COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation
COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation

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COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation: New Mexico Calvary Chapels Respond to the Great Need

Story by Barb Maher
Photos by Micah Martin unless otherwise noted

Limited access to water and food, generations of families living together in one household, and a pattern of pre-existing health issues have combined to ripen conditions for the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus among the people of The Navajo Nation. With the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the United States, the Nation—with a population of 173,667 in the 2010 Census—has experienced 6,963 infections and 334 deaths.

Native American with face mask

Native Americans have suffered from the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the United States.

To help ease the suffering of the New Mexico Navajo community he serves, Landoll Benally and his grown children make weekly trips outside the Gallup, NM, border of The Navajo Nation to pick up desperately needed food and supplies. Landoll, who pastors Calvary Chapel Tohlakai near Gallup, and his family drive three trucks to meet volunteers who have driven more than 140 miles from Calvary Church Albuquerque.

“We are a plant from Calvary Church, and they were quick to respond and provide food to our local community. Not wanting to put the people in our church in added jeopardy, members of just my immediate family meet the Albuquerque team, which delivers the food through a non-contact process. We pray with their team and then fill our trucks with the food and pass it out to the people in our community,” Landoll explained.

Pastor Landoll in front of his Calvary Chapel church

Landoll Benally, pastor of Calvary Chapel Tohlakai, NM, walks to his church from the shop where he works making jewelry on the Navajo Nation reservation.

It’s not always easy, he added, as they often drive 10 to 20 minutes between homes. “At times it has been a challenge to meet the curfew when distributing the food, but everybody in our community, including the police, know who we are and our purpose for going out. We wash the food items as they are delivered to the elders, taking the extra steps necessary to protect ourselves and those in high-risk categories from getting sick.”

Calvary Church Missions Pastor Cesar Loya noted that God is using the Landoll’s family. “They have been key in literally keeping people alive, fed, and supplied in their own community. There is a crisis of very few supplies being available to the residents of the Navajo Nation. When the COVID-19 crisis happened in Gallup, where there were a large number of cases and deaths, we decided to donate a considerable amount of food and hygiene products to Landoll’s church at Calvary Chapel Tohlakai.” The joint relief effort has been spurred by the Holy Spirit. “It’s simply been an operation that involves being led by the Lord’s Spirit … knowing how to respond practically and spiritually to re-allocate resources quickly whenever we see a need happen,” Cesar reflected.

Landoll related, “Coming alongside the people here and just being the voice of God to them, being here as the church, we work to shed the light of Christ in our area for the people. They are hurting, they are hungry, and they are thirsty.”

Pastor Landoll making jewelry

Landoll, a silversmith by trade, finishes a silver pendant and often makes jewelry for Reload Love, and outreach of Calvary Church Albuquerque. He compares God’s patience with His children to the patience required for jewelry making.

My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1b

Lockdown Challenges

According to Landoll, the condition of The Navajo Nation under COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns has proven to be a tough challenge. “About one-third of the families throughout the reservation have no electricity, no running water, and no fresh water. The lack of fresh water means that the people have to leave home and go out to haul water for cooking and cleaning. The washing of hands three times a day is difficult when you’re on a reservation and have no water.”

In March, the U.S. Government passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, which allocated eight billion dollars to Native American tribes within the United States for COVID-19 relief. The Navajo Nation received approximately 600 million dollars of the funding, which has already been earmarked by The Navajo Nation Council to address the necessary infrastructure to expand water access to Navajo homes. Landoll admitted, “I understand that water is huge, and it is a necessity on the reservation. Unfortunately, the building of infrastructure for water, and its immediate ability to meet the needs of hurting families, is at least two years down the road.”

Pastor Landoll coaches girls' softball

Landoll, also a high school girls’ softball coach on the reservation, demonstrates proper footwork.

Along with water shortages, the lockdown at the borders to the Navajo Nation, intended to prevent the spread of the virus, has made it difficult for people to buy food. “The lockdown and curfews became necessary because of the high incidence of COVID-19 within our borders. Consequently, they started locking down the city of Gallup where many of our people shop for food. The National Guard was brought in to secure the border in May, which restricted off-reservation travel and prevented our people from purchasing food from stores like Wal-Mart,” Landoll reported. “Many of the local convenience stores within the Navajo Nation ran out of food as grocery shelves were quickly emptied. To get food from Albuquerque, a family would need to put in an order a week in advance. The food would arrive at the borders in crates and families would have to go out and pick it up.”

Pre-existing health issues such as heart disease and diabetes have also contributed to the higher incidence of infection in the Navajo Nation. Cesar described another effort to help. “Recently, Samaritan’s Purse has brought in some medical professionals to help relieve the healthcare professionals who have been working around the clock, but they are also partnering with local ministries and community leaders to provide resources where they are urgently needed,” he said. “The Navajo Nation is spread out over a vast area of 27,000 square miles and sometimes resources and help can’t get there unless it’s by a very deliberative effort. That’s what Samaritan’s Purse is working on right now.”

