At a church and former school on the Navajo Nation, century-old buildings house both history and healing
Pictured: A rainbow spans the length of Navajo Gospel Mission's 21-acre plot in the Hard Rock, AZ community of the Navajo Nation. Image credits to volunteer Erica.
The history of the grounds of a church and school site previously known as the Navajo Gospel Mission runs deep. From its origins as the home of Navajo families living traditionally in hogans, to its fifty years as a Baptist missionary-run boarding school, to its current presence in the Hard Rock, AZ community as a church and gathering place - its story is one that reflects the complexities of the twentieth and twenty-first century Indigenous experience.
Pictured: Rocks that once served as the backyard of traditional hogans, one of which belonged to the family who gifted the Stokelys the acreage on which the Navajo Gospel Mission was built. Image credits to volunteer Erica.
Before the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Stokely - Baptist missionaries from California - to Hard Rock in the 1930s, the land around the rocks pictured above was home to several Navajo (Diné) families whose material and spiritual lives were deeply rooted in ancient tradition. Hogans - the traditional dwelling place of the Diné - dotted the landscape, sheep herds roamed the rocky ridges of the area, and families lived the way of Hózhóójí - the wellness philosophy of balance and harmony that anchors Diné spiritual practices.
When the Stokelys arrived to the area amidst the ongoing Great Depression seeking to establish a mission and school, a local family offered several acres of land towards their efforts. The land the family gifted to the Stokelys would go on to become the Navajo Gospel Mission and, eventually, the Navajo Christian Academy, a boarding school for Navajo children. As with many Native boarding schools, the experiences were extremely difficult and traumatizing for some students. Other alumni of the Academy living in the area have reported positive experiences. Though the school closed in the mid-1980s, the site continues to host church services, and has for many years served as a hub for community events and volunteer groups such as those carried out by the Tipi Raisers.
In many ways, the site is representative of a complex collision of cultures in the twentieth century American Southwest and the difficult truths which drew forth from it. However, its evolution into a community gathering space that now hosts Hopi and Navajo families, elders and youth from all generations and backgrounds and volunteer groups from across the country represents a hopeful vision of unity, collaboration, and service as part of a shared future.
These twenty-one acres are now the home of bike repair workshops, service projects in support of local Navajo and Hopi families, lodging for volunteer groups (including three Tipi Raisers groups since September 2022), community dinners, and more. In this way, the land and buildings here have become central to local life, rooting and uplifting the community in a shared spirit of gathering that has been evident to us during each visit.
Pictured: 1950s school portraits of Navajo Christian Academy students, currently displayed on the walls of the main community building at the site.
The deep history which permeates the walls of the nearly one-hundred year-old structures at the Navajo Gospel Mission is written on the faces of the Navajo elders and students depicted in photos that line the halls of each building. And just as these photographs have weathered and aged, so too have the buildings that house them. Leaky roofs and faulty shingles have recently threatened the integrity of several on-site buildings, prompting the site’s Diné caretakers to request the support of the Tipi Raisers and our volunteers with repairs as part of our March 12-17 Service Trip to the Hopi and Navajo Nations.
Our volunteer crew, who were also lodging at the site and sharing cross-cultural connection and community meals under the roof of the main building, worked last week on the roofs of the three buildings in most need of repairs. After several days of removing aging shingles and exposed nails, installing new shingles and roll-roofing, and sealing up leaky areas, the three buildings are now prepared to more effectively withstand rain and wind for years to come. This project would not have been possible without the beautiful partnership that took place between local Diné friends who steward the site, skilled volunteers from Colorado, Texas, Pine Ridge and New Jersey who offered their expertise and heart work, and generous supporters from around the world whose contributions empowered us to obtain the materials needed to secure each roof. We remain committed to working with the stewards of this site to continue to restore these historic buildings.
In the Gif Above: Before and after photos of three community buildings on which volunteers performed repairs during the March 12-17, 2023 service trip to the Hopi & Navajo Nations.
With each shingle laid, with each pause as a non-Native volunteer contemplated the lives of the Navajo children depicted in decades-old school portraits, with each echo of laughter across this high desert landscape as new friends connected under the now secure roof of a community dining room - the way forward through a complex history became clearer and clearer: we are so much stronger together than we are apart.
Pictured: Volunteers from Colorado and community members from Pine Ridge, including a Gen7 youth, remove old shingles atop the community building at the Navajo Gospel Mission during the March 12-17, 2023 Tipi Raisers service trip.
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