With beauty before me may I walk,
With beauty behind me may I walk,
With beauty above me may I walk,
With beauty all around me may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,
Lively, may I walk;
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,
living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
~ Navajo prayer
On that Saturday I received an email from the second youngest daughter of Arthur J. Hubbard, Sr., a 102-year old Native American Presbyterian Christian who had just passed. Among the divided duties of family members at this time, this daughter was charged with finding the place for his funeral. Arthur was living in a town a couple hours away when he died. The last Presbyterian congregation the family had been involved in together, in downtown Phoenix, could not accommodate. They knew they’d need a large space, wanted a friendly one, and several of the family lived nearby. The Moderator of the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon, Rev. Martha Sedongei, herself a Native American Pastor, was asked to officiate. They were asking if they could use Pinnacle Presbyterian as their location. She and one of her dear sisters came to worship the next morning, to make contact with us. One of our associates sat with them and discussed details. We wanted to extend this hospitality.
As things turn out, this was far more than a small funeral for man who lived a noble and long life. Mr. Hubbard was well known as one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers who were instrumental in America’s victory against the Japanese. He was an instructor in the program. He was also active in a number of economic and cultural development projects among the Indian nations, was the first Native American elected to the Arizona State Senate, was instrumental in founding the Navajo band (a trombone player), an active life-long Presbyterian, father of 12, and more. To mark him in history, he was in the first class to graduate from the Presbyterian mission school at Ganado, on the Navajo reservation. That school is no longer active. As was said of him, he never sought glory, only saw things that needed to be done and set out to do them.
His body was brought by an escort of Native American motorcyclists from Case Grande early Tuesday morning, with volunteers from more than one American Legion post waiting for him upon his arrival at the church. Numbers of people came for a 90-minute visitation in the sanctuary, with food and hospitality prepared for folks as they arrived. The Navajo Band played outside, in his honor. The service commenced, in a rather traditional, even Anglo, Presbyterian style–but with just enough of a sense of Native American ‘family’ for anyone to know this was something a bit different than what we normally experience at Pinnacle. A long receiving line to greet the pastors ensued after the service. State legislators attended, along with a mixed group of Anglo and Native citizens–with a shared sense of Christian faith. The President of the Navajo Nation arrived with his own entourage, to give Arthur honor. Media from four outlets arrived to film and do interviews for broadcast on the evening news programs.
After the funeral procession left for the National Cemetery for a military burial, the community returned for a reception with speeches and memories for over two hours in the Fellowship Hall.
If you’re interested, I’ve attached a film clip to this post below.
Not only were the Pinnacle staff remarkable in their efforts that day, but in extending this hospitality we might have discovered something important about our ministry. Native sisters and brothers spoke gratefully of the connection, spoke of feeling at home on our open and natural campus, and spoke of how welcoming they found our sanctuary with its flowing water, natural light, cross of native desert ironwood, stone floor, and stained glass depicting water and canyon. No symmetry in our sanctuary, but a feeling of nature born from the imagination of our architect, Jim Roberts, who himself grew up on Indian tribal lands where his parents were teachers. The choice was God-given, we were told.
So I’m left wondering. Are we not connected to each other, even when cultural encounters feel awkward and eclectic? Aren’t we open to learning from each other when experiences like death mark both our common humanity and our shared yearning for love and gratitude? Aren’t we better when we share a commitment to each other’s well being and not just to our own successes? Aren’t we the church when we embrace surprising encounters of healing memory, gracious celebration, and hope for reconciliation?
I received that email that Saturday as a request for accommodation, and so a bit of an imposition on other plans. Tuesday was a day scheduled full of staff meetings, after all. Yet in God’s eyes, I was actually being given a wonderful opportunity. No, we were being given a wonderful opportunity. And it became so. In the end, it was a wonderful gift.
How blessed we were, and privileged, to be chosen. May the church always be a place for such encounters, and may we have the wisdom to learn from them and let them change us.