THE TIE THAT BINDS
If you are raised on the Bible, you don’t just walk away, whatever anybody says.
~Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal
Just being in Gallup brings back so many memories like this one.
EXCERPT FROM Chapter 11 of To Drink from the Silver Cup:
There is a place in New Mexico where enormous red rock formations are shaped like great, splendorous rolling waves. After rain, the rocks are the deep maroon of a Cabernet. In the evening sun, they glow the gold of amber. On a winter day, they are flat pink, sometimes topped by snow. At the base of the rocks are salmon-colored sand dunes. It is across from these high desert waves that Rehoboth Mission lies. The Navajo name for Rehoboth is Tse Yaniichii’, meaning Where the Red Rocks End. In the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, these imposing rocks were separated from the mission compound only by fields of sage and the narrow asphalt strip that was Route 66. That summer, my father’s alma mater, the Reformed Bible Institute, held a reunion picnic at the base of the giant red waves.
Those who attended were all missionaries, Navajo and white, and their families. We ate the odd mix of foods typical of missionary potlucks in the Navajo Nation: mutton ribs, Jell-O salads, fry bread, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, mutton stew, baked beans, roasted Indian corn, tossed salad, and, if we were lucky, kneel-down bread—the sweet, moist, dense, nutty-flavored treat made of coarsely ground Indian corn, wrapped in husks and baked in an earthen pit.
When the leftovers had been shared around and packed away in station wagons and pickups, we gathered in a circle around the extinguished picnic fire and sang:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain.
But we shall still be joined in heart
And hope to meet again.
My throat filled with a tender ache whenever we sang that song. I didn’t need to think about what it meant; I felt it. I looked around me and saw Ella Descheeny who had given me my Navajo name when I was a baby; the Hamstras and Bazuins with whom we often ate our Thanksgiving dinner; Preston Yazzie, who had worked with my dad in Shiprock and shared his mannerism of pulling a comb out of his back pocket and slicking back his hair whenever he got out of the pickup. These were my people, people with whom I was safely and deeply tied.
Short weeks later, my mother proclaimed her denunciation of Jennie and Alice. After those shattering words, I knew on a deep level that there would no longer be room for me in the only place I’d ever belonged. But that knowledge would lie like a hidden fault, far beneath the surface, for the next nine years. I struggled privately for those years, trying to hold myself together and in place. I stayed in the church, taught Sunday school, and directed a youth choir. After two years at Calvin, I transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to study English and linguistics, returning to the land I loved. I still attended a Christian Reformed church every Sunday.
During my first semester at UNM, I received a call from two missionaries from the Navajo Nation who were in town to attend a meeting. They were guys I knew well, the ones we had often celebrated Thanksgiving with and afterward played chess and picture charades, our homegrown version of Pictionary. They asked if they could take me out to dinner. I got the feeling they knew I was having a tough time with my faith, but they never brought it up. We just ate and chatted and laughed together. Times like this bound me closer to our community, making me hope there might still a place where I belonged.
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