Tina Begay is committed to her Mennonite congregation and to keeping Navajo alive.
Every Sunday at Light of Life Mennonite Church in Farmington, N.M., Ernestine (“Tina”) Begay makes sure the congregation sings at least two songs in the Navajo language from one of two Navajo worship books.
As a board member, she holds her church to this commitment they made. She also prays in Navajo whenever she serves as worship leader.
Worshiping God in her native language carries significance, and she wants to keep the language alive in her congregation. Born in 1946, Tina grew up in New Mexico in a town called Nageezi, which means “pumpkin” in Navajo. She describes her parents as “traditional Navajos.” Her father spoke Navajo, Apache, Spanish and a Pueblo language, Jemez, but unlike her father, Tina experienced harsh discipline when she spoke Navajo. At the Methodist mission boarding school she attended in Farmington, her teachers washed her mouth out with soap until she learned only to speak English. They also cut off her hair, which she had grown out long—an important Navajo tradition. “That made me the saddest,” she says.
Tina’s four daughters often tell her they wish she had taught them Navajo as they were growing up. In hindsight, Tina says she regrets not making more of an effort, but at the time she thought speaking English at home would give them an advantage in school. Now Tina tries to teach Navajo to her granddaughter Kaili but acknowledges the challenges of maintaining a bilingual household.
Tina says the members of Light of Life Church come from diverse backgrounds: Anglo, Navajo, Zuni, Hispanic, even Greek. In 1993, Ben Stoner, who also directed a Brethren in Christ mission in the area, started Light of Life with some other Mennonite families. They met in homes and rented places to worship, and Ben served as the pastor for about five years. Tina got to know him when she worked on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico at Head Start, a government program that provides services to low-income families and children. She began attending Light of Life regularly in 1996. Light of Life’s current pastor, Phil Rosenberger, came to the church about five years ago from Quakertown, Pa. George Wero, a Navajo man who served as interim pastor for several years between pastors, now preaches at least once a month.
Several years ago, Light of Life members struggled when the leadership brought in pow-wow drums to use during the Sunday morning worship services. “Some of our members didn’t want drums because they reminded them of life before they became Christian,” Tina says. “In Navajo, drums are only used for ceremonial purposes.” This issue of drumming in worship drew a division between some of the church members, but over time, healing and understanding occurred, says Tina, although drumming is not used at the church.
Through that experience and others, Tina now spends time contemplating what Navajo traditions she wants to hold on to and what traditions to let go of in light of her faith. “I don’t want to keep the extreme traditions that are stumbling blocks,” she says. For example, traditionally many Navajos view death as taboo and evil. As an 8-year-old, Tina lost her 23-year-old sister, but her family did not permit her to attend the funeral or say goodbye in any way. After her parents burned her sister’s clothing and belongings, Tina sneaked into the ashes and found a pair of earrings she kept and hid from her mother. “People didn’t talk about death,” she says.
Over time, these attitudes towards death have shifted, due to the influence of missionaries and the financial burden of funerals and burial sites, Tina says. Many families find themselves unable to manage all the funeral costs on their own, so extended family and friends often pitch in with the expenses. The immediate family also invites the supporters to join in the funeral planning. “Times have changed for the good,” she says.
Tina chooses to hold fast to the tradition of Navajo clans and even educates her church on their significance. The Navajo kinship, or clan, system follows the lineage of the Navajo women that began with four original clans. Today more than 140 clans exist. Tina tells her church that the clan system resembles the Christian family, as it connects individuals to one another through faith and offers a large support network. “You always have someone to take you in,” she says. Tina also values family stories but steers away from overemphasizing Navajo legends. She told her daughters some legends when they were growing up but wanted them to know they are only stories and not to elevate them too much. “I think it can be really misleading,” she says.
Her favorite Navajo tradition to this day remains the celebration of a baby’s first laugh. Whoever makes the baby laugh for the first time, usually a parent or sibling, throws a large party as soon as possible. At the celebration, the hosts give gifts to all the guests, instead of them bringing gifts, in order to teach the baby not to become selfish.
Along with traditions, Tina spends much of her time reflecting on and reading about faith and religion. While growing up, she attended a Church of the Brethren congregation with her mother, who held strict views of religion. “God said it, I believe it, that’s it,” was her mother’s motto on faith. But now, Tina says, “that view is too simple. You need to get into it and learn. It’s much more fun that way.”
Not long ago, Tina attended a small church on the reservation where she heard a preacher telling his congregation they will become rich if they become Christians. Tina regrets that she chose not to talk with him after the service about the negative implications of this message. “I would have told him that’s not what the Bible says.
Where did he get his information? I believe in the Lord, but I’m still poor,” she says.
In Tina’s days as a young mother, she had a lot on her plate as a single mother of five children. Tina met her first husband, a San Carlos Apache man, in San Francisco, where she lived for seven years. She moved to California as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs educational program, studied to work as a secretary and later worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Tina and her first husband had two children: Brenda, 42, a welder, and Wilson, 44, who has intellectual disabilities and lives in a group home. Tina brings him to Bloomfield, N.M, to visit at least once a month. Tina was married to her first husband for eight years. “He was a traditional believer and an alcoholic,” she says. “He also wanted to be near his family in Arizona. We just didn’t work out.”
Twelve years after her first marriage, she married a Navajo man, and they had three daughters: Alvajeana, 31, Natalyn, 27, and Delcherie, 26. Tina hung on to her marriage for a long time—20 years—but her husband’s drinking problem grew to be more than she could handle. In fact, he drank 13 of the 20 years they were together. Ben Stoner told her one day, “Even if you prayed until you were blue in the face, Jonah is not going to change unless he wants to,” she remembers.
Ben encouraged her to move on in life and pursue her vocational aspirations. Over the years, Tina acquired a variety of work experiences. In Denver she worked at a Russell Stover Chocolate Factory for four years. When she returned to New Mexico, she commuted an hour to work in a motel in Durango, Colo., for two years. Then she got a job as a cashier supervisor on the graveyard shift and as an accountant at an Indian casino in Ignacio, Colo., on the Southern Ute reservation. She also drove to Farmington to take classes for her associate degree in early childhood education. Looking back on those days, she says the Lord blessed her family during that time. Tina worked late nights, and her children cared for themselves during that time but never got in any major trouble. In fact, all her daughters graduated from high school with good grades and went on to college.
Tina now lives with her youngest daughter and her granddaughter Kaili in Bloomfield. She is retired and receives $600 a month from Social Security but no funds from the Navajo tribal council. Delcherie, who also serves as board secretary for Light of Life, does receive a stipend and money for her college education from the tribe. In addition to her schooling, Delcherie and her daughter are also involved in the church’s AWANA club, which brings in children and families from the area.
Tina remains committed to her church and Mennonite Church USA not only for herself but for her family. She says she was thrilled when her daughters attended the Mennonite Church USA conventions in St. Louis and Nashville and told her happily, “Mom, we’re not alone.” Tina also helped build the Light of Life church building, which was completed in March 2001. In addition to financial assistance from the denomination, many individuals donated money and volunteered with the construction. Tina says Pearl River Mennonite Church in Mississippi donated $20,000 to the construction of Light of Life. She feels touched by their generosity to this day.
Tina describes her position on Native Mennonite Ministries and the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board as God’s blessings to her, but many others would say she blesses those boards with her wisdom and grace. “I’m doing things I never thought I would do—traveling by myself, working in meetings and having my ideas heard by others,” she says. However, Tina’s road to leadership got off to a rough start. During her first convention, Columbus 2009, Tina felt lost and alone. “I hadn’t really ever traveled without my family,” she says. “This was the first time I’d been by myself so far away.” By Wednesday she felt ready to return to New Mexico but managed to stick out the rest of the week.
Her next experience at the following Executive Board meeting went much smoother. “It was a learning experience for me. I didn’t realize how big Mennonite Church USA is,” she says. Now Tina shares from her life experiences and perspectives at the board meetings. She feels strongly about representing the voice of Native Mennonites in this setting and reminding the rest of the church about Native Mennonites. “We’re part of the church and we choose to be part of it,” she says.
Anna Groff is associate editor of The Mennonite.