November 15, 2013—For Tom and Delphina Johnson, ministry is all about identity.
Both sensed the call to serve the Native American community more than 20 years ago. Tom, a high school teacher, ministers to young Navajos through education and by personal example. Delphina, a Navajo Christian, felt God drawing her back to serve her people after college. Today, Tom and Delphina work together in Many Farms, Arizona—the heart of the Navajo Nation. The ministry God has built through this couple touches countless lives in a culture that has often struggled to accept the Christian message.
“Many Native Americans have difficulty getting past the westernized Gospel,” Delphina says. “They think becoming a Christian means that they lose their culture, their family, and their identity as a Native person.”
Such feelings are rooted in centuries of deep tension, but the Johnsons see the Gospel as mediator, equalizer, and advocate for these often marginalized people.
“We share that God loves and created diversity,” Tom says. “Acts 17:26 says ‘From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live’ (NRSV). We celebrate their identity as a Native person, affirming them that this has been ordained by their creator. This helps us to begin sharing about their spiritual connection to the creator through Jesus.”
And many do find that connection—to Christ, and to their roots.
“One of the greatest joys in this ministry is to see Native people come to a place of freedom,” Delphina says, “realizing that they can be fully Christian and still remain fully Native, loving who God created them to be.”
Every Nation, Every Tribe
One young man from the Quechan tribe outside Yuma, Arizona, found his identity in Christ at the University of Arizona after hearing Delphina give her testimony and Gospel presentation. Today, he is one of the first Native American EDGE Corps members The Navigators has ever had, serving at a college in California.
The Johnsons’ ministry intern, a Navajo man in his 20s, is currently serving in college ministry in northern Arizona. He desires to return to the Navajo Nation to teach, and has shown significant spiritual potential.
The Johnsons also work with a Yankton Sioux man who is ministering to Native Americans within the biker culture of Albuquerque’s metro area. He embraces this new and unique work with his wife, who rides with him and helps him share the Gospel with a tough but broken crowd.
“It’s very difficult to get Native American men to step up to take positions of leadership,” Tom says. “But these men are doing it with authenticity and integrity, and really holding to the Navigator DNA. We’re pretty excited about that.”
Photo courtesy of Delphina Johnson
The Johnsons recently took this group of Native college students to a Navigator conference—stopping here so one student could see the ocean for the first time.
The Great Commission
As The Navigators endeavor to honor the rich ethnic heritage of our country—both through celebrating ethnic heritage months and through increased cultural literacy within our ethnic and urban ministries—staff like Tom and Delphina Johnson are already running with that vision.
“We are fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28,” Delphina says. “Cultural diversity has a way of challenging the Christian conscience and bringing the Gospel to a place of purity and its rightful place of prominence.”
The Johnsons challenge Native believers to become Christ’s ambassadors, and to look for cross-cultural settings to become cross-missional. They minister and are ministered to, teaching others about Native culture.
“It’s tearing down cultural bias and stereotypes,” Tom says.
Diversity is most beautiful when seen through the eyes of heaven—where we will worship the Savior of the world, in every language, hand in hand.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 5.2 million people in the United States identified as American Indian and Alaska Native.
Though there have been other successful efforts to honor Native American heritage over the last century, it wasn’t until President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month” that this diverse culture enjoyed a full month of dedicated national celebration. Similar proclamations, under various names (including “Native American Heritage Month”) have been issued each year since 1994. Read more information at the Native American Heritage Month website.