We Call Each Other Family – Rev. Tweedy Sombrero Navarrete

Episode 9

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EPISODE 009: Rev. Tweedy Evelene Sombrero Navarrete is Executive Director of the Four Corners Native American Ministry. She is Diné (Navajo), and an ordained elder in Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. Previously, she served as pastor at congregations in Arizona.

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Molly: In times of uncertainty and radical change, it’s tempting to narrow our field division to focus on the problems we see in front of us, facing them as challenges that require our attention and adaptation. But in this moment of the life of the church, I feel a responsibility to make sure we’re also broadening our field of view, because the work of the Church is not just about maintaining the institution.

It’s not primarily about maintaining the institution–it’s about building the reign of God, Beloved Community.

As I’m recording this episode we’re just a little less than 2 weeks away from the meetings of Jurisdictional Conferences in the United Methodist Church in the US. These are the gatherings where we will elect new bishops–new episcopal leadership for the years ahead. It’s tempting in this moment to focus in on that specific task.

But I hope for us, for people in local congregations, and all of the places where the church is located, even for those of us who will participate as delegates at Jurisdictional Conference, that we might widen our view and remember the calling and responsibility of the Church, not only as we think about who we will elect his bishops, but as we think about how we live in each moment.

I’m Rev. Molly Vetter, the Senior Pastor at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. It’s my joy to welcome you to this episode of Where Do We Go From Here, UMC?

In today’s conversation, I’m thrilled to welcome the Rev. Tweedy Evelene Sombrero Navarrete. Tweedy is the Executive Director of the Four Corners Native American Ministry, which is located in Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Four Corners region. She is Navajo, and an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tweedy for many years, working alongside her. I regularly find her to be a source of wisdom, and insight. And a fantastic storyteller.

So welcome to this episode. Thank you for listening. I’m glad to welcome Rev. Tweedy!

Molly: I’m really grateful for your willingness to take time to talk today, Tweedy. We have been colleagues and friends, I decided, for 20 years now.

Tweedy: Oh, my goodness.

Molly: Since we both served on the National Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission together. It has been a while. I’m so grateful for you and your ministry.

I wondered if you would just, as we start, tell us a little bit about who you are, who you come from, and where you are.

Tweedy: Okay. Well, my name’s Tweedy Evelene Navarrete.

I am a full blooded Navajo. My parents, and I always say my parents because my parents, my mom, was from Low Mountain, Arizona, and my dad was from Inscription House. In Navajo when you introduce yourself, you have to say your clans, to introduce yourself by clans.

So my dad was, and I’m trying to do this properly… My mom was Kinyaa’áanii and they say it’s born for Tl’izi lani, which was my dad.

So Kinyaa’áanii is Towering House and my dad was Many Goats, and I unfortunately don’t know my grandparents’ clan. You know, cause you’ll always say their clan. So those are my mom and dad’s clan. I was born in Red Lake, Arizona. I was born at home and 8 hours later, my sister who was a twin, who was my twin, was born in Winslow. Because they didn’t know my mom was pregnant with twins, and so when they got her when she started having the baby, of course I came first, and then they took her to the hospital in Winslow and my sister was born in Winslow.

So I am a twin. We were on the reservation for a while, and then we moved to Utah, and my mom and dad had jobs at Intermountain Indian School. We lived at Intermountain Indian school for a while, well all through high school. And I graduated from high school there, and then moved on from there.

So that’s pretty much my growing up years. We spent a lot of time on the reservation when we came back during the summer time to, you know, visit relatives and be with family. And help out as much as we could. Then my Dad always made sure that we came home to visit family. We visited family on my dad’s side, and then we’d go to my mom’s side, and so we’d always come and visit family and do some sheep herding. [laughs] My dad always said that was really important for us to know. So we did all kinds of things. So yeah.

Molly: And does your family–Did you grow up in the church?

Tweedy: No. actually I didn’t. I didn’t know nothing about the Methodist church.

When I graduated from high school, my older sister Cindy had been to Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kansas, and thought that would be a really good school for me to go to.

And so she helped me get my application in and then I ended up at Haskell Indian Junior College, and was there, of course it’s a Junior College, was only been there for 2 years–actually was there a little bit longer, cause Rolena–I mean, I got married to her dad.

But there at Lawrence: Well, I was into my first year. I met this girl who kept bugging me, like not to join, but to come with her to church, and I wouldn’t go. And for like a semester, she just, oh, she just kept bothering me. And then into the second semester, my first year, she started bugging me again, and finally to get her off my back, I finally said, “Okay, I will go to church with you if you get off my back.” And she said, “Okay.”

