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Christians Try Building Ties With Navajos

August 23, 1993|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORCUPINE MESA, Ariz. — It was only 9:30 a.m. on this high-desert plain, but Hans Benning and his crew of believers had been pouring sweat for hours, laboring on a shelter for a small congregation of Navajo Christians.

It was their fourth day of work. Benning suddenly lost his footing and landed hard on his backside while clambering across the shelter's partly built roof. But the 49-year-old Studio City man, who was already concealing a broken hand, barely paused. Caught up in the urgency of the mission, he shook off the pain and continued working.

"We needed to get the job done," Benning said later.

The strength of Benning's 35-year obsession with American Indians in general and the Navajos in particular inspired 28 members of the Osborne Neighborhood Church in Arleta to join him in the waterless desert of northern Arizona for a week of dawn-to-dark work under a fierce sun.

Undaunted by temperatures of 95 degrees and gusts whipping stinging red sand, the group built a traditional pine-and-juniper structure known as a brush arbor, conducted a Bible school for local children and added a room to the Porcupine Mesa Baptist Church.

But Benning acknowledged that his crew, who ranged in age from 9 to 69, faced an even more difficult challenge than those posed by hammer, nails, mortar and weather.

The group had to overcome the legacy of hundreds of years of mistreatment by white men, especially Christian missionaries, he said.

Even though the efforts may be well-intentioned, critics say the Navajo way of life is already threatened by the influences of modern American life, and such Christian evangelism further undermines the culture.

Indeed, some such as Studio City writer Raymond Friday Locke said missionaries who seek to convert American Indians to Christianity do more harm than good, loosening them from their cultural moorings, with potentially harmful consequences.

"As far as I'm concerned . . . all they do is create more drunks," said Locke, author of "The Book of the Navajo," an authoritative history. "They confuse the Navajo. They try to get them to give up their religion . . . and then they have no place in either society."

Acknowledging those criticisms, Benning said: "In the name of Christianity, horrible atrocities have been done. My main goal is to show them a different kind of white people."

Even though they built a church and offered Bible classes, Benning said achieving conversions was not a priority.

"We're not there to hit them over the head with Bibles or tell them they're going to hell," said Benning, a violin and cello maker. "I cannot convert anybody. That's God's business. I can only show them by my actions and behavior and my people's behavior that Christianity works for me."

Benning is a member of the Arleta church and vice president of the Los Angeles-based American Indian Liberation Crusade. The church has supported Benning and the Crusade for the past five years, with Benning and other church members traveling to reservations in several Southwestern states an average of once a month.

The crusade, which raises money with a radio program called "The American Indian Hour," also provides financial support for seven churches with Navajo pastors--including the one at Porcupine Mesa. In addition, the organization provides Christmas food baskets for hundreds of Christian and non-Christian families, sends children to Bible camp and, led by Benning, builds churches.

The Porcupine Mesa Baptist Church is eight miles down a dirt road off U.S. Highway 89A. It is located in an area of the Navajo nation that has no telephones, indoor plumbing or electricity even though it is only 45 minutes by car from the modern, growing city of Page and the huge Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell.

The 600 residents of the community live in isolated camps of one or more houses, either traditional round hogans or cinder-block or wood-frame rectangles.

The area is one of the poorest on the poverty-stricken reservation, which is about the size of West Virginia. Families must travel to Page to fetch water in barrels when the few balky, wind-powered wells break down.

With its isolation, the area is a stronghold of traditional beliefs. About 75% of the adults there speak only Navajo. While Christianity is widely accepted in other parts of the reservation, the church here still generates suspicion.

The church at Porcupine Mesa has only about 30 regular attendees, all of whom are close relatives of Jeanne Mexicano, whose husband, Jimmy, is the church's pastor.

Jimmy Mexicano studied at Navajo Bible College in Colorado and began preaching about a decade ago in his small concrete-block house. A one-room stucco church was built nearby about four years ago, and the Arleta group's goal was to insulate, rewire and drywall that structure and to build an addition to serve as a children's room. As a finishing touch, they mounted a bell Benning had found to summon the faithful to worship.

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