An Interview with Br. Keith Nelson:
You went to Navajoland this summer; how and why did this come about?
This opportunity came about as a direct invitation from our diocesan bishops in Massachusetts, for me to participate in a new component of formation for ordinands that will take effect in 2024, a period of cross-cultural ministry. Though I was ordained a transitional deacon in June of this year, they asked that I also participate. It’s aimed at building deep relationships and facilitating essential hard conversations about race. It asks white ordinands in particular to immerse themselves in the experience of church communities who are majority Black, brown, or indigenous within the Episcopal Church.
I spent some real time in prayer about it, and the prompting that emerged from the Spirit was a strong desire to spend time learning from and collaborating with Native Christians. I returned to our bishops, and we began a conversation from that request.
I have been moved and troubled by the histories of indigenous peoples, Christian missionaries, and the Doctrine of Discovery since first learning about it as a teenager. Those feelings and thoughts have been reignited in the past several years. A passionate spiritual need to enter true intimacy and synergy with the entire creation has been forming my sense of priestly calling. That has found intersection with deepening care and concern about those who have, historically, centered their whole way of life upon that intimacy and synergy: the indigenous peoples of this continent. Finally, within the last year I read the book Unsettling Truths, co-authored by Mark Charles, who is Diné (Navajo) and a Christian Reformed pastor. I wept and sometimes screamed in outrage and, by the end of the book, was convinced I needed to seriously ask: What is the invitation in the midst of this anger and sadness? Then this opportunity came along.
This was your first major work after being ordained to the diaconate. Do you see these as related?
It was sort of a holy coincidence that this lined up with my being recently ordained as a deacon. But incidentally, the history of the diaconate in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. includes a number of Indigenous deacons, and deacons have played a key role in the church in Navajoland. So it was a remarkable place to learn the ropes as a brand new deacon.
You mentioned an interest in Native Christians. How did you come to the Navajo specifically?
Bishop Carol Gallagher, our assisting bishop, is an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation. She’s well known among Native Episcopalians and other Christian communities, including the Episcopal Church in Navajoland (ECN). She had recently invited the Rev. Canon Cornelia Eaton of Navajoland to come east and speak at an Indigenous Peoples’ Day event in Massachusetts.
Bishop Gallagher urged me to connect with Rev. Eaton, with whom I developed an easy rapport, trust, and deep respect, and who became my supervisor for this placement. The ECN has channeled significant resources into raising up Navajo clergy, and there are five active at-present. Learning from each of them has been invaluable.
Tell us a bit about the ECN.
By way of background, the Navajo nation is one of the most missionized tribal nations in the United States. There’s a significant presence of many different Christian denominations, and what I learned from both the institutional and individual experience of many Navajo is that not all have been sensitive or beneficial to Navajo people, and some have done or contributed toward deep, systemic harm.
Navajo people have a history, like many tribal groups, of having been forcibly removed from their traditional lands. The U.S. military ordered Kit Carson to undertake a “scorched earth” campaign to reduce Navajo resistance. In 1863, more than ten thousand were forcibly marched hundreds of miles by the US military to Bosque Redondo, Texas. Intended as a “reservation,” it was in reality an internment prison with armed guards, in a region totally unsuited for farming. They were there until 1866. The trauma of this “Long Walk” has impacted generations of Navajo.
The Episcopal Church established medical missions, in Fort Defiance, Arizona, in 1894, followed by Farmington, New Mexico, in 1922 and then southeastern Utah in a small town called Bluff, in 1942. Those three are now organizational centers of the three regions of the ECN, which was founded in 1978 as what is called an Area Mission. So it’s not at present its own diocese, and there are some significant differences in terms of the specific role of the bishop and the bishops oversight in terms of overall financial/administrative self-sustainability of it.
I spent time assigned to different church communities in all three of these very different regions. There’s a lot of driving, what elder native clergy called “circuit riding.” In some ways, my experience of liturgical worship there was similar to many Episcopal parishes I’ve experienced; most use the BCP a lot more, in fact. But there are many distinctly Navajo elements, a Navajo hymnal, preaching that uses both languages, sacred paintings, handwoven rugs, cedar incense.
The last thing I’ll add is there was a recent resolution at General Convention 2022 called D080, which came out of Navajoland, and is specifically aimed at the election of a next bishop for the ECN by Navajo Episcopalians. As an Area Mission, their bishop at present is appointed directly by the Presiding Bishop.
What did you do there? Who did you meet? What did you learn, What surprised you? What was meaningful?
I was surprised and encouraged by the relative sensitivity of Episcopal mission on the Navajo nation in contrast to some other Christian denominations. A vivid example of that is the first church I spent time with, Saint Michael’s Church, in a place called Upper Fruitlands, New Mexico, which is within the reservation, but on the border, near Farmington.
In this church, the sanctuary is shaped like an octagon, which is meant to replicate a hooghan, a traditional Navajo ceremonial structure. The hooghan is meant in a way to represent the sacred cosmos: the roof of the hooghan is shaped like a dome, and that dome represents both the dome of the sky and the womb of a woman’s body. The door into the church is placed to the East, so that it lets in the first light of the dawn. Dawn is an especially sacred time in Navajo culture. Traditional Navajo place the dried umbilical cord of a new baby in a place that the parents hope will guide who the child becomes. My supervisor, Cornelia, is the child of a deacon and a lay pastor, so her umbilical cord was placed under the door threshold of Saint Michael’s Church! There are Navajo wall paintings throughout the sanctuary: twelve cornstalks behind the altar, corn topped by bluebirds, the bluebird who carries messages to heaven. All have significance both to Navajo traditional spirituality and to Navajo Christian faith. The movements around the altar always happen clockwise, in the same direction that people would traditionally move around the fire or the stove inside a hooghan. Those were some initial experiences that were moving and surprising.
