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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 24, 2004 - Issue 105


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She finds path to Methodist pulpit

by Rhonda Bodfield Bloom - ARIZONA DAILY STAR
credits: photo: The Rev. Shirley Montoya serves as associate pastor of Christ Church United Methodist. (by Chris Richards - Arizona Daily Star Staff)

Navajo still clings to lessons learned on the reservation

The Rev. Shirley Montoya serves as associate pastor of Christ Church United Methodist. (by Chris Richards - Arizona Daily Star Staff)There are times when Shirley Montoya needs to see a medicine woman.

There are times when she ceremonially burns sweet grass to help purify the mind and prepare for meditation.

There are times, when she's in a new place, that she gets to know the spirits of the current residents, including the trees and the cactus, so she doesn't feel like an outsider.

Considering Montoya is a Navajo woman, none of these cultural practices are unusual. They just aren't the typical activities for your run-of-the-mill ordained Christian minister.

Montoya, 58, came to Tucson in July to take a post as associate pastor for Christ Church United Methodist, 655 N. Craycroft Road. She's a long way from her home on the Navajo reservation on the Arizona-New Mexico border - and not just in miles.

When she decided to pursue ministry, going through a two-year process to become ordained, she said leaders in the the New Mexico hierarchy of the church refused to ordain her unless she gave up her Navajo ways, like the eagle fan used to bless people and the sage burned to start ceremonies.

She said her response was, "God made you a white person. God made me an Indian. The culture isn't bad. It was God who kept us going all these years."

She couldn't divorce herself from her roots. "How do you do away with yourself? How do you hate yourself?" she mused.

"It took me two years on my knees to come to the conclusion that I'm a Navajo woman and I just have to respect that."

So she moved to Arizona, taking a job as dean of academic affairs at Cook College & Theological School in Tempe, an ecumenical Christian institution of higher education serving Native Americans. She decided to start the process to become a minister all over again. She was ordained in 1996.

Her path is something of a miracle in itself. The United Methodist Church has a small presence on the reservation - it doesn't even have a church on the Arizona side. She grew up within traditional Navajo religion, based on the tribe's creation stories, the theme that people walk in beauty, that all things are interconnected and that the body is sacred.

Her introduction to Methodist beliefs came in 1979, when she was invited to a Methodist revival. She jokes that she went because there wasn't much else to do on the reservation then. An uncle - related by clan, as opposed to blood - was preaching, and she was grateful to hear someone from a Christian background also embracing Navajo culture.

She still believes there's no reason her culture and her religion need to be mutually exclusive. Her message to her congregation at the Christmas Eve Mass pointed out the parallels between them.

The Navajo believe that breath is a holy wind, the spiritual part of a being. That's something like the Holy Spirit, she said.

The Navajo ceremonies teach about wholeness and wellness - that the body, spirit and mind must all be in tune. The apostle Paul, in Romans, talks about his struggle between his mind and his will. "We all wrestle with that," she said.

Her people are wrestling in other ways, she said. Diabetes is rampant. The old ways are being lost. Few know how to make cornmeal mush or dry meat or sweeten cake with wheat germ.

At a puberty ceremony for her granddaughter this summer, her daughter-in-law showed up in cut-off shorts to help prepare the cornmeal. One of the matriarchs sent her home for more appropriate dress. But her daughter-in-law's mother had never told her about the proper way.

So it was with mixed feelings that she came to Tucson because she knows how much she is needed back home. Her husband, her three sons and her grandchildren are all in Ship Rock, and it's an eight-hour drive to see them.

She has a "First Laugh" picture of her sixth grandchild, Koleton, on her desk. The first time a baby laughs, the family must hold a dinner for the community to ensure the baby grows up generous and happy. His dinner was in October.

When she went home over the holidays, it hurt her to feel how cold her husband's home felt. He doesn't entirely understand her path. His own father was a medicine man. But he does understand "that when you're called by the Creator, it's not something you can just put aside."

She needs to learn about how to run a larger church. And she thinks her congregation, where she preaches at least once a month, can learn from her as well, because she offers a different perspective. People cut down Christmas trees without much thought to their life and then throw them away. Back home, she said, the Navajo way is to offer corn pollen to ask for forgiveness, and then use every part of the tree. Needles are burned at ceremonies. The wood facilitates cooking.

She'll be bringing Native American Sunday, including Yaqui deer dances and songs, to her church on Feb. 15.

In the meantime, she draws strength from a story about her mother's childhood, when her mother got lost in a snowstorm while herding sheep on the Mesa Verde in Colorado. As her frightened mother huddled against a rock, she heard footsteps. Her father had ridden his horse all the way from Ship Rock, following a feeling that his daughter was in trouble.

"The lesson was that the Creator always finds us. No matter where we are, or where we come from, we won't stay lost."

So even though she's in Tucson now, maybe, someday, she'll be called back home.

* Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield Bloom at 807-8031 or

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