history of the navajo church
This is hardly an adequate explanation, but history remembers the events roughly this way. It's hard to deny that the beginnings of the Navajo church, go back to the time of the Long Walk in the late 1800's.
The Navajo people traditionally have made their home within what they call, the four sacred mountains. It's an area that stretches along the American Southwest including the four corners area. As a result of years of conflict between early Southwest American settlers and American Indian tribes, involving countless broken treaties and injustices, the US Government made a move to create "peace" with the Navajo people.
Their plan was to designate a parcel of land where Navajo people could come to surrender as a means of ultimately keeping the peace. All who failed to appear would be considered and treated as enemies of the state. Kit Carson was the man sent to receive those who had surrendered on July 20th, 1863. Not a single Navajo would show up. It was then Kit Carson adopted the scorched Earth approach and, along with a New Mexican militia, began attacking native crops, homesteads, and livestock as a means of forcing the Navajo to surrender.
Eventually, that plan "worked". In January of 1864, the 'Long Walk' began. Navajo people would be forced at gunpoint to walk to Ft. Sumner, as far as 450 miles over a period of 18 days (about 25 miles a day). At least 300 Navajo would lose their lives along that trail. The 40 square miles of land at Ft. Sumner was intended to be the first Indian Reservation. It was designed to be able to support a settlement of 5,000 people. By the time the Navajo made the trip, there were nearly 9,000 people. To make matters worse, the US Government had already moved 400 Mescalero Apaches into Ft. Sumner. Mescalero Apaches were a rival tribe of the Navajo people with a long history of bad blood. Fighting was inevitable.
The Reservation at Ft. Sumner was intended to serve as a self-sufficient training ground to teach Navajo and Apache people to use more modern farming techniques. Many in Washington D.C. fought this effort from its inception in 1862, stating that the Navajo didn’t need to be trained and certainly didn’t need to be moved. After a terrible yield of crops in 1867, along with dwindling supplies of firewood and water, the project was universally condemned as a failure. On July 18th, 1868 the Navajo people would sign the “Treaty of Bosque Redondo” and leave Ft. Sumner and return to their traditional homestead within the borders of their four sacred mountains.
In 1868, a door had been opened. As the Navajo people were forced onto the Reservation land at Ft. Sumner, locals were said to have worked with the Navajo people helping to meet their needs and to teach them from the Bible for the very first time. As the Navajo reached an agreement with the US Government and returned home to their native lands, the seed had been planted. There were many Navajo people interested in learning more about the Bible, even to the point that they asked the American settlers to return with them to the Reservation to teach them.
Nearly 80 years had passed when a man named Jess Hampton had an idea. He grew up around the Reservation and was familiar with the Navajo people. Jess began talking with local churches of Christ in Farmington, Cortez, and Durango to convince them to reach out and plant a Native American congregation. He found an immediate partner in the Cortez (CO) church of Christ, they would begin to work to establish a training school for Navajo men. In 1948 Jess Hampton went to Shiprock and rented a small room to kick-start the work. Money became a giant obstacle as the economy was still rebounding from both the Great Depression and World War 2. Jess made his way down to Gallup, New Mexico to begin working with orphans. This work would later become the Manuelito Children’s Home (still operating today). It was to be the first stepping stone to realizing the dream of having a Navajo preaching school.
The Northside Church of Christ (Farmington, NM) teamed up with Cortez to buy the property that would become the first Native church of Christ. In 1964, the Hogback church of Christ held its first meeting in Waterflow, NM. In 1966, a congregation was started by the old oilfield workers in Montezuma Creek, UT and was more solidly founded by missionaries in 1971. Then all in a row, churches were established in Many Farms, Kayenta, Shiprock, Ft. Defiance, Kinlichee, Tuba City and Crownpoint. The very last of which was planted in 1983. [Since 2010 or so we’ve seen two more congregations planted in Bluff, UT and Pinon, AZ. Both are small family churches.]
These nine original congregations began through the efforts of a few but were carried on by the support of many more. Two men seem to have been more involved with this than any others; Skip Knox and Howard Leonard. Skip was a part of the original church plant at Hogback starting in 1970 and was on the Reservation, in some capacity, until 1983. While he was a part of a few different mission teams in a few different congregations, he was also one of the early and effective advocates for this work. As Skip traveled, he recruited more mission workers and raised funds. Howard Leonard was the first Navajo man to attend a Christian college and after graduating from Harding University, he too became an effective recruiter for the mission work. Howard has been described as the first Navajo man to be given the responsibility of being a true leader in the church.
As these works were established the reality became clear that some type of training school was going to be necessary. In the early 1980’s Jack Finley came to Kinlichee, having grown up around the Reservation all of his life, and began a training school. First, by having people come from the other congregations to Kinlichee and then eventually traveling around the Reservation from one congregation to another to teach. It was through this effort that we began to see the first fruits amongst the Navajo men. Jack converted, trained and worked with many of the Navajo men who are now preaching in these congregations. This training school was such a fundamental building block for the Reservation churches that its importance really can't be overstated.
Three of the four Navajo men who are currently preaching on the Reservation have been preaching since 1993 and are the direct result of works that were going on throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s.