“Out here, we’re often forgotten,” one woman told me. We traveled out of the warm desert of palm trees and cacti and into a cold, grassy prairie. For miles, there was nothing but dirt, death-like open space, and the occasional Denny’s. We drove down an unwinding road with no turnoffs, seemingly without a destination. But there was one: the Navajo Nation, four-and-a-half hours outside of Phoenix, Arizona—the destination for my spring break mission trip.
Before I left, I was suffering from a dearth of meaning. Trapped in Yale’s culture of hyperproductivity, I spent nine weeks anxious, worried, losing sleep, thinking about what I wasn’t doing more than what I was.
Driving far from Phoenix was the perfect antidote. Few things connected us still to the world we had known. My phone had no service. “My house only started having electricity six years ago,” Lisa, a Dine woman, said. In this rural area, we existed in an unending flux between one timezone and the next—the Navajo Nation followed daylight savings time year-round, while the rest of Arizona didn’t. We were beyond temporality. Out here, the world was boundless.
And indeed, Catholic worship meant something else here. One of the churches I visited was built as a hogan, the traditional dwelling of the Dine assembled from wood. At the center, a basin sat atop a rug covering bare earth, so that the sacrament of baptism forges as much of a connection to nature as it does to God. During mass, parishioners enter from the east. Priests deliver homilies from the western side of the hogan, as indigenous ritualists do during other practices. They burn flat cedar rather than incense for prayer, purging the space of impure and unholy influence.
Gazing at the church’s paintings, I was no longer praying to a white Jesus. The son of God was Dine, and his portrait was hung next to a dreamcatcher. In a different chapel, a traditional Ganado-red rug marked a path towards the Eucharist. In the sacristy, an acrylic painting of a halo-crowned Navajo grandfather, son, and a Golden Eagle embodied the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All the works were, I was told, commissioned by Dine people.
Navajo stories may share some morals with Catholic teachings. In the Navajo Nation museum, sculptures depict a giant monster named Yé’iitsoh, who once lived at the sacred mountain of Tsoodzil, terrorizing the Dine. But a heroic pair of twins, blessed with weapons from their father, the Sun, struck Yé’iitsoh with lightning and defeated him, bringing peace to people below the mountain.
Like the twins, the biblical David was blessed with God-given strength and courage as the preordained king of Israel. He fought and defeated Goliath, a terrorizing giant among the Philistines. Even in David’s psalms, lightning strikes against God’s enemies, just as the Sun struck Yé’iitsoh.
But assuming a common cultural ground would be foolishly optimistic given the Catholic Church’s ugly history with Indigenous America. In the 1760s, Indigenous peoples were separated from family members, stripped of their languages, rituals, and cultures, and forced to labor for the church in a California mission after converting to Catholicism. Countless other groups, such as the Yahi and Colville tribes, were subject to similar traumas. With this violent history in mind, respect for Native American culture becomes a bare necessity rather than a kind gesture.
There is a surrealness which attends seeing your culture intertwined with the Catholic divine. As I knelt in prayer in the hogan-shaped Church, I wondered how differently I’d be worshiping if the Holy Trinity were depicted as Filipino—if the Father looked like my Lolo, the Son like me, and the Holy Spirit like the Philippine Eagle—and if the Spanish colonists had at least attempted to make their religious practices reflect our Indigenous Filipino culture. I prayed and questioned if, under religious imperialism, this was even possible. After four-hundred years of Spanish colonization, the Jesus and Mary I prayed to in Filipino churches were always white. What if they looked like me?
The night before we left the reservation, we sat at a circular table, hands clasped, eyes closed. Lisa said a prayer for our last supper. “Thank you, Father God, for the food we are about to eat.” She recited the rest of the prayer in Navajo, but woven in between her words, she gave thanks in English: “thank you Lord … for the crops we have harvested … for father fire who warms our homes … for the bread we are about to partake in.” She ended, repeating “in a beautiful way, in a beautiful way, in a beautiful way.” I didn’t understand much of her prayer. But I do remember how warm and soothing her gratitude was. I remember the feeling of greater communion with God.
I left Arizona with mixed feelings. Here, Catholic worship was different. Amidst poetic prayer, I felt joy in connecting with God in ways I had not before.But as I waved goodbye to the mission house, I mourned. I grieved for what the world lost under religious imperialism, and how I might be praying now if history had operated differently. I wondered what violence had occurred under mission trips like my own.
The Dine people will never be able to stop mourning the centuries-long history of violence inflicted upon them. My own country, whose own historical ‘beginning’ was marked by colonization, has barely begun to mourn its own trauma. Still, a week spent in the Navajo Nation taught me the beauty of worshiping without compromise, true to ourselves and to Christ. “God created mankind in his image,” but out here, mankind also saw their images and selves in God. Now, I sit in church pews during Holy Week, pondering how I can do the same—to pray in a way that is wholly my own, to worship “in a beautiful way.”