TINIAN, N.M. (BP)–Life on the Navajo reservation in Tinian, N.M., isn’t easy. Neighbors are spread far apart, alcoholism and broken homes are common and jobs are hard to come by, but shared culture and tight family bonds keep Native Americans on the reservation despite the difficulty.
“We’re surviving,” says Terri Winters, a full-blooded Navajo and mother of three, who spends her days chopping firewood and caring for her children in a home with no electricity that she and her husband built themselves.
“We lived in Albuquerque for a short time,” she says. “There are more opportunities and activities in the city, but we like the space and freedom of life on the reservation — it’s much more of a home life. It’s difficult, but that keeps us tight together as a family.”
Fortunately, the Winterses and other families on the reservation have the camaraderie of Rose Ignacio, a full-blooded Navajo who is a North American Mission Board missionary.
Ignacio is familiar with the difficulties of reservation life. When she was only 13, she lost her mother to complications during the birth of a baby sister. Following her mother’s death, her father’s alcoholism became more than Rose could take. On Feb. 4, 1964, she and a younger sister set out on foot with only the clothes they were wearing to live with an aunt.
They weren’t sure exactly where their aunt lived, and with no telephone they had no way of letting her know they were coming. On the way, the girls were caught in a blizzard. Her sister died from exposure during the storm, but Ignacio made it through and during her recovery gave her life to Christ.
“Two missionaries came to visit me in the hospital,” Ignacio says. “They said I needed to accept Christ. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I knew God protected me during the storm. I remembered seeing the words to Acts 16:31 when I was unconscious.” The verse declares, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
“So I prayed, ‘Lord, I will open my heart to You. My relatives have traditional Navajo beliefs, but I will follow You no matter what. I believe and I will trust You.'”
Many years later, as a Mission Service Corps missionary, Ignacio is still on the reservation, pointing her people to Christ. At Tinian Baptist Church, she leads a weekly class for Navajo women and teenage girls. One of the many ways she shares Christ is by teaching them to speak and read their native language. “I want them to read their own Bible in Navajo,” she says.
She also teaches them about their customs, but most of all, she teaches them about her faith in Jesus Christ.
“I love to explain to young people that our culture and traditions are two different things,” Ignacio says of the belief often held by Navajos that they must leave behind their cultural identity to follow Christ.
“You may have to give up some of the traditional practices to become a Christian,” Ignacio says, “but you will always be Navajo. God created us as a tribe with a unique language, arts, food and clothing, and He doesn’t ask us to give that up.”
In addition to language and cultural lessons, Ignacio pours her life into the young people who attend Tinian Baptist Church by teaching children’s Sunday School and serving as the youth leader for several teenage girls.
Earning the privilege to share Christ with the Navajo is often a long process. Ignacio spends many days going house to house on the reservation, bringing donated clothes and serving in other ways. If there is a need, she finds a way to fulfill it.
“I like to help because that builds relationships,” Ignacio says. “You get to know people and then one day, they’ll be open when you talk about the Lord.”
“It’s always a good thing when Rose comes,” Winters, the mother of three, says. “She watches the kids while I work outside and she just starts cleaning the house. Not many people would do that, but that’s Rose, and it means a lot to me.”
Ignacio compares the process to weaving the Navajo blankets she sells to make her living. “It’s hard work and it takes a long time, but in the end something beautiful is created.
“When I got saved,” Ignacio says, “I wanted to tell anybody about the Lord — how He is real in my life. God opened my eyes and gave me a burden for the Navajo people.”
Jami Becher is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To find out more about Rose Ignacio’s ministry and see a video of her testimony, visit the video gallery at www.namb.net.