So, and this is what’s really funny, is in the meantime I had met this man. I was working at a little restaurant called Nabbakis, and it was across the street from Haskell, and I was a waitress there. I, on one of my days off, I was hanging out, and this friend of mine, his name was Andy and I would, were talking, and we were talking about what we think, who God is, and who God was, and things like how God affects our lives that kind of thing. And this man came in–and it’s a small restaurant–and this man came in and wanted to come join, to sit somewhere.

There was nowhere for him to sit, and so my roommate who also worked at the same restaurant, said, “Oh, Uncle Harry, go sit with Tweedy and Andy.” And he thought, “Who’s Tweedy?” And so she said she’s right–she’s right there. And so he came over and sat down with us, and we just said, come, yeah, come join us. And we just kept talking, and he joined our conversation, and we had this great conversation, and each, you know, he just joined in and then it was like hours later, we finally went, “Oh, let’s introduce ourselves!” You know, we all started to laugh. Anyway. He liked how I thought about things and what I thought about things, and so he asked if I would help him and do some things that he was working on. So I did.

Anyway. Now, back to this lady who kept inviting me to church. She kept saying, “Come, come to church, come to church.” And so I finally said yes, I would go with her. And so she took me to her church.

She said it’s real small. I said we’re sitting clear to back, I don’t care how small it is, we’re sitting, and it was. It was a tiny church, and so I went to church with her, and they were doing, the kids were up front at the beginning, singing songs you know, for the congregation, and as people were gathering they were singing. And then they went back to their classroom and then people were coming in, and I knew the majority of the congregation, because they were all people from Haskell. You know, people who work there, people who I worked with–it was just, it was incredible how many people I knew. I mean like I said, I knew the whole congregation.

And then I said to her, “When does church start?” And she said it’s gonna start soon. She goes: The minister’s here now. And I said, Okay? And then, just then, my friend Harry walked in, and he was up in front, and he came in, said a few words and I said, “What is he doing here?” And he saw me and he said, “What is she doing here?” And we both started to laugh, and I found out he was the minister of the church. And what impressed me more than anything else was the fact that he never ever tried to proselytize me or try to get me to join the church. He never even–he was just very open to talking about things, and how things were with us, and never even, “God says you have to believe this way.” And that’s what impressed me the most.

It was Lawrence Indian United Methodist Church, and that was my first introduction to United Methodism, and I was so impressed that I started coming and started going to church at Lawrence at the church there. And so he’s the one that introduced me to a couple of people and things like that.

He told me about–my major was Social Work–and he introduced me to the Church and Community Worker position. So he said, “You know, if you want to continue, you could. You could be a Church and Community Worker.” And I thought about it.

Of course, when I graduated, I worked for my tribe as a social worker and then had the opportunity to come work at a church afterwards. Yeah.

Molly: So then you’ve also served congregations in Desert Southwest Conference. And now are appointed to the Four Corners Native American Ministry and you’re located in New Mexico.

Tweedy: Yes, and you talk about coming full circle! Because when I was working for my tribe as a social worker, Harry called me one day and said, “There’s a position open in Shiprock, New Mexico. He goes, “They’re looking for a Christian Ed Director.” And I said, “I have no idea what a Christian Ed Director is.” And he said, “Go and up, go and apply for it. If you get, if you get the position,” he goes, “then we can arrange for training and for you to be trained.”

And I said, “Okay.” And so I put in for the position, and they called and interviewed, and asked me to come for an interview. I came for an interview, and then, about a week, maybe 2 weeks later, I was hired.

Here in Shiprock, and so I’m back now. I was actually in Shiprock, working at the church, when the minister there started Four Corners Ministry. So I have come full circle.

Molly: That’s where you are now – and you’re now right as the Director.>

Tweedy: I’ve always wanted to be the director, for this position, I mean in this place. And now I am.

Molly: So that’s a beautiful story. You know, I’ve been having these podcast conversations with different folks in the church, and a common theme that has come up frequently is that church has been a place where the folks who are leaders today like showed up as young people, and were given responsibility, and like hired for jobs or tasked with a job, and then given some training and education and encouragement. But there’s a certain element to the leadership of the church now that’s just like: people showed up and we trusted them in leadership. And even when they were young or new or trying things out, and it just sort of grew in this sort of beautiful organic way.

