Reservation Community

Consultants will ask a classic question to help schools, churches, or other non-profits wrestle with their mission and vision: If you closed tomorrow, would your community miss you? The idea behind this question is that an organization like a Christian school should have a meaningful, noticeable impact on its community; that desired impact should shape decisions schools make about curriculum, instruction, physical spaces, co-curricular activities, and all the little things that go into the day-to-day work of the school.

Most schools born out of the Reformed tradition of Christian education profess a desire to engage the communities of which they are a part. What this looks like for each individual organization depends on how they define community, along with the history and context of their local environment. 

Every morning, a fleet of propane-powered buses departs from Rehoboth Christian School, near Gallup, New Mexico, to pick up students over an area of three thousand square miles, representing dozens of neighborhoods in small towns throughout Northwest New Mexico and Northeast Arizona. Seventy-five percent of Rehoboth’s student body is Native American—mostly from the Navajo Nation—which brings with it distinctive perspectives on what defines a local community. In this unique and challenging context, what does it look like to learn about the community, engage with it, and make a positive impact on it?

Meeting Pandemic Needs

One of the interesting demographic characteristics of the Navajo Nation is that many of its residents don’t live in what most Americans would recognize as traditional neighborhoods. Homes are often miles away from each other out on the reservation with physical addresses like “400 yards past mile marker 118.” That kind of isolation makes it incredibly difficult to build infrastructure for electricity, water, or phone service; in fact, 75 percent of the homes in the United States without those services are located in the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation government is organized into 110 different geographical units, called chapters, and each chapter has a central chapter house that is used for a variety of community activities. Those chapter houses, along with schools, are some of the few places where Navajo people can go to receive important communications and instructions for tribal activities. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Navajo Nation was hit hard, but the built-in trust people have for schools made it clear that Rehoboth could take a significant role in relief efforts.

Kevin Ruthven serves as the chaplain for Rehoboth Christian School, and he’s also a respected member of the Navajo Nation Crisis Response Team. Rehoboth’s location in the border town of Gallup meant that, whether by train or interstate, supplies could reliably make their way to the school. When regular in-school classes were suspended during the spring of 2020, Ruthven helped the school campus become a staging ground for all kinds of provisions needed to fight the pandemic.

Rehoboth students and families, along with local and nationwide volunteers, signed up to help with the relief work. One of the school’s gymnasiums became a temporary warehouse for dry goods, fresh fruit, cleaning supplies, paper products, and warm clothing. The daily volunteers would assemble care packages for families who were sick or unable to provide for their own basic needs. In all, over ten thousand of these packages went out for distribution at churches and chapter houses throughout the eastern Navajo Nation, thanks to drivers and bush pilots. According to Ruthven, Rehoboth’s efforts reached sixty-five of the chapters, with another similar staging area near Flagstaff, AZ, reaching the remaining forty-five chapters.

But care packages weren’t the end of the school’s efforts on behalf of the community. Students and families could spend their afternoons and weekends chopping wood to be delivered out to the reservation’s elderly for use in heating their homes. Students alone have chopped over two hundred truckloads of firewood over the past two winters, representing $30,000 worth of fuel, and they’ve helped deliver that wood—meeting their elders and honoring them with care in the process.

Finally, the school became a site where families could come for clean water, a resource all too scarce on the reservation. Residents typically drive many miles to wells or other water sources, where they can fill up massive truck-mounted tanks for their animals and for home use. When frequent hand washing became vital to contain the spread of COVID-19, people’s water needs increased, but with the school serving as a water source, people could fill up and receive food and relief supplies all in the same place.

Intersection of Culture and Kingdom

One of the ways anthropologists characterize people groups is by a culture’s tendency toward either individualism or collectivism. Unlike most Anglo-Americans who tend to emphasize personal rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, Navajo people see themselves very much as interconnected and responsible for each other. During the pandemic, the Diné (their native language name for themselves) willingly changed their routines to meet curfew requirements and wore masks without complaint. Driving through small reservation towns, one would see signs reading “Stay Home. Protect our Elders” or “Their lives are in your hands. Wash your hands. Stay home. Stay safe.” 

That sense of collective responsibility for the group is a cultural value that resonates with the way God wants his people to put him on display for the world. Caring for the marginalized—whether that’s the aliens, orphans, and widows described in the Torah or the elderly and those without water or heat during a pandemic—shows others the character of God. “At Rehoboth, we call that being Living Images,” says Ruthven. “And for our students, living out the roles of a kingdom of priests can make them more willing to embrace that identity and belief for themselves.” Serving the community actually builds community, especially in times of crisis—reinforcing the history of resilience cherished by the Navajo people.

Real Work, Real Needs, Real People

Like dozens of other Christian schools, Rehoboth has embraced Teaching for Transformation—a model of education that meshes pedagogical best practices with powerful faith formation for students. One of the hallmarks of this model is the use of FLEX (Formational Learning Experience), in which students take the skills and knowledge they have acquired and put them to use doing real work that meets the real needs of real people. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Dan Meester lives in Gallup, New Mexico, with his wife and two children. He has spent nearly thirty years in Christian education and currently serves as the principal at Rehoboth Christian High School. Dan helps coach boys basketball and loves getting to know the stories of Rehoboth students and their families.