THE FINAL WORD with Beth Pettigrew
Youth ministry began at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Reading in the fall of 1998, and, soon afterwards, we began seeking opportunities for the compulsory “mission trip.” We didn’t have to look far. At the same time, our Parish Mission Commission was filing the paperwork to recognize a small parish on the Navajo Reservation in Tohatchi, NM, as our “sister parish.” That small faith community, St. Mary Mission, became a second home for many residents of Reading.
Fast forward 22 years, 18 trips and more than 120 teens and adults later, and it’s fair to say many lives have been touched. For some, the mission opportunity inspired them to pursue public service, social work, political science and ministry.
Through our many trips to New Mexico, we learned that we could neither lift our Navajo brothers and sisters out of poverty, nor alleviate their high unemployment rate. We could, however, get to know people and their struggles. We could share our stories and understand one another’s burdens. Teens from both churches were just kids together. They hung out at the local park, played sports and then prayed the Rosary together.
Over the years, our mission transformed. What began as a mission trip evolved into a “Trip to Our Mission.” The focus changed from simply helping others to building relationships with the Navajo, the Diné, people.
I am very close to one family in particular. Laverne Buffalo is Navajo, and her husband John, is Crow. They have reared their three children on the Navajo Reservation with Laverne’s family, but John teaches them Crow traditions as well. In the Navajo way of the Clan system, I am Laverne’s sister; her daughter, Janelle, is my niece. But, when Janelle is with only me, she is my daughter. Our Sts. Peter and Paul groups have been invited to their celebrations, including traditional sacred ceremonies. Personally, Janelle asked me to be her confirmation sponsor and to come to her high school graduation. Her father asked me to do her cake presentation, a Crow tradition at graduations.
As a result of spending time together, we can appreciate the richness of the relationship God has with all His people. As we share our faith, we recognize the presence of Christ in the Diné, which, in turn, renews our faith.
Being in solidarity with people of a different culture is hard. Many times, you feel helpless. Even today, in 2020, life on the res is difficult. Thirty percent of households have no running water, and close to 40 percent have no electricity.
From Janelle’s perspective, the relationship between the faith communities has been meaningful. “Growing up on the Navajo reservation with vast desert land for miles and very few activities that help encourage and entertain the youth, I always looked forward to Bible school every summer at my church,” she said. “For a lot of kids, it’s the highlight of summer, including me. I loved meeting the groups from Cincinnati and spending time getting to know everyone.”
“In 2013, I was lucky … when my now-confirmation sponsor, my ‘other mother,’ offered to take me back with her for the summer,” she added. “That opened the door for our parishes. Our St. Mary’s youth group has been able to make two trips to our sister parish. We learned that we have gifts and talents to share, and that our twinning relationship goes both ways. We not only got to experience the city, but also share cultural and spiritual experiences by sharing stories and songs, getting to know other Catholics and creating a family in Ohio that we will cherish forever.”
BETH PETTIGREW is the pastoral associate for the Collaborative Pastoral Region of Reading, Sts. Peter and Paul/Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Janelle Buffalo lives in Buffalo Springs, NM, on the Navajo Reservation. She is a Junior at Fort Lewis College in Durango and studies Public Health/Environmental Studies.
This article appeared in the October edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.