We were first-tier candidates back then, young marrieds, newly-arrived Arizonians. College-educated, perfectly suitable youth group leaders. No experience, but no matter. My wife and I were just kids ourselves, young and “relevant,” as someone on the council probably said.
Our first youth retreat was 280 miles away, north and west, at Rehoboth, New Mexico, a place I remembered visiting as a kid way back in the 50s when my dad wanted to have a look at the place he and Mom had supported for just about as long as they could remember. So in 1973 I went back to the northwest corner of New Mexico with a van packed with teenagers, sleeping bags, Fritos, and M&Ms.
Rehoboth. What did I know about Native American history? Nothing. What did I care? Probably less. We had squirrelly teens to control that weekend, and I didn’t have time to think about Navajos or Zuni.
Two of us youth leaders volunteered to stay up late and supervise. When it seemed clear no shenanigans were in the offing, what was left for us to do until early morning but talk?
I knew the guy I was with, but not well enough to know he was himself a Rehoboth grad, his father a missionary. He told me that when he was a child his weeks began when his dad, the preacher, dropped him off at an apartment on the compound and then did camp visits out on the reservation. Come Friday, he’d pick up his 7-year-old. Seven years old.
Our conversation took a serious turn, as conversations often do late at night. Being a first-grader living in the basement of one those old houses up the street at Rehoboth was awful, he said. No dorm room, but a cold, wet basement—just him and another boy a couple years older.
The black New Mexico sky was alive with stars. He said he remembered what he’d felt when his father left on those early Monday mornings—abandonment and hungering loneliness.
I’d never thought about missionaries quite that way. I was a kid when Ecuadorian Indians slaughtered five messengers of the gospel, who became thereby greater heroes in my book than any major league clean-up hitter. My fellow youth leader, a missionary kid, had had an appalling childhood. It was hard for me not to despise his father.
“It took me 35 years to forgive him,” he told me in the dark silence.
“He asked for forgiveness?” I said.
He shook his head. “When some of those old Navajos died up here on the reservation, their families would call, long distance, to ask him to do the funeral,” he told me, nodding his head. Time after time that happened. Only then, years later, did he realize that his childhood was brokered for the souls of men and women who wanted his dad to do their funerals. He was 35 years old before he could forgive his father, he told me. And he did.
“And your sister?” I said. He’d spoken of her too.
“She hasn’t spoken to my father for years.”
This guy, this youth leader, I probably don’t need to say, was white, not Native.
One has only to imagine how even more traumatic, how greatly more painful, how psychically disturbing a boarding school was to many Native kids, taken as they were from childhood’s most precious intimacies and given—some would say force fed—a new, unfamiliar way of life in a language they often had to work to understand. Not to mention a structured, doctrine-heavy religion that pushed them to reject the only way of life they knew.
When years later I wrote a book for Rehoboth Mission, a Zuni grandmother told me how impossible it had been for her to think of her parents as “lost.” Her father was a dedicated, traditional Zuni, a renowned athlete, a Kiva songwriter who knew all the Zuni myths, not to mention the rich tribal history. But the implication she couldn’t miss in a Christian school was that traditional parents were dead wrong about faith and therefore dead wrong about life. “It was simply understood,” she said. “To this day, I don’t condemn my father for what he believed because so much of his teaching was and is still good,” she told me just a few years ago.
Even if teachers didn’t say it outright, to the children of traditional Native people the implication was unmistakable. There was but one way to glory, to Jesus, only one—and her father, a man she loved and respected, wasn’t on it. What’s worse is that that trail led to hell. For her to think of her father as being dead wrong and damned on top of it was monstrous.
When I left her home that night after the interview, I told myself I’d heard something I’d never been forced to consider before—that killing the “old man” of sin (in doctrinal terms) was excruciating to many Native kids for other reasons than the Bible might suggest. At least that 7-year-old white missionary kid in the basement didn’t have to learn a new language or judge his parents’ faith.
It’s a blessing to know that that Zuni woman is a lifetime member of the CRC.
Yet another woman, another grandma, made no bones about it; she refused to tell me everything that happened to her in the boarding school at Rehoboth because there were things that went on back then, she said, in the early 50s, that no one should ever know, even though she certainly remembers.
She explained to me that she hadn’t seen teachers or dorm matrons abuse kids in her years at the school, but she’d seen too much of another kind of abuse—kids abusing kids. There are things she’s forgiven, she told me, that she’ll never forget. It was not easy for a child of a tight-knit, growing family to be taken away from those she loved and brought into the round-the-clock company of some kids she certainly didn’t.
The whole boarding school experience left deep scars on many Native kids, she told me. Years later, she worked for Rehoboth for some time—did public relations work, in fact. That position gave her opportunity to speak with alums who simply wouldn’t set foot on the campus. She understood the darkness that coexists with missionary efforts among this nation’s Indigenous peoples.
Another man, a Navajo and a grandpa, a man who served the tribe in significant political office, described to me the difficulty of being suddenly out of his element—snatched from the sheep and the goats and the open range he’d known intimately as a boy and swept into a completely different world.
“I didn’t know a word of English—didn’t get a word of what people were saying,” he said, describing those first difficult days. But it was the military-like regimen that bothered him—marching off to dinner, marching off to school, marching off to church, two by two, like long lines of cavalry.
The full effect of this Rehoboth education on him is and was complex, having produced memories as heavy-laden with shame and anger as they are blessed by the love of teachers and staff he will never forget. Making peace with a cultural tradition that has decimated your own is not an easy task for anyone, especially when many Native people consider Christianity nothing more or less than the religion of white people. Throughout the continent, the Christian faith was proffered exactly that way, as it likely was for some time at Rehoboth—and by my own ancestors.
