Post Date: January 15, 2015

Reflections on a Pilgrimage

We got licensed for foster care several months ago on a Monday. On Tuesday afternoon the state workers stood at our front door with our first placement, an 11-month-old Native American boy.

When our sweet and rambunctious little man showed up at our door, I realized two things very quickly. First, I realized how quickly your heart can attach to a kid. We aren’t even aiming to adopt him, just fostering him in hopes of being a part of his family getting back together. But it didn’t take long to love him with the same part of my heart that I love Amy, Kailey, and David.

Second, I realized that I didn’t know anything at all about Native culture. I didn’t know if we were supposed to refer to them as “Indians” or “Native Americans.” I didn’t know the difference between tribes. In fact, most of my understanding of Native American culture would fit into the categories of “unhelpful-at-best” and “straight-racist-at-worst” stereotypes.

Fast forward three months to Thanksgiving and our family’s feast featured Indian fry bread and mutton stew on a mountain outside of Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation reservation. Not your traditional way to commemorate that first Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims and Indians sat down and enjoyed rich, trusting fellowship together. But here is how we ended up on the road to the Rez.

1. A few weeks before Halloween, Amy came to me and suggested our whole family dress up like Indians to honor Sammy and make him feel at home. I love her heart. Her method may be a bit off. And by a bit off I mean “not even close.” But I love her heart! She is wanting to be culturally sensitive and help him identify with his culture. I wanted to nurture this kind of heart in my children.

2. I met Mark Charles and realized how much I didn’t know about the history and plight of Native Americans. I wanted to learn.

3. I read some quotes from Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice on “lament.” They discuss the need for us to learn how to slow down and make pilgrimages to places of pain. “When we draw near to those who are most sinned against,” they write, “our call is not first to ‘make a difference’ but to allow the pain of that encounter to disturb us.” For myself and my family, I wanted to have the space to be disturbed.


All of this came together and I had the idea of taking my family on a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Navajo Reservation. We would go as learners, discovering Navajo history and culture, learning how to raise our kiddos with a cultural awareness.

So on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, instead of heading west to California to visit family, the beach, or Mickey (as we usually do), we we loaded in the van and headed up to the Four Corners area to explore and learn and cry.

Before setting off, I held my arms out pretending to be an airplane. I told our kids that our vacation was going to be like an airplane with two wings. We need both wings or else we crash. One wing was joy and fun and excitement. We wanted to have a good time. The other wing was sadness, lament, and grief. We wanted to see the brokenness in these parts of God’s creation.

The kids did great. It was fun to see them switch from joy to lament at a moment’s notice. We had a blast. We learned a ton. Here are four snapshots of what we learned.

On Being a Minority

We arrived into Gallup late Wednesday night, and we were hungry. Cracker Barrel was calling my name. As we walked across the large restaurant I noticed that we were just about the only non-Native people in the restaurant. I asked the kids if they noticed it. They did. We had a great discussion of how they recognized it and how it made them feel a little uncomfortable to be different from everyone else. It was cool to see them imagine what it would be like for other people to always be the minority in their culture.

On Systemic Evil

While we waited for the food, I took little man outside to let him run around. A homeless woman, clearly intoxicated, came up and asked if I had any food. I asked her name and started a conversation with her. We learned a bunch about Angela’s story. We went back inside when the food came, leaving Angela out in the cold. We had a great conversation over the dinner table talking about what led to Angela’s predicament. The kids picked up that it was not just her sin, but systemic and cultural issues that led to it. We wrestled as a family whether we should have brought her in and bought her dinner. Should we give her our leftovers? How did David feel when she drew him near and hugged him?

On Hospitality

The Greek word for hospitality is literally “lover of strangers.” Mark Charles and his family invited us, essentially strangers, into his home for a Thanksgiving feast. They prepared food for us, entertained us, taught us, and shared their lives with us. We were overwhelmed by this grace.

On Narrating the Story

An African Proverb says, “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” It was eye opening for Leslie, me, and the kids to hear the story of the Navajo from the perspective of the Navajo. Let’s just say the story we were told in school isn’t objective history!

One thing I wanted was to give my kids an experience. I want them to grow up appreciating all the beauty of the different shades of God’s creation. I also want them to deeply identify and empathize with the deep wounds and fractures. I want them to see their lives as a meaningful part of God’s story of redemption. I’m praying our Thanksgiving pilgrimage will be one piece in that discipleship process.

As I was driving the swagger wagon home from the Rez, I was reminded of this quote from Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: “And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”

This post originally appeared on the Missio Dei Communities blog. It has been used with kind permission of the author and has been lightly edited.

Chris Gonzalez

Chris is pastor of Missio Dei and a board member for Tempe Community Action Agency. He lives, works, and plays in Tempe with his family.

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