I’m interested in the question of what matters to our local churches, and I include in that our ministries like Four Corners, and in your particular location as a Native American, as a leader in the church, as a pastor, as a Director of a ministry: I wonder if you have thoughts about what the leadership our bishops give means to you, and what leadership we ought to be looking for, for the future.

Tweedy: Okay.

I think it’s really important for bishops to have training in terms of–or have a better understanding, or maybe, I don’t know how to say this, but it it would be great for bishops to show some support to all ministries, racial ethnic ministries especially, because when racism comes up or we’re confronted with something that… colonialism type stuff, that they have an understanding what that means.

Unfortunately, in our Annual Conference, and maybe other Annual Conferences as well, the bishop has no clue as to what trauma means, or what generational trauma means. And so we have a leadership team that doesn’t even want to address it. And I think it’s really important that we have a leadership team that’s willing to address what that means.

And it may be uncomfortable as all get out. But at least they’re trying, and I feel like sometimes they don’t want to do that.

Because it’s become so uncomfortable for them to deal with. I really think that’s really important for bishops to know, and for bishops to have that way of just knowing that they have to do some training or have some training. I have been offering training–but have not been even thought of or given that opportunity to bring training.

Because I’ve had people say in leadership positions that “We don’t know what trauma is. We don’t know what you’re going through. We don’t understand.” And like, well, let me help you understand. Let’s try to do something in the Annual Conference. Let’s offer something to the pastors, let’s offer something so that we can at least start somewhere. And nothing.

Molly: And are you talking about training both to help us reckon with the realities of the sin that the institution is participated in in the past for the sake of the institution, and training to deal with the reality that people who are a part of the Church, and in our communities now, are living with the generational trauma that they’ve inherited, and that they are, they are us–there’s no externalizing of this who we are.

Tweedy: Because when we don’t have that training, the trauma is perpetuated. I can’t even reiterate that enough, to say it’s really important.

I see people you know, native people, you know, that went to boarding schools, went to mission schools. And mission schools telling them they can’t be Navajo and Christian at the same time. And you get a lot of people around here walking around, in a lot of pain, a lot of shame, and don’t know how to deal with it.

And some don’t want to even talk about it or even recognize it for what it is, you know. It’s really sad to be at a church where they don’t even want it mentioned, and you know I sat outside of the church here, and just cried because the people don’t want to deal with it.

They don’t, you know, they know they’re hurting, but they don’t know why. And there are people who are finding ways that worked for them in the past and continue to use those ways: for instance, a lady who likes to yell. You know a person who likes to yell and get her way, or get his way, or whatever. And the person you know, after a while, that’s no longer gonna work. And it’s really sad to just watch them be in this pain. And other people, a lot of the other Navajos who have been in that kind of pain, not knowing how to deal with it, then turn to drugs. Alcoholism, drug use. A lot of meth use–and don’t know why they’re even in that.

And so it’s trying to help them identify what it is. What kind of trauma have you been, and what kind of hurt. What–let’s talk about the hurtful past. It’s hard because, then, there’s a lot of shame to it. Some of them that were sexually abused in boarding school.

Some of that were sexually abused in mission schools don’t want to talk about it. They just shut it all in, and it gets played out in other ways. So it’s really hard for us to help them identify what that is, and that’s what I want the leadership team to know–that there’s gotta be better ways to deal, to bring church in a new way. Instead of saying, like the old way, you have to give up yourself. It was hard for me to sit in a church where the minister’s yelling at you for being Navajo, for believing in your Navajo way, for believing in your culture. It’s hard for me to sit in church to listen to that, and then watch the Navajos around me, saying, “Oh, amen, amen!” And then not realizing what they’re saying “Amen” to. And then walk out, and then it gets played out. The anger gets played out in so many different ways and it’s sad it really is sad.

Molly: Yeah, it’s heartbreaking and such a distortion of the message of the Gospel.

Tweedy: Right, exactly. And it’s sad, in so many ways, that you’re taught to hate yourself because you’re not “Christian enough.”

Molly: You’ve been doing ministry for a long time now. What keeps you going? What has, I mean, in your proclaiming and embodying a different message than the oppressive message that too often gets shared in our communities…

What–How did you end up, like, making it? How are you still going? What’s sustaining you?

Tweedy: That’s a good question. I have no idea.

Molly: It must be Jesus.

