"Ya’at’eeh." That is what I should have said. Ya’at’eeh is a Navajo greeting. It is always accompanied with a hand shake, and, if the parties do not know each other, it is usually followed with a formal introduction. I had just finished my shower and was getting dressed when they walked in. Immediately I could feel my defenses go up. "Who do you think you are?" I wanted to ask. "You don't even know me, or who I am!"
My family and I had moved back to the Navajo Reservation about a year earlier and were living in a traditional Navajo hogan located out on a sheep camp. We did this so we could gain a deeper understanding of my Navajo culture as well as experience a life that was not uncommon for our people. We were six miles off the nearest paved road on a dirt road living with no running water or electricity. I was working at that time as a computer consultant. Much of my work I could do from our hogan, but I also occasionally had to travel into 'town' to meet with clients. On those days, I would usually go in early and stop by a local gym where, for a fee, I could take a shower and get cleaned up. This was a common practice for our rural community, and by doing this I felt a deep sense of affinity towards others who were in the same boat as me and even a sense of pride of where I came from.
As I was getting dressed some white men came into the locker room, they were at the gym for more than a shower; they were there to get some exercise. They looked like they lived in town and were regular members of this particular gym. But for some reason, I saw them very differently that morning. I felt very aware of the fact that I was there only to shower, and I feared that they too knew I was from the reservation and was there because I had no running water at home. I feared they were looking down on me with contempt and disgust (even though they did nothing to indicate such an attitude). I had this urge to tell them angrily that I probably had a better education than they did (I graduated from UCLA) and that I probably earned a higher hourly rate than they did. These thoughts surprised and shocked me. I had never before felt such intense feelings of insecurity and fear of being judged over the color of my skin. After they left the room my emotions subsided, and I was left to myself, pondering where those emotions had come from and not knowing what I was supposed to do with them. These men never spoke to me, nor I to them. This entire ordeal was played out only in my mind but is served to drive a wedge into my heart and caused me to begin to emotionally isolate myself from the dominate society, an isolation that took me years to overcome. But it also opened a door for me to begin to understand an aspect of Racial Reconciliation that I had never considered before.
Looking back on that day, I think my entire emotional upheaval could have been avoided had I just remembered the lesson that I learned years ago. When I was in college I joined a Bible study group on campus. God used this to ignite my faith and teach me how to live as a Christian. I remember one lesson in particular. Occasionally, as a group, we would go around the city to give sandwiches to the homeless people we met. We saw in scripture that Jesus loved and cared for the least in his culture, he healed people who were sick and became friends with 'tax-collectors and sinners', even spending time in their homes. This challenged us to look for ways to love those in need around us. But these interactions generally felt very awkward to me. Where I grew up, I was used to people asking for money, and had grown very adept at turning them down, telling myself I was doing them a favor because they would only spend the money on alcohol and feed their addiction. Because of this, I now found that I had no clue how to interact with people I met on the streets and was unable to treat those in need the way Jesus did.
I did not know what to say or how to start a conversation with them. After a few years of this type of bumbling interactions, I decided that I needed to take some drastic action in order to overcome this block. So one weekend a friend and I decided to live on the streets of Santa Monica for 24 hours. The next Friday we dressed in old jeans and t-shirts and took a bus to a busy street near the ocean where we began our journey. For the next day, we were no longer the rich college students with extra money in their pocket. Now, we were just some guys on the street who had no idea where to get food or where to sleep so we would not get arrested. Suddenly, we found that we were now dependant on the very people we once gave charity to. Our interactions were much different now because we had nothing to give and everything to learn. We understood well the dangers of the streets of Los Angeles, and we approached our ignorance with slight fear and trembling. Even when the other homeless people found out that we were students and just doing this as an experiment, they still welcomed us as one of them and shared with us where to get a good hot meal and where and how to sleep on the streets. It amazed me how quick they were to welcome us into their world and help us to adjust. That night, before we went to sleep, we sat around with several people talking and telling stories. The next morning we woke up and were on our own again.
That day I noticed and experienced how lonely and isolated it can feel living on the streets, even though there were people all around. I remember one moment in particular when I saw someone notice us walking on the sidewalk toward them, and they crossed the street and walked on the other side. By afternoon we were exhausted both physically and emotionally. It had been a long lonely day that stood in stark contrast to the previous night. I guess during the day, most of the homeless population is out looking for money or working day jobs, and so the only interactions we could have had was with people who had homes, which essentially meant we had no interaction with anyone. And so we felt tired, lonely, hungry and discouraged; and this was after just one day! I could only imagine how we would feel after weeks, months or even years of seeing people cross the street or turn the other way when we came towards them. I learned that weekend that one of the biggest needs for people on the streets was the need to be acknowledged and spoken to, kindly and with interest. Food was easy to find, but people willing to talk and engage in conversation was much harder to come by.
Had I remembered this lesson, I probably would have handled my insecurity differently that morning in the gym. Instead of sitting in silence and stewing in my emotions, I should have spoken up and interacted with the men who walked into the locker room. Not to challenge them and justify myself, but to hold out my hand and say “Ya’at’eeh”; and then to introduce myself and begin to get to know them.
Since that day in the gym, God has been working in my heart and continues to challenge my behavior. Today, I spend a significant amount of time initiating interaction and building relationships with churches, organizations, businesses and people off of our reservation and around the world.
Living on the Navajo Reservation feels very similar to the 24 hours I spent on the streets of Santa Monica; it is very lonely. Our nations and peoples have been pushed aside to scraps of land that are largely unwanted and out of the way. The majority of people who visit us are those coming to give us charity or those coming to take pictures at the 'Native American zoo'. Very few actually come for friendship.
I have tried to explain to people that being Native American and living on the reservation feels like I am an old grandmother who owns a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. I am upstairs in my bedroom tired, weak and sick. Meanwhile there is a party going on in my house. It is a large party with plenty of food and drink, games and laughter. People are all throughout the house having a great time. Yet no one ever comes up to my room. No one comes in to say hello and no one stops to acknowledge that the house belongs to me. It is not even that I am sad that I cannot join in on the festivities, or that I would be unwelcome to come out of my room. It is that, no one comes to me. And at times I wonder if they even remember whose house they are in.
The temptation is to stay on the reservation and remain silent – to stew in my hurt and allow my emotions to fester. It is tempting to say, if no one remembers us, than we should just forget about them. But that will not lead to reconciliation nor is it the will of our Father in heaven. God has continually called me to step off of our reservation and to give myself to relationships. Not to assimilate and 'fit in' with everyone else. But to introduce myself as a Navajo man and invite people into friendship.
This is not the final solution. It is a step. It is only an entry point into a much larger process and a much bigger dialog. But we have to start somewhere. Our world, our country, our churches and our people are divided. There are generations worth of injustice, shame, hurt and anguish that drives fear into our hearts and fuels our isolation. And we are frequently just sitting in silence and stewing in our insecurities. I am not offering a solution, but rather a step. Can we stand up, put aside our insecurities, look each other in the eye, extend our hands and say “Ya’at’eeh”?