Way back in 1873, three young Yankton men created “The Brotherhood of Christian Unity.” One of those men was Phillip DeLoria, grandfather of Vine DeLoria, who much later wrote Custer Died for Your Sins. “The Brotherhood” realized the significant rift rising between those of their people who accepted the Christian faith and those who stayed instead with traditional Native culture. What those young men set out to explain about themselves is helpful in understanding the effects of Christian missions in First Nations cultures, even among those Native people white believers call “converts.”
“We Indians,” they wrote, “before the coming of the white man, knew what was good, but not what was very good. We knew what was bad, but not what was very bad. The white man has brought us the very good and very bad.” And then this: “Our Blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the very, very good.”
White Christians generally have no problem whatsoever believing “the very, very good,” but they have all kinds of problems understanding, accepting, and asking forgiveness for bringing with them the “very bad.”
The story is hugely complex. What is not negotiable is that the First Nations people who were here didn’t ask any Euro-Americans if they could come ashore. They didn’t. Those of us who aren’t Native are the original “undocumented.” That’s a verity that can never be forgotten.
But what about Rehoboth? Was it long ago a hall of horrors? Was the CRC mission effort any different from other boarding schools? How can we judge our own century-long mission efforts? It isn’t easy.
A good Navajo friend of mine told me that his Marine buddy, an Assiniboine from Minnesota, could not tolerate even hearing the word Pipestone because that word conjured horrors from his boarding school experience in that southern Minnesota town. But Adam Fortunate Eagle’s memoir, Pipestone: My life in an Indian Boarding School, is full of boyish hijinks, school kid fun.
There are stories, and there are many, and they’re not all the same. Not every Navajo or Zuni kid at Rehoboth experienced distress that would haunt him or her for a lifetime.
Another Navajo grandfather remembered a whole different world at Rehoboth School. As a boy in the dormitory, he was told by older boys that a strange light above the cemetery seemed to be stalking them. The only view of death he’d ever had was rife with evil spirits that could take hold if you were anywhere close to the dead or dying. He was a boy and couldn’t help seeing traditional Navajo monsters in the description.
He told me how, that night, the matron came over, sat beside him on his bed, and listened to him repeat the story about that spooky graveyard apparition. “No, no, no,” she told him lovingly. Not in English either, he told me, but in Navajo, his own language of intimacy. “Don’t you ever think that way,” she said.
He slept well. “She treated me just like a mom,” he told me.
He remembered hearing the milkman come to the dining hall in the morning, the sound of glass ringing in a steel carrier. “I never had milk before I came,” he told me—goat’s milk, sure, but never cow’s milk. It was just after the Depression, and poverty ruled the reservation. He remembered feeling comforted at night by the matron, being prayed for in his fears. “After I became a Christian,” he said, “then I knew what it was that night—it was the love of God, the powerful Spirit himself, the Holy Spirit right there.” He couldn’t help but smile at me then when he told the story. Tears brimmed in his eyes. “That’s how real it was then—and still is now.”
It seems to me that what Philip DeLorea meant when he spoke of “the very, very good” is at least something of what that old Navajo grandfather felt a half century ago and still feels today.
Despite the mistakes the Christian Reformed Church has made—and they were legion; despite our prejudice, our arrogance, our inability to know how to separate culture from faith; what the denomination did—what God almighty did through the CRC in New Mexico—may well be among our greatest success stories. Last year, Rehoboth Christian High was voted among the nation’s best Christian high schools. But none of the others—in Iowa, New Jersey, Washington, Michigan, South Dakota—were created for other people’s kids.
As is true of every other mission effort among Native people, we did so much wrong—but God’s been there somehow.
And so are we. Still. More than a hundred years later. That’s very important.
Since retiring, my wife and I live in the country, where every morning when I wake up, I can’t help but note a sunrise against the wide skies all around. Sometimes I step outside and stand in awe. Some mornings a late-night shower is still breaking up against the dawn, and what covers more than half of what I can see of the entire world is an art piece that goes beyond anything any canvas ever held. It’s here, and then it’s gone. But the beauty lingers.
John Calvin maintained that when we honestly note what we can of God's immensity, we can’t help recognizing in that vision our frailty because we know for a fact that we simply are not what God is and therefore stand in need of his great grace. Awe—the fear of the Lord—is the beginning of wisdom.
Just across the river from us, some Yanktons on such mornings may well have stood outside the flaps of their tipis and noted the very same thing. It was very Native to make that moment a ritual, to stand there daily. It was good for the soul.
In his new book American's Original Sin, Jim Wallis makes the claim that our problems as a nation have a great deal to do with white America's inability to make peace with a past that includes treating ethnic and racial minorities as immaterial, as not quite fully men and women and children. That transgression, Wallis says, emphatically, is America's "original sin."
“If white Christians hope to build multiracial and multicultural communities of faith," he said, "they must be prepared to listen to and include worldviews and technologies of nonwhites and non-Westerners."
We’ve done a lot of preaching on the reservation, but it’s taken us years and years and years to learn how to listen.
"That process can begin,” Wallis says, “by recognizing that many non-Western expressions of Christian theology have just as much to teach us about God as Calvin, Luther, or German popes do."
Come now, Jim Wallis. You can’t be serious. Calvin?
If your busy schedule allows you a minute, tomorrow check out the dawn.
Please see the "Doctrine of Discovery Response Update" (p. 27) for the denomination's ongoing efforts in walking alongside those who are affected.