By Karen L. Willoughby

Mark Williams, pastor of Cornfields Community Baptist Church, visits with a church member as he delivers food and supplies.

West Whitecone Baptist Church, a small Navajo church near Indian Wells, is the latest church to have joined in the ensemble of assistance to the beleaguered Navajo Nation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merle Yazzie and his wife “have been picking up supplies from various distribution points and delivering to remote households in the Whitecone area,” reported Jonathan Hoyt, director of missions for the Fourcorners Baptist Association that includes 11 Southern Baptist Native churches in Arizona. Hoyt is working with several Arizona Baptist churches to bring in supplies so Yazzie and the church can focus on getting the help to families in need.

Donations to a new food pantry established by Cross Church in Surprise have assisted not only people in the community but at least three Native American tribes.

The partnerships of ministries, churches providing food and other needed supplies, and “boots on the ground” to deliver the items to the people who need them exemplify an Ecclesiastes 4:12 approach to missions and ministry, Hoyt said, quoting, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

Hoyt spoke of the Navajo Nation Christian Response Team (NNCRT), which has organized distribution centers north of Flagstaff and east of Gallup. 

Led by Tim Tsoodle, pastor of Carlisle Community Baptist Church in Albuquerque, NNCRT is a collection center from churches in Arizona, New Mexico and across the United States, for distribution to Navajo Nation residents through “boots on the ground” such as the Whitecone church.

The first person to contact Fourcorners Association for help was Karen Schell, owner of a trading post in Lupton and a leader in the Native Women for Christ (NW4C) women’s ministry started by Paula Hoyt, John’s wife. With supplies assembled by the NW4C network, Fourcorners Association, and various church partners, Schell makes daily supply runs to isolated families in the Lupton/Houck area. 

“Village Meadows Baptist Church in Sierra Vista sent a large shipment to Good News Church in Houck on May 15,” Hoyt added. Village Meadows has a longtime commitment to helping the Navajo. Twice-yearly tree-cutting trips provide firewood for people in isolated homes on the Nation, where wood stoves provide the only heat.

A third area of ministry is in Kayenta, ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Navajo Nation.

“Thanks to Royal Palms Baptist Church in Phoenix for delivering a large load of supplies on May 12 to the Love Thy Neighbor food pantry in Kayenta,” Hoyt said. “Volunteers served 40-to-45 families with it, delivering 80-to-100 boxes of food and supplies.”

Love Thy Neighbor volunteers sanitize each item that comes to the pantry, repackage bulk items into family-size pouches, inventory and shelve everything, and go through a recipient list to see amounts of food needed for each home, depending on family members and who is next on the list. Once everyone on their list receives food and supplies, delivered by the volunteers, the list starts over.

“This week I am working with our newest partners in the Yavapai Baptist Association to make sure that all three sites continue to receive additional supplies for as long as the need exists,” Hoyt said. “It has been amazing to watch how God has worked to provide the supply as quickly as the needs have arisen!”

No matter which “funnel” — church, ministry, or pastor — is used to get needed items from those with resources to the isolated Navajo obeying “shelter-in-place” and curfew guidelines, “boots on the ground” are needed at both ends, Tsoodle said. 

“The North American Mission Board’s Send Relief Network might purchase pallets of rice and beans, but the money came from your Cooperative Program giving,” the NNCRT director said. “Churches might take pickups loaded with food to a distribution site like Gray Mountain Church north of Flagstaff, but where did that food come from? Members who brought in canned goods or who gave money for the purchase of ‘whatever the Navajo might need.’”

Jim Godfrey, an elder at Cross Church in Surprise, oversees its COVID-19 ministry to Native Americans.

“This whole food pantry thing we’ve got going is the vision of our pastor, Jackie Allen,” Godfrey said. “He saw two-and-a-half months ago we’d need to have something on hand for people in need.

“The demographics in Surprise are such we don’t have a pressing need here, but we have people in our congregation wanting to help and bringing in canned goods and whatnot, so we were faced with the dilemma: What are we going to do with this?”

Through a contact with Darin Arnott at World Gospel Mission, Cross Church “discovered a need on the Tohono O’odam Reservation,” Godfrey said. “They were really hurting. We made that contact first, 100 miles southeast of us, and then we heard from a lay pastor at Siloam Indian Baptist Church in Laveen. He’s on the Gila [River] Reservation, down toward Sacaton. 

“Most of those guys have been coming and picking up food,” Godfrey said. “They were just here today and picked up another 45 bags for their folks.”

Jesse Billy, Navajo pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Tuba City, juggles his time between Tuba City, Coppermine and Twin Mesa, two other churches he’s planting. This involves locating, picking up and delivering needed items from distribution points as well as ministering one-on-one while wearing gloves and mask with people hungry for conversation.

The greatest unfilled request he receives: handwipes, Billy said. He drove to Flagstaff, even, and couldn’t find any.

Mark Williams, pastor of Cornfields Community Baptist Church west of Window Rock, spent money — from an Arizona Southern Baptist church that contacted him and asked what he needed — on flour, oil, water, chicken quarters, sugar, coffee, corned beef, potatoes and apple juice. Like many other Arizona churches, they didn’t want any recognition for their support, Williams explained. “They just wanted to help.”

Michael Campbell, pastor of Keams Canyon Community Church, serves on the Hopi Nation that is surrounded by the Navajo Nation, and therefore is subject to Navajo restrictions.

Campbell received $1,000 from a church to purchase needed items. American Indian Christian Mission gave hygiene kits, protective gear and water.

“We help out where we can,” Campbell said. “We took three loads of firewood, some groceries, hygiene kits and masks.”

Firewood came from Native American Christian Academy in Sun Valley, which also gave milk and eggs. “They didn’t have school so they decided to cut firewood for us,” Campbell said. 

Catalyst Church, a 2019 church plant in Casa Grande, also gathered and sent out food from the congregation.

Every Tribe & Nation Church in Mesa donated food and cleaning supplies to the Navajo Nation Emergency Medical Service. Church members were working to donate a washing machine and dryer so that EMS workers wouldn’t have to take their possibly virus-infected clothing to their homes to wash.

“God has poured it out,” Tsoodle said. “Watching God work, we have heard story after story of how Natives are reporting this is the closest they’ve ever been to God. Relationships are being rebuilt. 

“There is now a thirst and hunger for God’s word,” the NNCRT director said. “This famine, pandemic, has drawn people like in the Old Testament to our wonderful God. The most important thing we can give them is the Living Water and the Bread of Life, and that is where we have hung our hat.”