Two thousand years ago, Jesus was cruising around the earth in his "Jesus sandals" since, as my old prof used to say, the word had become flesh and "moved into the neighborhood." However, while Jesus was teaching and healing and changing the course of history, the Zuni people were in America chillin' here:Nuts, right?
But they were. We visited the ruins and I was blown away.
At the same site, we saw many inscriptions like this one:
made by explorers and conquistadors from Spain dating back to the 1600's. They came to conquer and convert. Though I appreciate the alliteration, those two verbs seem like oil and water- they just don't seem to mix.
Then at the end of the 1600's, a mission was built by Spanish Franciscan priests and later restored to this:
but it wasn't active for very long.
My thoughts have spiraled around, twisting and turning and causing me much pain and confusion as I try to grasp what God's plan was for the Zuni people and what that plan is today. I have more questions than answers.
However, lately God has been teaching me the importance of having a simplistic, childlike faith. He's been showing me that though I can't know what His original plan was for the Zunis, or why He allowed them to endure such oppression, or what will happen to those Zunis who hadn't heard of Him- that despite all these questions and more, there are certain truths I CAN know.
I can know that my God is not merely the "white man's God" as many Zunis falsely believe.
I can know that He loves them more than I can and created them with purpose.
I can know that He is powerful and just and most importantly, that He is loving. That He IS love.
So these are the truths I cling to.
I fear that stereotypes and television have twisted our perspectives of the Native American people so there are a few things I'd like to set straight concerning the wonderful Zuni people. I am by no means an expert. Heck, I've spent two weeks total with them. But in those two weeks, I have gained a love and respect for a people group completely immersed in a unique culture all their own, a culture untouched and untainted by American society.
The road to Zuni is a lonely one. Few cars travel in. Few cars travel out.
There is natural beauty surrounding the enclave of adobe homes and shops but driving onto the reservation, it is striking how truly "in the middle of nowhere" it sits.
When you walk the streets of the reservation, it truly feels as if you've left America and entered another country, another world, another reality. But rather than describe the sandy streets and dusty, desolate neighborhoods, allow me instead to give you several snap shots of truth about the Zuni people.
* The Zunis have fabulous hair. Maybe you knew this already but as our guide at the National Park was speaking, I was very distracted by his gloriously glossy and thick pony tail stretching down to his lower his back. I came very close to asking him what shampoo he uses but I refrained. I may or may not have secretly sniffed his hair as he passed by.
* The Zuni children are like any other children in the world. They want attention and love and lots of piggy-back rides.
They enjoy dancing,
and playing hangman.
They give bunny ears
and mischievous grins
and great hugs.
They wear camo
play down by the banks,
and lose their teeth.
They think it's gross when I take out my Invisalign and they laugh when their friends fart. In fact, one first grade girl was teasing her friend so much when a loud fart slipped out in front of me that I had to sing the fart the song to them.
What fart song?
The one my brothers used to sing before they'd rip a loud one. It goes like this:
Do do do do do do
Brilliant lyrics, I know. But they loved it and one of the girls made me sing it seven times until she had it memorized. The next day she ran up to me while I was talking to some of our high school students and sang it perfectly. My students looked shocked and bewildered but I was the proud teacher, grinning ear to ear.
* The Zuni children are afraid of the boogie man. But here's the thing. They actually have a real-life boogie man. He's called the A'toshle and carries a whip and a bloodied knife as he enters the homes of disobedient children. Years ago he tried to enter the Zuni Mission School but the administration refused to let him on campus. Yeah, that's one way to make your kids obey.
* The Zunis are searching for meaning and purpose in life. Both years we attended their traditional Kachina dances which are performed for a few weeks each year. At these dances, the men dress as certain gods and dance to appease the "spirits." They are beautiful dances but solemn affairs. There is no laughter or smiling or joy- only the beat of the drums, the shuffle of feet and empty stares. The children have learned at a young age to behave- no toddler is ever out of line upon threat of losing a finger if they misbehave.
Though the dances are elaborate and costumes bizarre, both years I've watched them, I've been reminded of the mall in my own home town. As men parade in colorful masks, I think of Orange County women parading in stores searching for their own "masks" to wear to bring meaning and purpose. Because everyone searches for meaning. And if they aren't searching for Jesus, the results are the same: they look pretty strange and are stuck in darkness.