Tweedy: Yeah. Well, you know, I believe. I mean my dad has always–and my both my parents have always–talked about culture. How important family is, have always talked about how important knowing who you are in the culture. And my mom always had ceremonies done, and so I trusted those ceremonies. And so every now and then I’ll have, like, what they call a Blessing Way done. I’ll go to my relatives and say I really need a Blessing Way done, and they will respond, and will, you know, get me a medicine person that will help me, that will do the Blessing Way for me.

After my twin passed away, you know, I had to have a ceremony done, and so they, you know, my relatives came and supported me in getting that done. I think it’s really important to know who you are and where you come from. I think it’s really important to know your history, you know, and your background. And that’s why I think it’s really hard for me to hear the oppressive language, you know. “You have to be saved.” What does that mean?

What does “being saved” mean? You know, and after a while, after being here for a while, I think my whole understanding has changed about Christ. As George “Tink” Tinker says–he’s a Recovering Christian. And I’m beginning to say the same, because I don’t think I believe the same way I used to believe.

It has changed drastically, and I’m trying to re-look at what it is that I believe, you know, and I know I don’t believe that you have to give one up for the other. I think they both enhance each other. I think they both build on each other, and they can build on each other.

I think both of them can, you know, sustain you for who you are as a Native, and I think when Native people turn to their Native ways, it doesn’t, you know, not… You know, if they believe in their Native ways and then believe in what Christ is about, I think that’s what’s important. Because when you look at the message of Christ, it’s about love. Pure and simple, it’s all about love. And I think that’s what’s really important, that particular message is all–you know, about the love that Christ brings to us. Who God, you know God, and that’s really important for us to continue to show.

If you really love and care about people, you know, then you love and care about them. For instance, the homeless people around here, we call them relatives. They’re related to us, so we call them our relatives and when they come to the door for help, a lot of them call me by–if they think I’m their aunt’s age they call me auntie. If they think I’m like their mom’s age, they call me mom, but they call it to me in Navajo, you know, shimá, which means mom. And you know, they’ll call me shimá or if I’m like their grandmother they call me shimásání, you know. And it’s cool! I mean, I think. And I love it.

I love it. I love it that they come, and they use the family terms for me. And I think when we look at each other like that, I think then we truly care about each other, and so calling them, you know, calling them, coming, telling them to come. And when they come to the door, and they want help or need something, then, you know, and they call me by those terms. Then, I’m like oh, yeah, okay you know this is great.

Molly: Are there lessons that we could learn from that about how we call each other, or treat each other in the church hierarchy as well?

Tweedy: Oh, I think so. I think so. I think, you know, and it’s hard for non-natives to grasp onto that. I don’t know why, but it seems like it is because here my cousins are not cousins, they’re my brothers and sisters, you know, and all my mom’s brothers and sisters are not only aunties and uncles, but they’re mom and dad to me. Yeah, and that’s what we, you know, and that’s what we call each other. You know, we are called by that family name.

We there’s a word, there’s a word and it’s called k’é. And k’é is family, and in order for us to bond and be together, we believe in k’é. And I always say, you know, when you’re in the family of God…

You know, when I talk to Navajos about United Methodism, I go we’re k’é. Because– you could be in San Diego and visit a church in Maine, and if you’re in United Methodist, you’re k’é because you’re Methodist, you know, and you belong to that family of United Methodism, and you know you could go to Maine and still find family and you know and wherever you go you’re k’é. You’re k’é, because you know United Methodism believes in that connectional system. And so I tell them, I always tell Navajos, you have k’é where you go, because you belong to the United Methodist Church and that’s how we tried to tell them that we’re k’é. We’re k’é wherever we go.

And because Christ makes that so for us. And I truly believe that if we have that kind of thinking, and if we truly believe in helping our elders, and being with our elders and learning from our elders, then new leadership can learn from that, from the elders, you know, from the older leadership in the church. And being k’é and being family and being together, being that connected with each other.

Molly: Can we borrow that same concept, idea, value in terms of how we navigate a moment where there’s such division in the Church, particularly about human sexuality?

Tweedy: Oh, I think so, because you know, we got to quit believing and seeing, and I’m going to use the not so good terms here. But I was thinking that when you think of people who are LGBTQ people and it’s not so much that they are different then us. I mean they’re human beings, and they, you know, and the human being is, you know, when we talk about k’é, they are k’é, and in a Navajo way of thinking… See, Navajos believe in male-female. Everything’s male-female. We have a female side. We have a male side.

Molly: Within everyone, and everything there’s both?

