I grew up on the Navajo reservation for half of my life and fled right after high school. Yet, as I get older I find myself making my way back home as often as I can. In the subdivision where my parents live there are about 75 houses total within a few square miles. The houses vary in size, have gates and fences separating each house, and plenty of dogs. It might not be much to look at but the views are spectacular.
One summer me, my wife and our 3 daughters were visiting my parents at their home and we decided to get out of the air conditionless house. My girls were riding their bikes on the road when a van started come down the road like it was creeping. Soon, the van began honking its horn as it drove slowly down dusty rez road. When the “creeper van” got close enough for me to see who was driving I waved and the van stopped.
The driver rolled down the window and proceeded to tell me he was there to picking up local kids for Vacation Bible School (VBS). He said he was taking them to the Baptist Church at Tohatchi, a community about 15-minute drive from where my parents live. In my mind I thought how would he feel if I drove a van through his suburb unannounced and said I’m taking your kids away from here so they can learn about how the Navajo way of life? And, if I did this is how my van wold look:
Dr. Gene Green, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College suggests, “short-term mission trips” lack fully engaging in communities, like Native North American reserves, in their culture, and linguistically. Full engagement in communities, like on the Navajo reservation needs to be built on the Navajo cultural value of relationships. Mark Charles, blogger, writer, activist, has said Navajo people view everyone as either relatives or outsiders. It takes time, years even before an outsider becomes a relative.
The Navajo people have come to know what the white vans represent: VBS, giving charity, taking pictures, teaching the kids some songs, and they leave with no lasting change. Instead of doing “drive by ministry” Church groups/missionaries if they truly wish to affect change have to engage fully as a relative.
To read about someone who lived on the Navajo reservation and saw their share of white vans, read: MISSION MODELS THAT EMPOWER: Take Nothing by Rachel Charles