Restoring Missionary Relations with the Navajo

Updates | Stories | Lives Changed

John’s muscles ache. He and his student missionary team have just finished working after a long, cold day in Arizona. They’re repairing an older house in the Navajo nation. “All done,” John says to the homeowner. The homeowner nods his head. John and his team wish him a nice day and get going. They aren’t surprised the homeowner didn’t thank them because after so many years of past missionaries making empty promises, they don’t blame him.

Serving in War to Serving Natives

John Aldax is a Missions Door missionary who organizes and directs short-term mission teams serving Native American reservations. He also works with four churches in the Navajo Nation, although that’s slowed down because of covid. He is not indigenous nor was he raised a Christian. He grew up Catholic and walked away from the church when he entered junior high. After serving two tours in Vietnam, he was surprised to come back to his two best friends and younger sister who were now Christians. They invited him to church with them, and there he heard the gospel and was saved. For the first time in his life, he felt a sense of forgiveness. He joined a Conservative Baptist America church (now known as the Venture Church Network) and worked as a youth pastor. He would serve on mission trips in Mexico, but requirements to get across the border grew more confusing and arbitrary as the years went by. He got involved in the Southwest region of CB America and met Ben Yazzie, another Missions Door missionary. Ben introduced him to Native ministry, and in 2001 John joined Missions Door.

Mistakes of Past Missionaries

While John had always been attracted to Native culture, he knew nothing about Indigenous people. He could relate to them in some ways. His grandfather was a sheepherder and John lived on a farm. Having worked on ranches, he could relate to their agrarian culture. But other than that, he had to learn everything by asking a lot of questions, which was difficult because many weren’t open to him.

John works with the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in America that crosses northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. The Navajo Nation is a sovereign nation with its own constitution and government. John resides in Nevada and does most of his work under the Utah border.

Navajo people have had many unfortunate experiences with Christian missionaries. They’re often criticized by missionaries who make unattainable suggestions without understanding their circumstances. Ironically, many of the missionaries who arrive ready to serve are expected to be taken care of – room and board, meals, etc. Because of that, the Navajo people understandably have grown tired offer gratitude to outside groups patronizing them. So, John intentionally tries to ask for as little as possible when serving, even bringing his own cooking gear.

The Reason He Serves

Not receiving a warm reception at first, especially after serving in Mexico, forced John to examine his motives and confront his theology on serving. It helped him understand the point of serving is not to receive gratitude, but to model Christ. He often asks the students who serve with him, “Are we doing this to follow Jesus’ example or to get a pat on the back?”

This is also the response he gives to Navajo people who ask him why he keeps coming back. The Navajo are used to missionary work always coming with strings attached – a requirement to go to church, become a Christian, be baptized, etc. They’re surprised that John serves their community and expects nothing in return. He lives by Proverbs 3:3-4, “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.”

Because of his consistency and commitment to the Navajo, John has been able to change the way many of them view Christianity. He’s been able to bridge gaps between the local churches and communities. If a family needs their roof repaired or firewood cut for the winter, John will work with a local church and bring out a team to help. They primarily aid elderly people who are underserved by the Navajo government and have fallen through the cracks. The relationship between John and the Navajo has gone a long way, from not having his existence acknowledged to being allowed to pray with them. He’s even been invited to major events.

Navajo Religion

Part of the difficulty of serving the Navajo comes from the divide between Natives and Caucasians. John has people wear funny shirts that say, “All my heroes have killed cowboys.” Nearly every older Navajo he’s met ran away from those notoriously abusive boarding schools. Despite that, there doesn’t seem to be animosity towards Christianity. There is, however, a lack of Catholic presence. This is due to Catholic missionaries in the past chaining Natives to pews. The Natives eventually beat the priests with their own bells, and the Catholics fled, never to return.

Many Navajo practice traditional religion that involves mythology, superstitions, and taboos. There are medicine men and shamans who practice rituals, like sand paintings, and perform healings and curses. John has noticed a demonic influence in many of these practices. This may be the reason that churches in the Navajo Nation don’t incorporate their culture like many churches around the world do. They do, however, have services in Navajo for those who don’t speak English.

Life in the Navajo Nation

Life in the Navajo Nation has positives and negatives. Poverty is a big issue. Many homes don’t have electricity, running water, a power line, or septic tanks. Lots of people live in mud homes called hogans and depend on outhouses and firewood. Because of poverty, coronavirus was especially hard on the Navajo Nation. They completely closed, but John was able to take supplies like toilet paper, sanitizer, and bleach at the leaders’ request. He worked with the local churches to take thousands of pounds of goods, including blankets and wood stoves. People are still uncomfortable with strangers in their homes, so John has been currently assisting Missions Door missionary, Allen Peil, who works on the Windriver Reservation in Wyoming.

A major positive in Navajo life is the value of family. Relatives live in homes near each other. They often introduce themselves by their clan. For many, it’s their identity, but hopefully, they can one day place their identity in Christ alone. John asks for prayer that the mission trips will impact both the ones being served and the ones doing the serving. “Outreach is more than preaching. Outreach is service and equipping Natives to do the preaching because they’ll listen to them more. I don’t want to be the focal point,” he explains. “They’ve heard the talking. They want to see it in action.”

If you’d like to support John’s work with the Navajo Nation and currently the Windriver Reservation, you can do so here.

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