By Allen Steele – Farmington, New Mexico … Like most of the United States, the Navajo Nation in the southwest has suffered greatly, perhaps disproportionately, from the COVID pandemic. The Navajo reservation, the largest in North America, occupies portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the Four Corners region. It is approximately the size of West Virginia. In May 2020, the Navajo Nation’s infection rates surpassed New York’s, which had been, until then, the highest in the country. In early August, the latest Navajo COVID statistics, as reported by local newspapers, lists 31,635 cases, about 17% of the people, and 1,377 known deaths from the virus.
The COVID devastation, experts say, was due, in part, to underlying health factors. Navajo government statistics reveal the largest cause of death on the reservation is unintentional injuries such as traffic fatalities. However, a close second cause of death is cancer, followed by heart disease, diabetes, and cirrhosis. University of Arizona researchers say Type 2 diabetes in children is “rampant.” Startlingly, the second-highest factor for death among young people is suicide.
Adding to health factors, living conditions among the 300,000 tribal members on and off the reservation is often difficult. A University of California study found that more than a third of the people live without electricity, paved roads, cell phone service, landlines, safe housing, or other essentials of modern life. Up to a third of the people lack heating, plumbing, or fully equipped kitchens. Indoor toilets are a luxury.
Naturally, under such conditions, there is widespread hopelessness. Many people feel abandoned, isolated, and forgotten. The idea to bring hope to the tribe has become a major objective of Adventist Churches in the area. Four Adventist congregations on the reservation meet regularly, and nearly a dozen other Adventist churches can be found around the edges of the huge reservation.
In addition to the Rocky Mountain Conference, three other church conferences have territory in the vast reservation: Arizona, Nevada-Utah, and Texico. Even though obstacles are many, Adventist members believe they have found a way to reach across this, the largest mission field in North America: radio. But it will require help from beyond the reservation and a good deal of cooperation among church entities if their dream is to be realized.
Loris Ann Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media, a nonprofit organization that is spearheading a surge in tribal radio stations nationwide, says “radio is one of the only ways for American Indians to get information.” She says less than ten percent of families on native reservations have broadband connections, and one-third still don’t have telephones. At a time when most of America is inundated with new forms of communication technology, she says there is one segment of the country where radio is still the most essential medium: Native American reservations.
While our churches in the Navajo region hope that one day, they will have their own station to broadcast programs of health and hope to the people in their language, last year, they launched a pilot project that shows what radio can do. They embarked on a weekly half-hour program on the largest radio station on the reservation, KTNN, “The Voice of the Navajo Nation.”
After only 25 hours on air, responses to offers of the Native New Day Bible course neared 200. Pastor Dale Wolcott, Arizona Conference Native Ministries director, has been monitoring the correspondence students’ progress and shares this story about one of the students, Janice. “Like many of our students, Janice lives in a remote rural area of the Navajo Nation. She mailed us the quiz sheet for lesson 20 a couple of weeks ago, and we notice that she had answered all the questions about the Sabbath correctly.”
Janice was happy to receive a phone call and said, “…she has often wondered about the Sabbath day, and now she understands. She loves the Lord. She loves the Bible lessons, but she doesn’t have a church to attend…but she would like to fellowship with Sabbath-keepers. Janice requested to be put on our church list and wants to join our services by teleconferencing. Please pray for Janice and many more like her. We continue to receive Bible study requests after almost every broadcast.”
The weekly programming is supervised by Pastor Jonathan Chitwood, and programs are produced in small production studios funded by three of the conferences, Arizona, Rocky Mountain, and Texico, in strategic locations where Navajo members can most conveniently record their inspirational, health, and educational messages. The Rocky Mountain Conference funded a studio at La Vida Mission south of Farmington. Adventist World Radio also sponsored the fourth studio at Holbrook Indian School and has pledged to match local fundraising if a church-owned station becomes a reality. In the meantime, the weekly half-hour program serves as a small piece of the master plan.
–Allen Steele is the Adventist World Radio representative to the Texico Conference; photo supplied.