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Navajo Nation leader’s faith ‘key’

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. (BP) — Former Southern Baptist church planter and missions director Russell Begaye, installed May 12 as president of the Navajo Nation, calls his position a gift from the people and from God.

“God gives you that position,” Begaye said at his inauguration ceremony in Fort Defiance, Ariz. “When you look back, you never dream that you would be the president of the great Navajo Nation…. It’s a gift, a gift first from the people. The people honor you with it. It’s also a gift from Almighty God.”

Begaye entered the political arena in public service to the Navajo Nation in 2011, after serving four years as director of missions for the San Juan Baptist Association in Farmington, N.M. Previously, he retired from a 30-year career as a missionary, church planter and foreign language outreach director with the North American Mission Board, and had served as a preacher while earning a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

San Juan director of missions Eric Frye, Begaye’s associational successor, said the president’s faith is well known.

“It is generally known throughout the Navajo Nation that he is a Christian, but that never became a serious issue during the campaign. It was his emphasis and appeal for integrity in government that resonated with Navajo voters,” Frye told Baptist Press. “But, Mr. Begaye’s faith is a key component of who he is and will impact his presidential leadership.”

Frye also noted Begaye’s respect for the Navajo language.

“When a language dies, that goes a long way toward pushing a culture off a cliff. A large part of the culture dies as well,” Frye said. “Mr. Begaye is a gifted leader who us comfortable in his Christian faith and his Navajo identity. His inauguration event set a very positive tone as he provides leadership as president of the Navajo Nation during the next four years.”

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., numbering more than 250,000 members who live on 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, according to statistics on the nation’s official website. Begaye respects his cultural heritage, Frye said.

“Even though he is a Christian, Mr. Begaye has great respect for Navajo culture; that is who he is. His leadership will be inclusive,” Frye said. “His appeal during his inaugural address to keep the Navajo language alive, and to help build a great future ‘new dawn’ for Navajos demonstrates his leadership direction. He also appealed for Navajo national sovereignty, as a people.”

Begaye was not available for comment. But his brother Andrew Begaye, who volunteers as a specialist in church revitalization, leadership support, and church planting with the San Juan Association, also affirmed that Christianity is a vital aspect of Russell Begaye’s life.

Andrew Begaye is helping revitalize the Tooh Worship Center, a Navajo congregation in Shiprock, N.M., that Russell Begaye had joined when it was known as First Baptist Church.

“Once we open up membership in Shiprock, I hope and pray that he will come and join our church and be a member there,” Andrew Begaye told Baptist Press. “That would be an added plus.”

Tooh Worship Center honored Begaye upon his presidential election, his brother said, hosting a prayer and worship service for the president and vice president Jonathan Nez that lasted three hours. Both politicians are Christians, Andrew Begaye said.

In 1997, there were 37 Navajo pastors in New Mexico, but that number has dwindled to 10, Andrew Begaye said. There are an additional four inactive Southern Baptist church outreaches to the Navajo Nation, he said, but they have been led by volunteers of other ethnicities.

Russell Begaye’s use of the Navajo language helped him win the election. He placed third in the primary, but second place finisher Chris Deschene was disqualified because he could not meet the requirement of fluency in Navajo. The primary was postponed from January until April, as Deschene appealed his disqualification.

Russell Begaye delivered his inaugural address in both the English and Navajo languages.

“Our language has great value; our language has great tradition. It has great teaching. It is powerful. It is who we are as Navajo people,” Begaye said during the inauguration. “So let’s not ever be ashamed of speaking Navajo again as we move forward on this awakening of a new dawn.”

Begaye pledged to develop the Navajo Nation economically and seek sovereignty over the resources of its land.

“It is time that we go back to the things that sustained us for centuries, to the things that made us a great nation, a proud nation, and part of that is producing the food products that we have been blessed with [by] the Almighty,” Begaye said at his inauguration. “A new dawn where we no longer just open our doors to any outside interests or mega companies to extract our natural resources with no regards for the sacredness of these minerals, which has led our people to suffer from multiple illnesses. We say to elected leaders in Congress, recognize our rights to these minerals that lay beneath our land by giving us full authority over all our natural resources.”