will be extremely beneficial for the work that we’re doing in Navajoland,” Bishop Bailey says, “because of the relationships that we’re building that were not available to us prior to the pandemic.”

The second article in this two-part series will explore how the Episcopal Church in Navajoland is relating in new, encouraging ways to Navajo culture.


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