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Following Jesus through sweat and tears

by Perry Engle

It had snowed the night before, just a dusting, so the day had dawned clear and bright, with air so rare and crisp it could only be a New Mexico morning. The snow-capped Rockies some 75 miles to the north appeared beyond the mesas, like the teeth of a bleached jawbone rising out of the desert.

As afternoon turned to evening, on a hill a mile or so from the BIC Navajo Mission, nine of us were preparing for a sweat in a homemade lodge made out of PVC pipe, tarps, and old wool blankets. I had been invited to join with a group of Native American men at various stages in their recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. It was humbling to be included among such courageous warriors, with each seeking to break the strongholds of addiction and abuse in his life and follow Jesus.

Traditionally, Native people have used the sweat lodge to cleanse the skin and purge the body of disease. Today, among new Christian movements, the ritual serves as a time for worship, prayer, the confession of sins, and the sharing of heartfelt needs.

Our meeting began in a circle of folding chairs gathered around a drum outside of the lodge. One brother offered a song that seemed to swell from a deep abyss of personal pain. “O Lord, please forgive me of my sin!” he wailed. “Please forgive me of my sin!”

We then stripped down to our shorts and crawled through sage smoke into the makeshift lodge. Hot lava rocks, glowing red in the bonfire outside, were carried by pitchfork into the center pit of the lodge. The blanket over the doorway was pulled down, and there we sat by the glow of a single candle as the steam rose heavy off the stones.

“Everything done tonight will be focused on Jesus,” the leader explained. “The forms we use will be Native American, but they will all be used to point us to the Creator of all, Jesus Christ.”

Sharing ensued, and it was clear right away that there were three themes common to each of the men’s stories: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and fatherlessness. One by one, they told of fathers fueled by booze, raging at their families, beating their mothers, repeating the pattern, and then eventually leaving the family or dying.

The sweat came freely, as did the tears. Men, I have come to realize, are simply boys who have learned to protect themselves from the pain of their pasts. They cover themselves with tattoos, sunglasses, bandanas, and scowls, all meant to insulate them from a life that has stripped them of their dignity and any hope for the future.

After four hours of singing, sharing, and praying together, we emerged to a night so cold and stars so bright that I was sure that we had all died and been born again. The Milky Way danced overhead like a billion heavenly hosts, while the wind whistled through the sage and over the bonfire’s dying embers. I couldn’t help but hear the still, small voice of the Creator who died for our sins calling to me and my newfound Navajo brothers from across the sand and beyond the canyons: “Hágo, shikéé’ wohkah.” Come, follow me.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2010 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Bishop Perry Engle is a member of the board of the BIC Navajo Mission and Overcomers Program of Bloomfield, N.M. He and his wife, Marta, and their family live in Ontario, Calif.

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