Thursday, October 31, 2013

Subsistence farming as doorway to church

That's one of the takeaways from this story "Some Find Path to Navajo Roots through Mormon Church," by Fernanda Santos.  The dateline for the story is Tuba City, Arizona, population 8,611, in the midst of Navajo and Hopi lands in north central Arizona.  Santos reports that membership in the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Tuba City Stake, covering 150 miles of Navajo and Hopi lands, is up 25% since 2008, while other churches, including the Catholic diocese, are struggling.

In Tuba City, Santos focuses on the role of a white man, Larry Justice, for growing the the Tuba City Stake in recent years.  Justice is the president of the Stake who initiated a gardening program to teach subsistence farming--a  program that has proved very attractive to the Navajo, growing from 25 gardens in 2009 to 1,800 as of September.  Within the next year, 500 more will be created in the vast area covered by the Stake.  Justice and his volunteers distribute seeds, and they teach how to fertilize soil, build fences, and what and when to harvest.  Santos quotes Justice:  
Their grandparents knew how to farm. Their parents forgot it. We’re working to make sure the young people learn it.  It’s important to teach our people to be self-reliant.
She also includes some interesting quotes from Navajo members of the Tuba City Stake, some of which explain how their newly adopted Mormon beliefs are consistent with --or at least complimentary to--their Mormon faith:
As converts here on the reservation tell it, becoming a Mormon has brought them closer to the fundamental Navajo values of charity, camaraderie and respect for the land. There is a feeling of “reconnecting to our traditions,” as one of them, Nora Kaibetoney, explained in Navajo through a translator — even though Mormonism often compels them to leave behind rituals that have long defined their identity, like a medicine man’s healing ceremonies or the cleansing in sweat lodges. 
“In Navajo culture, the most important things we have are life and our family,” said Ms. Smith, 64, the daughter of a Navajo code talker and hand trembler, a type of diagnostician. She was baptized as a Mormon in high school. 
Converting, she said, “wasn’t about turning away and embracing an entirely different tradition; it was about reconnecting.”
The Mormon Church now plans to use the Tuba City gardening program in its worldwide missions and ministry to "indigenous peoples, using lessons in subsistence farming as a doorway into the church." 

Santos explains the long and complex history of the relationship between the LDS church and American Indians in the southwest, where Mormons migrated when fleeing persecution 150 years ago.  

She also explains that LDS theology differs from other Christian religions in its stance toward American Indians, whom it considers descendants of the Old Testament Lamanites, "rebellious nonbelievers whose conversion could help the Mormons build God’s kingdom on earth." Santos quotes Peter J. Thuesen, chair of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis:
There’s this paradoxical sense in which the Lamanites are both a rebellious and wicked people, but they’re also key to the consummation of history and they’re central actors in the Mormon scriptural drama.  No other form of Christianity gives the native people such a unique place in their story.
Pictures in the Mormon church in Tuba City depict Jesus ministering to American Indians.  

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