Just as the woman buying yet another designer outfit is searching for contentment in the wrong places, so too these dances performed by the Zunis are a fruitless attempt to find peace where peace cannot be found.
Regardless of what happens to the unbeliever after death, I am confident that a life with Jesus is a thousand times better than a life without him. So I grieve for the Zunis as I grieve for the shopaholics. I want to shake them both and say, "Look, look what has been done for you. Look who loves you. Look who wants you. Won't you turn to Him and find meaning in being His beloved?"
But I don't.
Because I'm a chicken.
And I don't want to offend.
But Pastor Meekhof, who has been serving this community for twenty plus years, told us that the longer he is there, the less he worries about offending and the more he is concerned about truth. The truth can set them free from the stranglehold sin has on their lives- the shackles of alcoholism and abuse and a religion of hopelessness. And so he fearlessly speaks the truth with boldness but also ALWAYS in love.
* The Zunis are trying to be healthy. Several of the people are largely overweight so to encourage healthy lifestyles, every month there is a race in which many in the community participate. It was a tad surreal to hear the drums beating as we ran a 5K alongside a good chunk of the tribe. I ran with a bunch of my high school girls and cannot yet decide what was the highlight of this event:
1) getting chased by a four year old Zuni girl growling at us
2) receiving a free t-shirt and popsicle afterwards
3) getting asked to dance by a woman passing by when the drums stopped and country music started blaring. (she was joking....I think)
* The Zunis are a private people. The Zuni language is spoken ONLY by them and has no known relation to any other language in the world. Chyeah. The world! The Zuni religion is practiced ONLY by Zunis. Not only this but only the Zuni MEN are even allowed to know what the religious beliefs actually are. This seems to be why only women work at the mission to field the religious questions asked by tourists. Their answers about the kachinas are always conveniently, "I don't know because I'm a woman." Questions are not answered about their religious beliefs and curiosity is squelched at a young age.
However, many of the youth are leaving the reservation and returning with questions. Questions like: if our dances are supposed to appease the spirits, why are so many people oppressed by alcoholism and abuse? Where are the so-called "blessings" we're supposed to be receiving?
Our prayer is that the children would continue to question- that the students who attend the Christian school where we worked would see the inconsistencies in the Zuni religion, that their curiosity would be reawakened and they would search for truth and hunger for more.
This sign highlights the presence of tagging hoodlums on the reservation but more importantly, it highlights the extreme privacy and solemnity surrounding their religious ceremonies.
Notice the rule to "keep your distance from religious figures." Out of respect, we kept our heads down and did not make eye contact with the kachinas as they passed but I definitely was walking backwards at one point and turned to find myself nearly face to face with one. You can imagine the gasp that escaped from my lips but luckily my students were mature enough not to laugh as I shook my head at myself.
* The Zunis like snow cones. While I waited for our students to purchase jewelry, I sat on the steps outside the store and watched two grown men working at their make-shift snow cone stand. They made several sales while I watched, one to a man with Down Syndrome, and I couldn't help but notice our similarities. We're all on this planet together and though we may look and sound different, our humanity binds us together. We all are searching for meaning and we all (or at least most of us) like snow cones on a hot day.
* The Zunis are proud of their identity. I confess that I've occasionally used the phrase, "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." This is ironic since I don't actually speak a word of Dutch and the Dutch people probably wouldn't accept me as one of them. But the fact remains that my roots are in Holland and we all find identity in our roots- it makes up who we are.
I also love being an American and my American heritage does play a large role in how I view the world. The Zunis are no different. They have a rich culture that has been thriving for thousands of years. They have their own language and religion and it makes sense they they would feel special and unique because they have their own identity.
However, this makes turning to Jesus quite difficult. If a Zuni becomes a Christian they are mocked and excluded from society. Last year I spoke with one woman who became a follower of Christ while sitting in jail. Her fellow inmates derided her for turning to the "white man's god."
Thus, the people who fill the seats on Sunday mornings at the Reformed Church, are the people who had no where else to turn. They are the people who were hurting so badly that being ostracized by the community didn't seem all too terrible. They are the sick, the outcast, the forgotten, and the marginalized. And I can't help but think that they are exactly the type of people Jesus would have been hanging out with when He walked the earth.
The people who have it all together don't seem to need Jesus. The religious leaders don't need him- they have all the power they need. Neither do the wealthy shoppers need him- they can buy all they need. But the broken know they need a savior. The hopeless and hurting search for hope and healing which can only be found in Jesus.