Tweedy: In everything, everything.

We have female rain, we have male rain; we have female mountains, we have male mountains; we have female rocks, we have male rocks, we have male rocks, we have–everything has a female / male side. Everything that’s created in this world, everything has male female.

And for LGBTQ people, they’re more. They know more about being male-female, and they’re held in a little bit higher than us. And they’re more holier than us, because they know both sides. See, when we’re human beings, we only use the male side of us, or the female side of us. We don’t know how to balance that together, whereas LGBTQ people do.

Molly: They see more nuance? They see a bigger piece of the story?

Tweedy: They know how to do that. Yeah. They know exactly how to balance those two. We don’t. People who are straight don’t know how to do that. And LGBTQ people do. They know exactly how to balance that.

And so they’re held a little bit more higher than we are. And we always talk about the holy people, how the holy people trust in them more than us. So it’s, you know, and I feel really sad for the church, because we talk about love, and Christ tells us that we are to love each other, no matter what.

Yet we, as human beings, put labels and we put standards, and we put borders on, what–how much we’re going to love. I’m not gonna love that person because they look funny, or I’m not gonna love that person because they choose to be that way sexually–you know sexual or sexual orientation I am not going to love that person. We choose to put labels and borders on our love, whereas Christ didn’t. And that’s where that k’é is really more important, because Christ is the one that teaches how to be, how to have that love.

You know, I tell the story of the theologian Soren Kierkegaard, because he talked about how this man was walking down the street, and he saw a sign, in a store. It said “Pants Pressed Here,” and he was so excited he ran home, grabbed all his pants, ran back to the store, ran into the store threw all his pants on the counter.

And said, “Here you go! Here’s my pants!” And they were like, “What are you doing?”

And he said, “Well, your sign says ‘Pants Pressed Here.’” And they looked at him, and they said, “No, no, we are a store that makes signs. We don’t press pants here.” And Soren Kierkegaard says that’s the church. The church puts out signs that say “love found here.”

And so when we enter those doors, is it just a sign? Or is it, is love really found there?

Molly: Oof! That’ll preach, Tweedy!

Tweedy: Yeah. And we, so we, the Church, needs to decide. People in the church needs to decide. Is love really found here? Or is it just a sign?

Molly: Wow. I want to thank you for your time taking time for this, while you’re recovering from surgery.

I don’t wanna keep you longer, but I do want to give you an opportunity, if there anything else you wanted to say, any advice to you’d want to give the church, a message you’d want to communicate to a local church in California?

Tweedy: Well you know, don’t let Native American ministries die.

I’m really sad because I feel like we are we’re letting native American ministries die and annual conferences, because we don’t have those leaders hardly anymore…

I don’t want us to be back there any more; I want us to have the same opportunity as everybody else. And you know, and be able to have the ministries that we’re, that I think is so important, and have that opportunity to do that.

And you know, like this ministry is, we’re like barely holding on. I mean I shouldn’t say barely holding on–we’re struggling to hold on to this ministry. And this ministry is important because we do outreach to a lot of people in a neighborhood. And we do a lot of letting people know that we do care about them, and that we do, you know, we want to do the best that we can. And we don’t want it to to die, but it feels we don’t–I feel like we don’t have the support that we need and I feel like Native American Ministries across the country, I don’t think they have the support that they need and I think it’s really important.

You know that I don’t–I’ve not known anybody, any new, Native people getting ordained, and that’s sad.

Molly: I certainly want to offer my gratitude for your leadership and just our conversation today has reminded me, not only how important these ministries are for the community like that you’re set in now, but also how important your contributions are–What a gift they are to the Church as a whole. How we see Christ more clearly with the benefit of your eyes, also. Your perspective and your wisdom. And the responsibility we have to reckon with the trauma that we’ve participated in perpetuating, a part of the system that we have enabled and continued.

So thank you for your persistence and leadership, Tweedy.

Tweedy: Thanks, thank you.

Molly: Thank you for listening to this episode of Where Do We go From Here, UMC? I hope Rev. Tweedy’s words have sparked some insight for you, and that you’ll carry her stories with you as together we imagine the way forward for our denomination. It is a gift to be connected together to belong together in family. I wish you God’s blessings!

I encourage you to listen in to other episodes, to share this podcast, to subscribe on YouTube or whatever podcast platform you use. I hope it will be a gift to our conversation, as together we see how to be faithful to Jesus Christ. May God’s peace be with you, today and always. Amen.

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Episode 9