“So Bethany, where are you from?”
“I grew up on the Navajo Reservation.”
Usually the response I get to this is either one of amazement and curiosity or a blank stare and a polite “Oh, that’s nice,” because people have no idea what I’m talking about. Well I grew up on the Navajo Reservation, a very remote corner of the world in the great state of Arizona. I am half Navajo and half European descent. I was raised by my grandma, a non-native from Pennsylvania, teaching me the ways of the Bible. Also by my grandpa, a full Navajo, who still attends the native religious ceremonies, although it is more cultural than spiritual for him. The spiritual gauge is very unique out there, as well as my testimony and vantage point.
My journey started with my grandma reading the King James Bible to me every weekend. With the combination of living in a rural place and my grandma dissatisfied with all churches, I never attended church. I spent my childhood week after week, sitting at the kitchen table, incredibly bored. With a focus heavily on the Old Testament, I was uninterested, and couldn’t understand anything but legalism. I lived my life trying to appease God through doing what was “right” and trying to avoid what was “wrong”. Even during these years, it’s amazing how God was patiently waiting for me to eventually come back and know Him for who He actually is.
Through a failed relationship and a broken heart my freshmen year of college, it lead me to truly seek God, initially for healing. I was at an all time low and through Chi Alpha I was able to start a relationship with my Savior. No more sitting bored, or confused--I clung onto God with everything I had. Nothing has ever been the same since. Yes, he healed me, and He has become so much more. He has become my everything. I continue to grow in Him, in love and understanding of what I was never taught--the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.
As I’ve matured and gotten stronger in my faith, I have been able to return home and see my land through the lens of Jesus. My heart searched the reservation and its spiritual climate only to find brokenness. The Navajo Reservation has suffered a great deal from alcohol, drugs, and abuse. If I could sum it up in one word, it would be “hopelessness”. People live hard lives with no relief. Also, I see religion coming in. There are 3 major religions--Native religion, Mormonism, and Catholicism. There isn’t enough time to talk about how religion has jaded the native people, but I do want to share my grandpa’s experience.
My grandpa was sent to a Catholic boarding school, where he shares stories with a resentful tone. They forced him to cut his hair (long hair is traditional for Navajo men), and how they would make them wash out their mouths with soap if they heard the students speaking Navajo instead of English. The time we talked about God, something that stuck out was how he never thought it made sense that he had to talk to the priest who would then talk to God on his behalf. It was then that I was able to make a clear gospel presentation of the truth.
The Mormon Church has been very successful in appealing to the Navajo people. They claim in the Book of Mormon that the Native Americans were the first people Jesus preached to upon his arrival to the Americas after his resurrection - this false gospel has won over many. They also understand what is important to a Navajo person--land. They have created a gardening project across the Reservation to help cultivate self-sustainability.
The Reservation doesn’t need any more religion, it needs relationship. It needs real followers of Jesus to proclaim the truth. It needs those who will also respect that which is important to the people- land and family. We are not here to change culture, but to bring people into the Kingdom of God. It is not going to look like your church. What a beautiful image of Heaven if we are able to preserve the cultures and customs (without compromising any of God’s commandments) all over the world. My land is so beautiful and it breaks my heart that so few give Jesus credit for the natural beauty we live in. God made and loves the Navajo Nation--so I leave you with this, who will proclaim the hope and truth we have to this hopeless and lost people?
Tucked away behind the Lombardy Street traffic circle is Virginia Union University, just two blocks away from Virginia Commonwealth University. It is a quiet campus of 1,800 students, founded at the end of the Civil War.
I graduated from VCU in 2016 and began pioneering ministry at VUU as part of the staff of Richmond Chi Alpha. Even though the schools are only a few blocks away from each other, the atmosphere and culture are notably different when it comes to campus ministry. Acknowledging the difference of my Chi Alpha college experience at VCU has opened the door for me lay down my own preferences and comfort zone and to have a fuller understanding God’s heart for students at this Historically Black University.
I am learning to resist being a bulldozer with my own personal ideas of what the Chi Alpha should look like here. This includes being willing to learn about the students, what they are wrestling with, what led them to VUU--- hearing their story and walking alongside them. Many of the students in my small group are first generation college students. The expectation and pressures are high. As I ask questions and meet students where they are, it highlights my need for the Holy Spirit to transform their lives through faithful discipleship instead of leading based on my previous experience of being a student small group leader at a very different campus. Pioneering is fruitful when you love and engage students and culture with a teachable heart.
Prayer walking has helped me to have a heart for the campus as well. I find myself asking more and more, “How can I serve this campus with a heart like yours, Jesus? How can your kingdom come in the dorms and in the common area where students gather? How can Chi Alpha play a role in that?” Sharing Jesus with students makes a difference when it starts with prayer.
Students that are not in athletics or in Greek life often find it hard to find community at VUU. This is one way we can meet needs by providing authentic community. Malik is a freshman I met during welcome week. He was worried about how he would make friends in college and he even questioned God’s existence, but through the Chi Alpha community, he has dedicated his life to Christ and found genuine relationships. It has been so exciting to see lives being changed on campus through the VUU students in Chi Alpha. Guys and girls are seeing their relationship with Jesus and the Chi Alpha community too good to keep to themselves.
Through pioneering, God is increasing Jesus’ heart and character in me. I am blessed to be an African American. Though my ethnic background has opened doors for me, there are still many things I need to learn. I have to stay informed on issues in the African American community locally and nationally. I need to acknowledge the differences between VUU and my original campus. I have to be a listener, asking questions on how best to serve students. I have to build on a foundation of prayer. And I need to look for ways to meet students’ practical needs. These are some of the insights I am learning on this journey.