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Ministry on the reservation


WORLD Radio - Ministry on the reservation

Pastoring in the Navajo Nation has unique challenges

Mike Kleeberger Photo by Kim Henderson

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR WRITER: To get a taste for what life is really like in Gallup, New Mexico, you go to Earl’s. It’s a throwback diner on Historic Highway 66.

Then, of course, you order a Navajo taco.

WAITRESS: It comes on a fry bread. Comes with beans, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and then your choice of red or green chili. And then if you want more red or green, just let me know.

Looking through the window at Earl’s, it’s easy to see why Gallup provided the backdrop for more than 100 Western movies back in the day. It’s the desert--the kind of place you’d see a tumbleweed or two. Gallup is also a reservation border town. It’s inextricably linked to the Navajo Nation.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech titled, “The Forgotten American.” He said Native Americans faced problems caused by exploitation that would take years to overcome. He was right, if the Navajo reservation is any indication. Broken promises and broken systems have fostered dependency. Despondency.

KLEEBERGER: There's a sadness. They will smile. They can laugh. They have a wonderful sense of humor. But when you're just genuinely looking at the kids—the young people—you don't see hope and joy.

That’s Mike Kleeberger. He and his wife and their six kids moved to Gallup 26 years ago.

Kleeberger is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church. He’s also the one who suggested Earl’s, this diner. But he’s not focused on the food. He’s moved to a table where he’s talking to a woman and her children. He’s handing them a tract.

Kleeberger has a great love for the people of Gallup. And a great concern.

KLEEBERGER: Ultimately, they don't know Christ.

In Gallup, suicide is common. Family disintegration is, too. Alcoholism is a big problem.

KLEEBERGER: The presence of alcohol is this overriding fact. And it controls people's lives. The life expectancy is much different than most everywhere else.

The reservation itself is dry, so Gallup is where many Navajo go to buy liquor. One of the consequences is a high incidence of pedestrian deaths.

Kleeberger remembers when he first noticed the big lights on a road 10 miles out in the country.

KLEEBURGER: They put the lights out there because people would become intoxicated in town, start walking home, pass out on the road, and get run over.

And it’s not just a problem on roadways. Gallup is a big train hub.


KLEEBERGER: Just about 100 percent of the cases, the one common factor is alcohol.

Kleeberger says many Navajo cling to their traditional religion, which offers them no hope.

KLEEBERGER: At best, you’re dealing with the occult. At worst, it's just stuff that's been around so long, it doesn't even have any teeth left.

Navajo traditions include great fear of death.

KLEEBERGER: I don't know how many funerals that I have done that, at that point, everything is taboo.

Death is taboo. It’s forbidden to even talk about it. So after Navajo attend a burial, they must go through a religious ceremony.

KLEEBERGER: Certain plants are burned, and they go through a ritual cleansing when they walk away from the cemetery. The missionary, the pastor, is invited in at that time, because they have no real hope beyond this life.

Superstition shows up everywhere, even in the Navajo traditional dwelling, the hogan. It’s eight-sided for a reason.

KLEEBERGER: Because the devil can get you trapped in a corner. But if it doesn't have a corner, you can escape.

Kleeberger admits Gallup is a hard place to do Christian ministry. He stands in opposition to long-held beliefs.

KLEEBERGER: Our hope is not in a rite or a ritual. Our hope is in the one who has conquered death.

About 80 percent of Kleeberger’s church is Native American. Those members have to take hard stands, too.

KLEEBERGER: Family and friends will say, “You're leaving our culture.” The question should be, “Is the culture Jesus Christ?” It's not comparing a group. Our whole guide is the Lord Jesus Christ, and He calls us to a life to reflect Him.

Most of these church members have come to Christ as adults. Kleeberger says he sees them working out their faith in day-to-day decisions. Those decisions bring encouragement to Kleeberger and glory to God.

KLEEBERGER: They're putting the principles and truths of God's Word first, in spite of a lifelong upbringing of fear and superstition.

Kleeberger ends his time at Earl’s by giving an example of a church member, a woman, driving home to the reservation. The Navajo have a superstition about crossing a coyote’s path.

KLEEBERGER: And there were vehicles lined up both sides of the road, off to the side of the road. She said, “I just drove right through.” A coyote had passed there. And she wasn't afraid. That's a victory. That's taking your lifelong superstition and saying, “Jesus Christ will protect me.”

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Gallup, New Mexico.

To learn more about life on the reservation, including the challenges facing the Indian Health Service, look for Kim’s story in the March 11th issue of WORLD Magazine. It’s also available online tomorrow.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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