This piece first appeared in The Gallup Independent on August 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Nelson Willy (not his real name) became a convert to Christianity while my father was a missionary in the Navajo Nation. After becoming a church member, Mr. Willy lived as a Christian for more than fifty years. Not long after he passed away, I had a conversation with Nelson Willy’s nephew. Robert told me, “Near the end of his life, Nelson started singing the old songs again.” He meant traditional Diné songs.
When I was growing up, Protestant mission churches had a definite policy that Navajo ways and Christianity could not mix. I don’t see that embracing Navajo traditions needs to be incompatible with being a Christian, and that rule is even changing in the church of my youth somewhat. In his case, however, Mr. Willy had gone against more than fifty years of church teachings, in order to resume singing the sacred songs of his childhood.
To me, Mr. Willy’s singing of the traditional Diné songs symbolized, not necessarily an abandonment of his newer faith. Rather it signified a deep need, felt by so many, to make peace with our spiritual roots. It was evidence of the tremendous power of longing for home. The story of Mr. Willy singing the old Diné songs on his deathbed was rich with meaning for me. It was about a return to his spiritual home. It was about taking up a practice that held deep significance for him, even if that practice might conflict with the Christian beliefs he had been taught—that is, Christian ideas about God. Perhaps singing those songs was more about loving God, loving Diyin, the Holy One—about trusting God’s inclusiveness. In the end, it was about Mr. Willy being his core self.
People who leave the religious traditions of their youth leave for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Willy, it is because they have embraced a different tradition that may seem more right to them. Sometimes people leave because of pain or resentment toward a faith community that has wronged them. Some, as they mature, they find that their earlier faith no longer holds the meaning it did when they were young.
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote for people who have left the religion of their youth that if we don’t make peace with our religious roots, we will always be at war with ourselves. The religious traditions that we grew up with continue to be a part of who we are as adults, even when we have rejected them.
Making peace can take many forms. In the mission community I grew up in, church music was one example of not mixing Diné spiritual practices with Christian ones: All of the hymns we sang in Navajo were translations of English ones. Over the years, the church appears to have recognized our need to embrace our spiritual roots. When I recently attended a service in my mother’s church, a young Navajo man stood up to teach the congregation a song that used traditional Diné music and rhythms with new (not translated) Christian words. To me, that was an encouraging example of a whole faith community making peace with the religious roots of some of its members.
I left the church of my youth in 1973 when the church’s governing body adopted a statement excluding LGBT members, if we decided to live as who God created us to be. Although I left, I never stopped longing for my spiritual home. I learned from many other traditions, but they were not my home. For me, making peace with my religious roots meant returning to church—to a different denomination that affirmed me as I was and celebrated my gifts as it did those of every member.
Returning is not the only way to make peace with our religious roots. Each person has to discover what making peace means for them. For some it is simply acknowledging what was good for them in their home religion. For some, like Mr. Willy, it is taking up some of the abandoned practices. Natalie Goldberg, who is Jewish, wrote that the longer she practiced Buddhism, the more closely connected she felt to the Judaism she’d left. Her teacher told her that was because her new practice was enabling her to be more herself, and part of her self was her Jewishness.
I needed my religious homeland. Mr. Willy needed his. Natalie Goldberg needed hers. Embracing all that has formed us makes us whole people.
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