I was really surprised by the deep resilience of these communities. The extent of intergenerational trauma in these communities goes back to the collective trauma of that period of forced removal, the Long Walk, and even farther back to the first waves of contact with the Spanish, followed by Anglo settlers and the U.S. military. This history manifests in a whole variety of ways: in alcoholism, in depression, in domestic abuse and elder abuse, in a fragmented experience of identity within the larger United States. In the midst of all these painful experiences there is deep faith, especially tended by Navajo elders, and then especially elder women. The grandmothers are crucial community figures, as they are in many Native communities. Many of the lay pastors who are now in their 70s and 80s in the Navajo community are grandmothers or great grandmothers in these communities.
How do you think this experience will have expression in your vocation (both monastic and ordained) going forward?
The first thing I can say about vocation is very personal and concrete: one of the most humbling gifts of this experience has been being put directly in touch, in radical new ways, with the inner dynamic of our vow of poverty. There were days and circumstances when I felt, “I’m not sure I have what it takes to be of benefit here, or to this person.” So many realities require direct confrontation: the weight of such historic oppression, the ways the white Church has caused or colluded with it, so much suffering. In a place of such woundedness and so many ghosts, I confronted the question: What can I possibly do to help?
A real part of the answer was simply looking into the face of the Navajo Jesus, who was all around me, and listening from a place of crucified helplessness. My ministry there was primarily listening, continuing to listen and stay put at the foot of the cross wherever I found it in people and circumstances, and not to turn away. And to be shown by Navajo Christians how this could be, and is, the place of Resurrection. The primary posture that many white male missionaries have brought to that place in the past has not been that posture. It’s been triumphalist: “I will come in and do, I will come in and build, I will come in and save, organize, plan, et cetera,” which is the essential posture of colonization.
I am eager to begin a deep listening process about how our ministry as a community, perhaps specifically at Emery House, might engage with the history of Native presence on the land entrusted to our care, and in the New England area more broadly, here in this very different part of the country. I’ve learned from indigenous Christians who truly live in right relationship with earth, as a natural and instinctive dimension of their faith. It’s deeply felt and ancestral, and it’s a ritually strengthened connection. Navajo stories and spirituality really inform their interpretation of Christian scripture. It’s a living tradition that reminds me in many ways of ancient traditions in the West, reading the Book of Nature alongside the Book of Scripture. This relationship with the land, old stories, and the ancestors that gives expression to Christian faith in fresh (but very old) ways – I am eager to explore all that in our context on the other side of this journey.
One major piece of this time was time and prayer in a significantly different land, ecology, and environment than New England. Tell us about that experience.
My experience of prayer, my ongoing relationships with Navajo people, and my experience of the land itself are quite braided together. I went on a long car trip with a Navajo friend and her two kids, one of whom is in his early thirties and one of whom is a teenager, and we talked the whole way about our lives, culture, sense of belonging, experience of family. We were en route to a weekly flea market in a town called Kayenta, where you can get anything from a new car windshield to sacred cedar beads to bootleg DVDs! They said to me, actually tearfully at one point, “We don’t have the experience of being listened to and treated with dignity by white people.” What I will remember most is experiences like that, traveling across a rocky, beautiful, sunbeaten landscape, listening to stories large and small unfolding across the miles, and realizing in my pilgrim body how the telling and the listening can shape new, healing realities.
Another experience was sitting down and listening to the cousin of one of the Navajo Episcopal clergy. This cousin is trained as a medicine person, a haatali. I was curious to learn more about the Navajo relationship with wind. Wind, niłch’i, is natural element with a central role in tradition, the role of the wind in the natural order and relationship to human and other-than-human creatures. So I asked her if she could talk about her experience of wind, and she said, “Wind is the pollinator. Without wind, none of the infinite myriad of communications that are constantly unfolding between all the creatures in the world that we share would happen.” And in the Navajo Bible, “the Holy Spirit” is translated as Niłch’I Diyinii, “the Holy Wind.” To think of the Holy Spirit as the Pollinator! For me, that’s a very exciting and rich way of understanding a traditional dimension of faith.
There was also the experience of a radically different landscape than New England, particularly the rocks and the plants, the presence of ravens and lizard and coyote, the presence of the wind and what the wind is up to. Learning more deeply the aliveness of rocks and wind, these living presences that teach a certain kind of patience and attention, for example, before a (rare) rainstorm.
Any final thoughts?
On my last Sunday I had the honor of preaching a sermon on Matthew 13, where Jesus gives us five evocative images for what the kingdom of heaven is like. And I wanted so much to reflect back to those present the treasures I had received from them. My prayer was, “To what would a Navajo Jesus compare the kingdom?” And so I offered a spin on the scriptural text: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who offered sacred corn pollen to Creator every day at dawn until the Wind filled the four directions with his prayer, and his whole life was hózhǫ́ (beauty). The kingdom of heaven is like wool that a grandmother sheared, spun, dyed, and wove into a beautiful rug; when she gave that rug to her granddaughter, her granddaughter gave up all her machine-made rugs and put her grandmother’s rug in the center of her home. The kingdom is like a bilagáana (white man) who went to the Kayenta flea market in search of fine cedar beads. The kingdom of heaven is like a church frybread taco sale! I wanted to say, “I’ve been listening, and I have heard you, and I am so grateful.” Afterward, a matriarch of the community said, “Wow, you really have absorbed how we see things! God bless you, and hágoónee’, shitsili (see you later, my little brother). I was told that in Navajo there are no goodbyes, only trust in the encounters we will surely have further down the road we share.