Growing up on the reservation, I was raised to introduce myself with my clans. Each clan represented my family. It started with my mother, father, maternal grandfather, and paternal grandfather. Sharing my clans helped me recognize other Dine’ (Navajos) as my relatives. I’d always be glad to meet someone with similar clans because it helped me to know I’m not alone. I was raised to respect my culture and language, people from different backgrounds, and God’s creation. Life on the reservation was simple, but brokenness dwelled on the land.
I wasn’t raised as a Christian. Initially, the gospel wasn’t introduced well to Indigenous people, especially in my community. I think we couldn’t fully understand the gospel without receiving it in the context of our homes. In my culture, everything is taught in the family, and I think the gospel should have been approached this way.
When I heard the story of Jesus sending out the 72 disciples in pairs to bless people as they enter their homes and how the people of the household fed them and let them stay there, I saw how the gospel could not only be shared on the reservation but everywhere.
This was my first introduction to contextualization though I wasn’t familiar with the word until college. In Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, Richard Twiss describes contextualization as a process of framing the gospel message culturally as either a sacred story or a myth of divine proportions, so it makes sense to people “on the ground” in their daily lives. Folks want to explore how they can understand Christ while attending church and a traditional ceremony.
When I learned more about contextualization from an InterVarsity campus minister at Fort Lewis College, I realized I’d seen contextualization back in my community. Growing up, I witnessed elders practicing their Native ways as well as learning how to follow Jesus Christ. I got to see part of Jesus through these elders at church, ceremonies, community events, etc.
Following Jesus, Honoring Culture
I started out frustrated thinking that I could only choose to honor my culture or follow Jesus and that I’d have to live with this decision for the rest of my life. When I made the decision to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, he helped me seek my Native identity and continue walking in beauty of our culture (Hozho’).
In college, Native InterVarsity was where I started this journey to hear more about Jesus and honor my Native culture. It was a community where I could be around other Native students on the same journey.
Along the way, I received a vision of Jesus as a Dine’ man speaking to me that I should see him as the greatest example of a Navajo man healing and growing. It brought healing in my own life. Before, I never believed that Jesus would come to me and see me as I truly am. But he invited me to walk the Good Road (kingdom of God), and I saw how he values family and relationships. Jesus helped me to seek redemption in my language and culture. As I walked with him, he revealed the lies I believed and redeemed my Native identity. Jesus revealed that being Native and a follower of Christ can bring healing to Indigenous people throughout Indian Country.
At the Would Jesus Eat Frybread? conference, I had many opportunities to meet other Native followers of Jesus. We share a commonality in being part of a movement to contextualize the gospel. I got to find out that I wasn’t the only one on this journey of helping the Native community understand Jesus Christ through our Native contexts.
Then God called me to Native ministry through InterVarsity after college. This journey brought healing from certain traumas in my life, and Creator’s love brought light in my life and family. It was a beautiful image.
Creator is leading Native InterVarsity to be a community where we laugh together, love Jesus, and love our traditions and people. Through Native InterVarsity, I believe people are learning that the gospel is sacred and will heal Indigenous people from our brokenness of colonization and trauma. We break that cycle of trauma by sharing our story with one another, and we invite the Holy Spirit to heal us while walking on the Good Road. We are on this journey to walk the Good Road and witness restoration among our people and the land.
Contextualization in Culture & Faith
I didn’t recognize this example of contextualization until after I attended our summer immersion program, LiSteN: Learn & Serve in Navajoland. Dine’ philosophy consists of four principles: thinking, planning, acting, and reflecting. Each principle represents a certain stage of life. When we’re children, we learn and think. As teenagers, we start making plans for the future, and as adults, we act on those plans. As elders, we have time to reflect more. These principles can also apply to everyday life and can happen multiple times each day. As Dine’ people approach each principle, it reflects our relationship with ourselves and others.
This way of thinking helps us better relate to one of Jesus’s parables: the four types of soil in Mark 4:1–20. Many often think that these types of soil represent specific types of people who don’t change (for example, that people who are choked by the worries of the world are always going to be like that). But when we look at this parable through the lens of Dine’ philosophy, each soil can characterize our relationship with God and one another at different points in our lives. At times, we can all get distracted by life’s stress. Other times, we can all be like the soil where God’s message is quickly stolen away. So, each Dine’ principle or soil carries its own set of challenges. These challenges can distract us from how we can experience life with our Creator.
Each principle in the Dine’ philosophy can represent how we approach certain duties in life, like helping our family and community, pursuing education, or raising a family. It’s just like the different types of soil and how we receive the gospel message and use it in our lives. When we faithfully love God and serve others, we produce a crop; we use the gospel message to help one another and honor Creator. Observing these two life principles can help us understand more about the Good Story (gospel) and be connected with our Creator.
In the First Nations Version, I love how Jesus is translated as “Creator Sets Free.” He came down with a purpose to set us free from our broken way of thinking and still honor Creator with the gifts of culture and prayer. We use this version of Jesus’ name to help Native American college students understand the gospel through their own contexts, and it makes sense.
Contextualization is the beginning of restoration for Native students, Native communities, and the land. My role in Native ministry is loving the Native community through my journey with Creator God.
My everyday life carries the thumbprints of the generational traumas, sins, and blessings of our collective stories. The lessons I’ve learned from the matriarchs of my family and our immigration stories shape how I engage with Scripture and the gospel. And as a multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial woman, I know that stepping into Oklahoma means bringing my family’s stories and lives with me.