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Reservation Revival: God is moving among American Indians

By Kirk Noonan

Gigantic multi-layered clouds move across the evening sky, which is awash in belts of orange and yellow. On the ground, sagebrush and jagged buttes stretch for miles in every direction. Our map places us between Gallup and Shiprock on Highway 666 in New Mexico. In front of us is Newcomb Assembly of God. Nearby are an abandoned trading post, a school, a chapter house (one of 110 Navajo Nation government meeting places) and a cluster of homes. But it’s here in the high desert, and in other areas like it on New Mexico’s Navajo and Jicarilla-Apache reservations, that the love and hope of Christ are transforming lives and providing spiritual oases for American Indians.

As John Maracle, president of the Assemblies of God Native American Fellowship, and I enter the church we are greeted by praise music and a sight common here on Saturday nights. Worshipers – some kneeling, others prostrate – are strewn about the sanctuary like plastic army men on a child’s bedroom floor. Their cries for the salvation of their family and friends and for revival to sweep across the reservation send chills down my spine. "Bring revival, Lord, bring revival," cries one woman. "Touch the hearts of our people," says another.

"We felt if we were going to see God move we were going to have to pray," nationally appointed home missionary and pastor of the church Duane Hammond, 63, says. "There is tremendous potential for revival on the reservation and we believe it’s going to start with prayer."

Evangeline Yazzie, a Navajo and member of the church, agrees. Yazzie, like many American Indians who commit their lives to Christ, is determined to share her faith and longs for revival. "We want to win our families and communities to Christ," she says. "There are a lot of government programs on the reservation, but many are not working. Our only hope is Jesus."

After the prayer meeting, Hammond, Maracle and I climb into a shiny blue Dodge Ram 4x4 truck that Speed the Light purchased for Hammond. Gravel crackles beneath the wheels of the big truck as we cross the church’s parking lot. Less than a mile from the church Hammond veers onto a rutted dirt road that winds through thick sagebrush. He carefully maneuvers the truck around massive potholes, but some prove unavoidable. After crossing a riverbed and enduring a handful of bone-jarring bumps, we come upon several dwellings called hogans, which are octagonal shelters outfitted with little more than a stove and bed.

Clusters of hogans, shacks and tiny houses pepper the desert landscape. Some who attend the church, says Hammond, live in these settlements without running water or electricity.

"Life is not easy here, but these are people who need to hear the message of Christ," Hammond says, as we find our way back to the highway in his now dusty truck. "It’s tough to get people to come and minister because the area seems so desolate."

"Our district’s biggest need is for more workers," Kenneth George, superintendent of the New Mexico District, tells me later. "We are dedicated to seeing revival on the reservations."

Just before we leave, Hammond hands us an issue of the Native Pentecostal News, of which he is the founder and editor. "Our hope is that people will get a burden for American Indians," he says. "In time, mighty spiritual things will happen on this reservation if the workers will come."

Making friends
Pinedale Indian Assembly of God is surrounded by mobile homes, rocky bluffs and miles of wide-open space. Earlier in the day as we neared the church we passed street vendors who beckoned us with fried bread, soft drinks and Indian artifacts and crafts along the main road. When we arrive at the church it is evident that it is nearing disrepair. The roof needs new shingles and exterior walls are cracked and in need of paint. Despite the condition of the facilities, the congregation is thriving.

Less than a year ago the church was on the brink of closing. But since Nathan and Marrieta Lynch, pastors of the church, arrived nine months ago, they have seen God resuscitate the church, which is located on the Navajo Reservation. "We started rebuilding the congregation with two other people," says Nathan Lynch. "Today, more than 60 worshipers attend weekly services. The growth is the result of building trust and relationships."

Marrieta, who is Navajo and speaks Navajo fluently, says friendship evangelism has proven effective. During the week she makes it a point to stop, visit and buy from the street vendors. While doing so, she shares her faith. "We tell people Jesus is real and then we pray for them and invite them to church," she says.

The Lynches also shuttle neighbors to and from town for groceries and medical appointments. Once they have made a new friend they begin chipping away at barriers such as spiritualism and long-held traditions that keep many Indians from committing their lives to Christ.

"There is spiritual warfare on the reservation," says Nathan. "Many Indians still rely on medicine men in times of trouble or sickness."

According to tradition, Navajo medicine men are qualified and empowered with supernatural powers to diagnose, cure and heal people who are sick. Though spiritualism has a tight grip on many American Indians, the Lynches say such strong beliefs in the supernatural can actually become an asset. "Because of their traditions and culture, it makes it easy for them to flow with a relationship with Christ when they accept Him as Savior," says Nathan. "Once they meet Him they are bold in proclaiming their faith in Jesus."

