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 five hours, laboring on a shelter for a small congregation of Navajo Christians.
It was their fourth day of work when Benning 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 already was 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 the San Fernando Valley community of Arleta to join him in the desert of northern Arizona for a week of dawn-to-dark work under a fierce sun and an impossibly blue sky.
Undaunted by 95-degree temperatures and gusts of 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 the ones 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.
Critics say the Navajo way of life is threatened by the influences of modern American life and that such Christian evangelism, though well-intentioned, further undermines the culture.
Studio City writer Raymond Friday Locke, who wrote the authoritative history, "The Book of the Navajo," said missionaries who seek to convert American Indians to Christianity do more harm than good, setting them loose from their cultural moorings with potentially harmful consequences.
"As far as I'm concerned . . . all they do is create more drunks," Locke said. "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 partial 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 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.
Because of its isolation, the area is also a stronghold of traditional beliefs. About 75% of the adults speak only Navajo. Although Christianity is widely accepted in other parts of the reservation, the church 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.