By Gabriel Stovall
“‘Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord; ‘I will place him in the safety for which he longs.’” —Psalm 12:5, ESV
Send Relief missionary Jason Tipton quotes Psalm 12:5 as if it were God’s personalized love letter to the Navajo Nation.
“This is exactly my hope and my heart for the Navajo people,” Jason says. “I see God doing amazing things and opening up amazing doors for us to minister to them.”
Meeting tangible needs of the Navajo Nation is a good place to start. Just ask Rob McIntosh.
Rob is lead pastor of Creator’s Fellowship Church in New Mexico. He has dedicated his life to serving the Navajo Nation in ministry for a while, and he could hardly curtail his excitement when two pallets of food from Send Relief—over 10,000 meals—showed up in the last week of May for him to distribute. This coming just a few weeks after Send Relief’s crisis buckets donation.
“Rob texted me the day after they received our latest shipment,” Jason says. He wanted to express his gratitude. Rob will tell anyone who asks him that one of the most critical tangible needs for the Navajo Nation during this pandemic is nonperishable food items. But it’s really more than a need. It’s a tool to help build the kind of relationships needed for the gospel.
Chad Spriggs is the Send Network Director for New Mexico and a volunteer pastor at Anchor Church, a Southern Baptist church plant that’s helped start eight churches in just five years.
Chad came to the Farmington, New Mexico, area from Texas more than 20 years ago. According to his wife Deana, who was born and raised on the Navajo Nation reservation, he was an eager, confident guy who never met a stranger. It still took eight years before he truly became family.
“It wasn’t until I ended up co-officiating a funeral for a death in the family that they truly embraced me,” Chad says. “It just shows how big family is here, and how much you have to win their trust to be able to gain their hearts—especially when it comes to sharing the gospel.”
The coronavirus pandemic has actually provided the context for organizations like Send Relief to help pastors build these relationships.
“And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28 ESV
Some parts of the New Mexico reservation feel like a throwback. No electricity. No running water. Few or no means of convenient transportation.
The systemic poverty is one of the reasons why the Navajo Nation, with its 5,479 positive cases and 248 COVID-19-related deaths, has surpassed New York City as the United States epicenter of the coronavirus.
Chad says the lack of modern technologies and the inability to disseminate information quickly creates a lag that makes informing people about coronavirus awareness and prevention tedious.
“It may seem crazy to some, but the most common way for people on the reservation to get their news is through the radio,” Chad says. “And those are battery powered, because, remember, there’s no electricity. Because of that, it often takes people a couple of days longer to get information.”
“In our culture, for greetings, we shake hands,” Deana adds. “And it’s deemed very disrespectful to refuse to shake a hand in greeting. The other thing is that families usually live very close to each other. So, it isn’t abnormal to see entire families being infected.”
Deana also talked about the risk of people having to travel hours to the closest cities of Phoenix and Flagstaff in order to get supplies. Because few people have their own transportation, traveling in packs is the norm.
“And that increases your chances for being exposed,” Deana explains.
Volunteers assemble food care packages for distribution.
“…Therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.” —Jeremiah 31:3b ESV
Likely no one on the reservation would say they would voluntarily choose to be part of the nation’s new coronavirus hot spot. But Ty Platero, a pastor and the infinite commander for faith-based relief efforts on the reservation, says his work with the Navajo Nation Christian Response Team lets him see God show Himself powerfully through the difficulties—particularly through food distribution as a starting point for sharing the gospel.
“This kind of need meeting is really the first part in establishing relationship with the community,” he says. “Send Relief has been a big part of that. We’ve had the crisis buckets go out and now the food pallets, and people just love getting those things. It communicates to them that the love is genuine and intentional. I think because of the coronavirus, it’s actually made people realize more that they need help from others to survive. They’re trusting a little more.”
That’s good news for those with a burden to reach a people group that has historically distrusted Christianity. Deana is a testament that the gospel can change lives among the Navajo Nation.
“Even though Christianity has been considered a white man’s religion, I still grew up in the church, even being born and raised on the reservation,” Deana says. “My mom became a believer first. I attended church every week, and my dad didn’t. On our way home one day, we had a really bad accident. Our car slipped on a patch of black ice, and the grace of God saved us and kept us from falling off a cliff. After that, it really changed my dad. He stopped drinking; he started going to church.”
Deana and Chad both have seen signs that hearts of the Navajo people are softening to the gospel because of churches and believers committed to loving the Navajo Nation for the long haul.
“I definitely think that things like the food distribution, the buckets of supplies, it all makes them feel like people do actually love them and care,” Deana says. “And those are the things that they don’t forget.”
Ty tells a story of an older pastor who has ministered consistently to a family over the years, walking with them through various ups and downs, including seeing the entire household get infected with the coronavirus.
“The last time we saw him, he was so overjoyed because he was able to help meet their needs. That led to them regularly listening to his sermons, wanting to have deeper conversations and wanting to worship at their church when everything opens up again,” Ty says.
“Some of the students around here, some that are just blatantly atheist and agnostic, they’ll see the different organizations like Send Relief and others providing food and showing love, and they’ve said to me, ‘Is this what The Church is supposed to be? Because we like this.’”
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” —Philippians 1:6 ESV
A truck loaded with boxes of meals gets set to head out for distribution.
Rob has been served the Navajo Nation for almost five years—this after a stint ministering to the Lakota Nation in South Dakota. He’s been around long enough to see many attempts to evangelize natives fall flat, only working to cement stereotypes about Christianity, rather than destroy them.
“When white church or white man’s religion came, and I know it wasn’t intended this way, but the message was, ‘We love you. Jesus loves you. But we really don’t like the way you are,” Rob says.
That’s beginning to change.
“Because of the compassion ministry of Send Relief, I’ve seen where we’re able to sit down, do life and sit across the table to show them what the love of Jesus really looks like. It helps give us the ability to build a church that allows them to worship the Creator who died on the cross for their sin while still being able to be who they are as Navajo.
“It takes an investment of time,” Rob adds. “You’re not going to see life change here in a moment’s notice. Because of years of evangelism that has been misunderstood, there’s a lot of Navajo people who know the Roman Road (to Salvation) better than Christians, but there’s no life change. But being able to come and live Christlikeness day in and day out, allows them to see who Jesus is and to trust Him with their lives. That this is not just a religion. It’s a way of life.”
While continuing to pray, you can give to the work Send Relief is doing in the Navajo Nation by going to sendrelief.org/donate