On the edge
The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the Southwest, with a population of more than 210,000 people and 26,000 square miles of land in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. As we near the town of Shiprock we see a 1,700-foot eroded volcanic plume protruding from the desert floor. Many Navajos believe the plume is sacred. But at nearby Mesa View Assembly of God, other Navajos are finding freedom in Christ at the church, which relies on cutting-edge ministry.

The Sunday morning service begins with the singing of several Navajo hymns. Within a few minutes the worship becomes more expressive as up-tempo revival songs are sung. One man stabs his index fingers in the air on beat; others pump their fists and hop. On stage, helping drive this intense worship, is Eric Lee, a Navajo and pastor of the church.

Lee, tall and slender, has his long black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail as he plays his maroon guitar. "We have a longing to be in the presence of the Lord," Lee told me before the service started. "People are living in a time when they need to know what it means to be free."

The congregation, says Lee, is not afraid to embrace new ways of ministering. Last year the church hosted its first Master’s Commission class. This summer, the congregation is gearing up for the formation of cell groups. "We’re trying things that have never been done in Native American churches in New Mexico," says Lee. "God is calling us to be trendsetters for the kingdom of God and Native American ministry."

After more than an hour of singing Lee opens the altars. More than 50 people surge forward to pray. "We are living in the last days," Lee says. "God is going to do some great things. People on the reservation are hungry for the Lord."

Leonard Cambridge, 47, a Navajo, is supposed to be a medicine man, but when he committed his life to Christ he abandoned customs and traditions that ran contrary to his faith. "Our family got saved here," he says, waving his hand as we visit in the sanctuary. "We decided to come to church as a last resort and discovered God is living. Through the blood of His Son and through the power of the Holy Spirit, He can change people. Because of His power, grace and mercy our family is whole again."

Cambridge says he believes he would have made a commitment to Christ sooner had he heard the truth about Jesus. "I used to call it the white man’s religion because I was ignorant," he says. "No one came to me and truly explained who Jesus Christ was. Now sharing Him rests on my shoulders."

Overcoming obstacles
As we drive to New Life Assembly of God in Dulce, which is located on the Jicarilla-Apache Reservation, we snake through narrow canyons before climbing to even higher elevations. After nearly two hours of driving we enter a part of the state where conifers dot the stony hills that lead to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains a few miles north in Colorado. Just off the highway in a valley teeming with wild grass is New Life Assembly. According to Johnson Jackson, a Umatilla Indian and pastor of New Life, unemployment, which plagues many on reservations, is low here. In fact, many people have well-paying jobs. But financial stability has not brought peace to everyone.

"Many here are fairly hostile to the gospel," says Jackson. "Our major obstacles are alcohol and drugs. There is an abundance of them here and many have the resources to buy them."

Jackson knows the perils of drug and alcohol addiction firsthand. Before he committed his life to Christ he spent his days drinking and doing drugs. "My experience is indicative of what happens on many reservations," he says. "It’s a cycle of sin – the people want the pain they feel in their hearts to go away."

Cynthia Vigil, a member of the church, agrees. She, like Jackson, struggled with addictions, but when she made Christ her Savior her life was radically transformed. "I came back to the Lord as a backslider," she says. "God has given me strength and wisdom not to go back into that lifestyle again."

Others at this church have been released from the bonds of traditionalism.

"As the Lord entered my life it made a big difference," Mary Enjady, a member of the church, says. "Many of the natives are traditional, but I know a personal relationship with Him has made a difference in my life and I am going to continue to live for Him."

During the Sunday evening service Jackson, outfitted in a Hawaiian-style shirt with a bolo tie, asks if anyone would like to give his or her testimony or share a song. "I want to hear what God is doing in your life," Jackson says in a sincere and soothing voice. "From the simplest things to the greatest." Three women come to the pulpit together. They sing several hymns and share testimonies of God’s power and provision in their lives.

"God is doing something in this church, our homes and on this reservation," Jackson says after the service. "We want Him to continue to pour out His Spirit upon us."

It’s late Sunday night when we drive back to Albuquerque. As the miles pass, Maracle and I talk about the passion American Indian believers have for reaching the lost and their desire for revival. "In order for revival to happen the reservations need prayer, American Indians need to be trained as pastors, and missionaries must come," says Maracle. "It’s not a matter of if revival is going to happen on the reservation; it’s a matter of when."

Kirk Noonan is an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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