On September 30 and October 1, First Navajo Christian Reformed Church in Tohatchi, N.M., celebrated more than a century of ministry with a two-day celebration, concluded and climaxed at worship that Sunday with a sanctuary full of neighbors and old friends.
Dozens of Christian Reformed churches are a century old, but none is quite like First Navajo, a fellowship created to bring the good news to a people who didn’t know and hadn’t heard, men and women in a Navajo culture with its own traditional views on issues of life and death. First Navajo CRC was the very first mission church created by the CRC.
Years later, in the 1980s, when the attendance was growing, the congregation determined that the need for more space meant remodeling the fellowship area, especially the space people timidly called, back then, “the ghost room.” Traditional Navajo beliefs were slowly disappearing, but some older members remained wary about “the ghost room,” so wary that the room was rarely, if ever, used.
A whole century before, when Rev. Andrew Vander Wagon determined that Tohatchi, N.M., a town with a school, offered great promise as a site for the denomination’s brand new mission efforts to Native Americans, he encountered Navajos who believed, in traditional fashion, that a dead body was a host to evil spirits, a horror.
Just a dozen years later, when the new First Navajo CRC performed funerals in its new two-story church, they risked violating long-standing Navajo beliefs simply by receiving those bodies. Some sense of that ancient notion lingered 80 years later, in the “ghost room.”
It’s easy to forget how difficult the challenge of missions was back then. Missionaries from across the reservation could go for a decade without seeing a new face at church. Today, that the First Navajo CRC sits right there where it was built in 1910 is amazing, a marvel of grace, a monument to faith, and a blessing, still, to many.
“The ghost room” was long ago converted into overflow space in the congregation’s one-of-a-kind, Midwestern Victorian church, a building whose design is so unique that it has become an icon at the foot of the Chuska Mountains.
Two Klumpenhowers preached at the celebratory worship service: pastor Gary, now retired, who spent 13 years at First Navajo; and his son David, who grew up there and is presently finishing his first year. The continuity the two of them have brought to the ministry is especially affecting in a mission church like First Navajo.
In his memoir “Gems for His Crown,” pastor Gary remembers many wonderful moments in his ministry. A priest from the local Roman Catholic parish asked him if First Navajo might just visit their church some Sunday to sing. He told pastor Gary that he found their singing “very impressive and beautiful as the sound carried over the hill and into the community.” The First Navajo singers complied, offering their favorite hymns in English and Navajo.
At its celebratory worship, a packed house filled the old church with favorites in English and Navajo once again, helped along by a praise group from Lynden, Wash. It was a beautiful service beneath the extraordinary stained-glass windows on either side of the sanctuary, windows imported from Italy a century ago, purchased by a Michigan druggist who was not a believer, just a friend. Windows, incidentally, that have never been broken.
Just recently, those beloved windows were meticulously redone by a local artist, Ruth Kamps, from Gallup, daughter-in-law of Rev. Jacob Kamps, who preached at Tohatchi throughout the 1950s.
After an entire century and then some, First Navajo CRC is still there, body and soul. Pastor David Klumpenhower preached from Hebrews 13: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
All morning, the bright New Mexico sun beamed through those stained-glass windows, laying a tapestry over the congregation of celebrants, who found it a joy to sit in the old, treasured church and know that the Creator is, was, and always will be near.
About the Author
James C. Schaap is a writer who lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.