Pastor Landoll leads Navajo church service

Landoll and his wife Angie lead worship in the Navajo language at the church. Photo courtesy of CC Tohlakai

COVID-19 Spread & Testing

Throughout the crisis, access to testing for COVID-19 has not been an issue but obtaining the test results in a timely manner has. “There are a lot of people who have been tested, but the turnaround time for the results is really the problem because it takes three days. If you test positive after having spent three days with your family, then you’ve infected the whole household,” Landoll stated. The Navajo people are a tight-knit, family-oriented culture. “It is common to find multiple generations living in one home where the virus can spread rapidly among family members. Social distancing is really difficult if you have a large family living in a relatively small house. We have grandma and grandpa and at least three or four generations living together, generally about 10 to 12 people.”

Landoll continued, “With four generations living under one roof, it is common to have one or two family members that still have to go to work. The infection begins at work and is then brought back to the house. Then you’ve got the kids going outside to play with their neighbors—it’s the quickest way to be contagious. It is hard to tell people not to go out and to just stay home.”

Pastor Landoll visits elderly Native American

Landoll visits and prays with Grandma Fannie at her reservation home. Waiting for approval for a church building, he and his fellowship shared God’s love by meeting the practical needs of many residents.Photo courtesy of CC Tohlakai

God is At Work

Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word. Ephesians 5:25b-26

Landoll is confident in the Lord’s steadfast love and ability to meet the needs of the Navajo people—and the needs of the church—throughout the crisis. “Personally, it all comes down to being grounded in prayer. Practically, under normal conditions it is easy to go out and deliver food. But when everything is in lockdown, you really can’t do anything but pray from where you are. People call and say, ‘Will you pray for me?’, so we pray with them over the phone with the desire to meet their needs by petitioning to God. I believe praying is the most [best] we can do,” Landoll stressed.

On a personal level, Landoll’s family is being challenged to come together and pray. “Before the pandemic began, we were all content to live in our separate areas and rooms, doing our own thing. When this thing hit, we all desired to come back together and start praying as a family before we went to bed. We haven’t done that in years … we just got so busy, caught up in our own jobs and schooling, etc.,” he expressed. “It was an eye opener for us. Now we take turns praying for our people, for our neighbors, and for our family members, especially those who have tested positive for the virus.”

The spiritual need that has been exposed as the Navajo people deal with the COVID-19 crisis has been immense. “It’s not just the pandemic. Spiritual need becomes evident after any natural disaster like a hurricane or flood. You’ve got people suffering and people wondering and asking, ‘Why does this have to happen? Why does God do this? Why are we going through this?’” said Landoll. “I always try to encourage people to recognize that it’s not so much the why questions that need to be answered, but the what questions that bring us to an understanding of who God is and what He is up to. For example, what is God trying to teach us? Have we as a nation, or as a church, drifted so far away from the truth of God’s Word that He has to awaken us from our slumber? In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says that if a nation would humbly pray and lift His name on high that God will save His people. Perhaps God is simply answering the prayers of His people who have been praying for an awakening in Spirit and truth.”

For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness. Psalm 107:9

Native American children

Sunday school children at CC Tohlakai enjoy a nature walk after the Sunday service. Photo courtesy of CC Tohlakai

Prayer & Support

Landoll enjoys seeing God work in the hearts of the Navajo people who have offered to help. “Seeing them unite as a whole people and supporting those on the front lines has been a blessing. Additionally, people are so open to prayer … to the Word now,” Landoll shared. “We need to look at the spiritual side and recognize what God is doing. The pandemic has opened a lot of doors for us to minister to and pray with many people, people whom you would never have imagined are asking for prayer. It’s also created an opportunity for us to go in and minister to members of our local and state governments.”

Landoll seeks prayer from the body of Christ for God to open the door for the truth of the Gospel to continue to soften the hearts of the Navajo people. “I think that’s what the Navajo people need—to be willing to accept God and give Him an opportunity to work in and be a part of their lives. Many people in our communities have suffered as a result of the virus. We’ve lost family members, friends, and co-workers to COVID-19. Because of that, we want to be prepared to be reconciled in our relationship with God and our families,” Landoll declared.

He sees a spiritual lesson in the virus. “The scary part is that it is a virus that we cannot see; we are unable to see its capacity to lead to death. The impact of the virus kind of parallels the effect of sin in our lives when we are not careful,” he exhorted. “The Bible says that the wages of sin is death, but the bottom line is that we still live in a broken, dying world, a place where sin exists as a sickness. As long as we are exposed to that [sin], we need to be prayerful and vigilant and open to God’s Word through the teaching of His Holy Spirit.”

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.