This past week ten members of the congregation that I serve Desert Streams Lutheran Church traveled to the Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission on a mission trip. The mission is located in Rock Point, Arizona, which is in the four corners area. It is a six hour drive for us, and for those of us who are used to living in an urban environment it is a trip from civilization to one of the most remote areas in the United States. As with all good mission trips, this was an opportunity for us to both serve and learn.
Lesson One: Time Isn’t In Our Control
It didn’t take long for us to begin our first lesson. Shortly after entering the Navajo Nation, our van shredded a tire. I had always wondered how all those tires became road kill along the highway. Now I know. We didn’t hit anything. The tire simply collapsed and disintegrated. We were on a fairly tight schedule—hoping to arrive at the mission before sunset and get settled into our living quarters before it got too late. Well, that didn’t happen.
We located the spare tire—one of those little donut things—and quickly realized that it was flat. As luck would have it, I’m an AAA member, so I used my cell phone app and requested roadside assistance. While we waited for the tow truck we removed the shredded tire and replace it with the flat donut. We then started calling (ah the blessings of cell phones) trying to locate a tire store that was open on Sunday evening and had the size tire that we needed.
Help arrived about an hour later. Tire inflated we slowly drove back to Flagstaff—about fifty miles. We made it to the tire store ten minutes before closing time. Another tire center two miles down the road was open until 10:00PM and able to mount, balance, and replace the donut with the new tire. About four hours after our adventure started we were once again on the road. The lesson we learned was that tight schedules have a way of loosening up and there isn’t much we can do about it except “go with the flow.”
Lesson Two: We Hide What We Don’t Want to See
The Navajo Nation is in Northeast Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Colorado. It is a barren land, with some areas of awe inspiring beauty, like Monument Valley. A person has to want to go to the Navajo Nation in order to get there. It isn’t an Interstate 40 easy off/easy on stop. The nation is hidden—for a purpose. The saying, “Out of sight, out of mind,” comes into my thoughts. Most people don’t see the poverty, the 60-70% unemployment rate, and the host of other challenges that the Navajo people face. Since we don’t see the situation—the people—we don’t have to ask hard questions such as “What can we do to strive for justice?” “What can private industry do that would have a positive economic impact on the nation?” and “What can we petition our government to do to aid its citizens?” Coming and seeing are important first steps in establishing justice and peace. They were important goals in our mission trip.
Lesson Three: Celebrate Both the Differences and the Likenesses
One of the greatest discoveries of travel is to realize how much people are alike. It is true that not many Navajo people lay awake at night dreaming about owning a new luxury car, yacht, or impressive home. Yet, they are like everyone else in wanting to be loved and to love, to have close, strong relationships, to be respected and to have a purpose and meaning to their lives. We can celebrate those things that unify us—not only our humanity, but also the fact we are all children of a loving God.
We aren’t all the same, though. Our differences challenge our long held prejudices and perspectives. Our differences give us the opportunity to teach each other and to learn from each other. Our differences allow us to live out that love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things”—not an easy love. There’s nothing like work (Millard Fuller the Founder of Habitat for Humanity calls it the “Theology of the Hammer”) to help us discover each other’s likenesses and differences. Ah the joy of painting, hoeing, and moving boxes!
Lesson Four: We are not All Equal
While on the mission trip, I got sick. I felt miserable, lost my voice, and had the mother of all sore throats. After two days, I realized that I needed to see a doctor. The only problem was that I was on the reservation. That meant that the closest doctor was 1 ½ hours away. That health care facility was still on the reservation, though. If I wanted “white man’s medicine,” I’d have to travel three hours. I chose the three hour trip.
Along the long desolate road to a clinic in Flagstaff I pondered (to get my mind off the pain) the injustice of the situation. At home I live fifteen minutes from a hospital and emergency room. Even my rural friends can usually get to a health care facility within 30-45 minutes. There is little justice in a system that ignores the needs of a few in order to insure the desires of the many. And, it’s more than simply justice we should be concerned about. I had a sore throat. It was bad, but it wasn’t life threatening. What would have happened if I had had a stroke or a heart attack? Medical personnel talk about the “Golden Hour.” The golden hour would have been long gone by the time I would have reached a health care facility—I probably would have been long gone, too.
Like most good lessons, I ended up with more questions than answers. My co-workers on the mission trip have the same plight. But, at least we are asking questions. That’s the only way to find answers. Even though you weren’t able to go on our mission trip, perhaps my few words wills spark some questions in your mind. Together we may be able to look for answers and seek justice.