100 Years of Adventist Ministry Among the Southwest Native Americans
“Agnes!” Shouted Orno as he eagerly raced into the house waving a letter. The committee has decided that I can move ahead with plans for a mission!” “Wonderful!” cried his wife, throwing her arms around his neck. “Finally we can make our own plans.”
The Adventist mission work on Navajo lands started with a deep heart’s desire of one dedicated couple. Orno and Agnes Follett longed to bring the love of Jesus to the unreached world of God’s Navajo children.
A couple of years before, Orno had planned a mission trip to Africa, but he contracted tuberculosis and could not get medical clearance to go. His doctor give him only six months to live, but that didn’t stop his missionary spirit. They Folletts purchased two horses and a wagon and headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico where they thought the drier climate would help improve his health. He was unable to go to Africa, but God led him to Navajo land.
The spring of 2015 was Orno’s first attempt to get approval for the Native work, but there was no money, so Elder Coberly, President of New Mexico Mission, suggested that he write the General Conference. After writing two letters, he received a response from Elder I. H. Evans that he needed medical approval to be considered.
Late that summer, the Folletts decided to attend camp meeting in Alamosa. At the end of the camp meeting, a call was made for people to come forward who needed healing. He was one of those who went forward, but it wasn’t until he was on his way back home that he recognized he had been healed. He actually spoke out loud – something he had not been able to do in years because of his tuberculosis. After getting medical clearance he wrote Elder Evans again about his aching desire to work for the Navajo people.
May 18, 1916 the date on the letter giving formal approval for the work for the Southwest Native Ministries. Later that fall the Smith family donated property in Smith Lake area where the first mission was built. Then, a year later, the first Navajo baptism took place. Lilikai Julian Neal, whose vision (Circle of Light) inspired the opening of La Vida Mission, embraced the Seventh-day Adventist church. Her inspiring story can be read in Barbara Starrett’s book.
Sickness and epidemics broke out taking many lives, including the life of the first teacher, Oscar Nystal and the wife of the next teacher. After these series of epidemics, sickness and death, Orno sat down in the teacher’s chair and traced the names of his fallen comrades in the dust on the desk top. “Was it worth it?” he wondered. “I have to make sure they didn’t lay down their lives in vain.” He sank to his knees: “O Lord,” he prayed, “Please give me the vision, wisdom and energy to run this Mission to glorify you. This work must go forward either by me or someone else. The Navajo must receive the message of salvation.” ( from Circle of Light by Barbara Starrett which can be read online at http://lavidamission.org)
Orno’s work was not limited to the Smith Lake area. The Texico Conference purchased 640 acres at Lake Grove, New Mexico where a small school, dispensary and several other buildings were erected. Follett also set up missions among the Maricopa, Yacqui and Pima Indians in Arizona.
In 1941, another mission school was established in Holbrook and others followed in Chinle, Gallup, Ft. Defiance, Waterflow, Kinlichee, La Vida Mission and Monument Valley, where Loma Linda established a hospital.
In 1962, La Vida Mission was born as a missionary outreach of Dr. Wetzel Williams and other leaders of the Farmington SDA church. Veda Scholder and Frankie Christensen drove from Farmington to the Tsaya area many times to visit homes, give Bible Studies and conduct Vacation Bible Schools. The first missionary teachers at La Vida were Tillie and Neil Scott. Soon after a young practical nurse, Barbara Starrett came to be the girls’ dean followed by her parents, Vic and Doris, who built many of the new buildings. Dr. Williams started a medical work there, setting up a small one room clinic. He was assisted by Dr. Daryl Specht, Dr. Ernest Stromeyer, Dr. Earl Hendrickson, Dr. James Dunn, Dr Harvey Weber, Dr. Everett Burton and others. To this day, La Vida (Spanish for “the light) Mission continues to be a “light on a hill” bringing the love of Jesus to the Diné.
La Vida Mission became very involved and supported a new church in Waterflow by providing a stipends for Doug Batchelor and David and Cindy Boatright, who worked with Veda Scholder and several other families to start a church there. It all began with a tent Revelation Seminar conducted by Doug Batchelor.
More recently, Pastor Charlie Whitehouse, the Meyers and the Keeners had a vision of building a facility for educating the local people to do Bible work and teach healthy lifestyles using natural remedies. So in 2009 the Dine Health and Healing Center was built.
Now there are about 15 churches, some with schools in the Southwest Native Ministries, the newest work is being established in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation.