Episcopal Natives Rock!

February 3, 2012
By: 
Kaze Gadway

"Episcopal Natives Rock!” is the response of one of the Native youth in the river near Winslow, Ariz. A Native man sitting on a rock yelled out “Who are you anyway?” Everyone laughs at the answer and we continue to jump from high places into the river below.

Eleven years of dreaming just how we could not only keep together as the Spirit Journey Youth group and also how we can make a mark. We pray, we write psalms, we study scripture. It doesn’t hold us.

At first, it seemed enough that we attended weekly church services, and held youth retreats in various locations.

As the toll of being from environments surrounded by violence, poverty and addiction begin to cancel our efforts to walk with the One who walked this earth, we changed directions.

“We got to get out of here,” states one of our youth who had just been released from juvenile detention. We began raising money for the “trips.” Trips to Los Angeles, San Diego, Albuquerque, Kansas, Tucson, and Phoenix—anywhere we could go to experience life as “more.” Every new experience stretched our imaginations until we began to believe that we could do impossible things.

Mission trips started with handing out a few socks to the homeless. This mushroomed into serving in soup kitchens, cleaning up shelters and providing warm clothes in the winter. Giving to others provided for us the knowledge that we have something to give. We are not “those Natives that take everything,” (a taunt we sometimes heard).

We began attending Episcopal Church events. We traveled to conventions, to Episcopal Youth Event, to church camp, to diocesan youth events. “Hey, we really have a large church family, don’t we,” one teen said. We began feeling accepted as Episcopal youth, not just “that Native youth group in Holbrook/Winslow, Ariz.”

Native American trainings were offered and our youth attended New York trips, urban ministry, Oklahoma IV, “Why Serve,” everything that is offered by the national church that connects our tradition to our faith. Sparks of dedication and determination became visible.

What else can we dream about becoming?

Four major turning points crystallized our vision of standing tall in the faith and in our tradition.

A hint was made that so turned us around in our outreach program with the homeless that we grew as giants. As we served the homeless, we had always prayed for them or said “God bless you.” At someone’s suggestion, we began asking the homeless to pray for us when we gave them something. This transformed us. No longer were we not perpetuating the unhelpful act of “being charitable” to someone less, the homeless became partners with us in blessing each other. Since Native Americans are spiritual at the core, we have never had a homeless person refuse to pray. Often the prayer is in their traditional language. What a blessing for all of us.

To my surprise, education became the second turning point. Every year, we ask who is graduating from high school. We have never had more than one and often none. This year seven Native youth graduated from high school. They were the first in their family to do so. Plus, our first Native youth is attending college full time, and three more are taking on-line classes at the community college. An explosion in self-determination is taking place.

Third, these youth are sharing and expanding their artistic and communication gifts. Several participate in strong discussion with astute comments on Facebook and MySpace. Poems have been published, visual art pieces have been sold, and rap has been recorded. It is as if it has finally rained in the desert and cactus blooms pop up everywhere after a draught. With permission to share, Jeremy Blackwater offers this poem that speaks to the abuse that still happens in our family:

An owl flies by,
Someone dies.
A child dies inside
from neglect
or abuse
Nothing flies by
Nothing moves
It's ignored.
Why doesn't someone
notice?

Our fourth turning point happened a year ago when after two years of planning we opened the Hozhoni Youth Center. “Hozhoni” means a place of calm or beauty within.” Hozhoni Center is our dream realized that the Spirit Journey Youth group, a Native Episcopal group from ages 12 to 24 can have their own outreach program. “We are giving back to the community,” spoke one of our Native leaders. This is a drop-in center that welcomes all youth in Holbrook from ages 12 to 18. There are 178 youth enrolled in the program. The center has computers, band equipment, pool table, and video games, everything that appeals to a teenager who usually has no safe place to go after school. Six youth in Holbrook became the leadership team that ran the center – Brandon, Steve, Dee, Anthony, Garrick, and Emily.

After one year, the present director, Kaze Gadway, in her 70th year, stepped down. Two grants were written that would pay for a salary for Brandon Martinez to assume the director’s role. As of June 1, he is the first Native American youth, 20, to be paid a full-time salary in the Diocese of Arizona. Kaze continues as the volunteer Youth Missioner to the 38 Native youth in the on-going Spirit Journey Youth. She is working for a large grant to hire a full time Native Youth Minister in the next two years and for part-time employment for other Native youth in the program.

Can I say this loud enough? Brandon is the first but not the last full-time employed Native youth in our diocese. This is not just an employment announcement. This is the wedge into replacing the image that our youth are unable to take responsibility for the emerging leadership of the Episcopal Church.

There has been racial backlash and scoffing at our dream. But mark it well, we have together created one of the most widely known youth groups in Arizona with two separate and strong outreach projects in the Hozhoni Youth Center and the homeless projects of the Spirit Journey Youth. Our youth are the emerging leadership in our Church. Rejoice with us.

--Kaze Gadway, Oneida Nation, is Youth Missioner in the Diocese of Arizona. She works with emerging leaders from the Native community of Northern Arizona, youth of promise, ages 12 to 20.