The big house is gone

It is no more, but for a 100 years in Zuni there was only one “big house.” 

To say it loomed over the pueblo risks understatement. Even in its declining years nothing in town could rival its massive triangular bulk. It was not just one-of-a-kind, it was defiantly so, as if some miscreant Kansas tornado dropped it in the middle of town.

The first buildings the Christian Reformed Church built at the Zuni pueblo were hardly spectacular, but the denomination hadn’t been in the mission business long. In fact, Rev. Herman Fryling and Andrew Vander Wagon were just about the first to leave west Michigan for mission fields teeming with what they called "the heathen." The CRC itself was only 50 years old; there wasn’t money for a mansion.

But the big mission house had to look like a mansion to Zunis, who lived in adobe homes of square-cut Zuni brick. When the big house sprouted up in 1914, nothing looked anything like it in the pueblo, nor has there been anything like it for the entire next century. Nobody else had colonial windows, a spacious front porch, or a peaked gable jutting from a huge, swooping roof line. 

The Zunis must have been as ashen-faced as those first missionaries were when they peeked at the Shalako dancers from those three upstairs windows. It’s just about impossible to imagine a cultural statement as in-your-face as “the big house” must have been when it went up, stud by straight-cut stud.

If you want to megaphone your intent to change people’s lives and hearts and their whole way of life, what on earth could the missionaries have done more effectively than put up the biggest, whitest house between Zuni and Gallup—or Zuni and Albuquerque? “Here we are,” that house preached. “Aren’t we something? Wouldn’t you like some of this too?”

Nothing could be more “American,” nothing more foreign, an American Craftsmen design that could have been from a Sears catalog but was likely created from a pattern by J. H. Davermen and Sons, house and church builders who just happened to be Dutch and CRC. Another sprawling Daverman home, probably the same floor plan, still stands at Rehoboth, just a bit east of the post office. 

That big house was an icon of the cultural aggression missionary endeavor often was—or at least facilitated—a century ago. For someone like myself, a descendant of those who exercised sometimes unyielding control over the work at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, the big house, and what it so aptly symbolized, is something of an embarrassment because nothing could be more out-of-place than a hulking Midwestern frame house smack dab in the heart of a New Mexico pueblo. 

Maybe it was high time that big house came down. Maybe it’s a crime it took an entire century.

But a house becomes a home once it’s lived in, no matter how monstrous its style.  Zuni Mission’s two-story Daverman has been home, not only to dozens of families, but hundreds, even thousands of guests, Native and Anglo. It's heard a couple million prayers, lots of them said aloud and a gazillion more uttered in silence. 

Real people lived in “the big house,” and real people have loved there too. They laughed hard I’m sure, and cried and fought hard too, and some, regrettably, left in huff. It’s seen more than its share of life.

But a thousand heart-felt reconciliations have been made beneath its broad, sloping roof, lots and lots of human stories, some maybe a bit too intimate to retell, all of that life sheltered and sustained within those four wide walls. One early missionary conducted a good business as a dentist by pulling teeth right there in the kitchen.

One sad night in 1971, the fire that ravaged the mission threatened the big house next door. Zuni residents came to the rescue and hauled everything out to the river. Kathleen Klompien remembers seeing her refrigerator tip when it was lifted it up and out of the kitchen; she will never forget what was inside spilling out as they dragged that monster outdoors amid the smoke and heat so intense it broke windows and blistered paint. 

After that devastating fire, those who worshiped in the sanctuary that burned down moved their worship to the big house basement, where the ceiling was so low that the hymns they sang had to rattle even those cement walls. 

Verna Chimoni is downright disgusted about its demise. She claims it really should have become a museum because so much history was lived within its walls. She hasn’t forgotten professing her faith in the basement, where she also baptized her daughter. The big house wasn’t a symbol of suppression or degradation to Verna Chimoni; it was a holy place. 

People lived life there, ate and drank, played Monopoly and Rook and Uncle Wiggly, raised kids, had friends over, drank endless cups of coffee, baked a hundred thousand cookies. Old Zuni women used to knit together in the dining room.

When demolition of the big house began, dozens of tiny holes showed up in old cardboard insulation upstairs, where a couple of residents, boys, shouldered their BB guns and shot at targets and once in a while even themselves. Some of those BBs were still there years later.

Bannisters became slippery slides. The boys from the preacher’s downstairs apartment once strung wires up and a pair of tin cans so they could talk to the boys from the teacher’s family upstairs.

One young teacher kept a pet crow in a back room upstairs until that crow took off and got thumped by a car at the intersection just outside the front door. Ouch. In a flash, that dead crow was salvaged by a Zuni who had to think himself as blessed to come heir to a supply of sable feathers for Zuni ritual. Pity the poor teacher.

That big house may well be a symbol of cultural oppression; but most of those who lived there in the last century can remember times when someone—male or female, young or old, Zuni or Navajo or Anglo—showed up, any hour of the day or night, in a fit of turmoil that made being anything less than a good Samaritan unthinkable.

In the early 90s, a number of factors merged to put the whole Zuni Mission at great risk—low school enrollment, lack of funds, and other factors. News got out that the whole mission was tottering. People from the pueblo told Pastor Mike not to let it happen, not because they were Christians, not because they’d ever professed the name of the God those missionaries have talked about for an entire century; but because, they said, the big house and the mission downtown was a citizen whose presence, they said, would be sorely missed. 

Such unsolicited comments were a joy, he says. When he asked them why they felt that way, some claimed they like to think of that big house and the mission itself as “a place of peace.”

Think of it this way. The big house fit in the pueblo like wingtips jutting out from a Navajo blanket, an ungainly symbol of perceived cultural superiority that could have made mission work doubly and triply difficult.

But it was still sad—for everyone who has ever been there, inside and out—to see that massive icon tumble because through a century at the Zuni pueblo the big house became a home for hundreds of real people, even a church when it had to be. 

Through an entire century of mission life, it has done far more than the old Heathen Mission committee ever asked. It became a great big, ungainly place of peace. 



What I can't help but notice, almost daily, is that I'm running low on holy water. Truth is, this Protestant has never opened this elegant little bottle, never sprinkled its contents on anything, never tried out its holy potential. It stands atop my file now with a gaggle of other memorables, the blest water within dissipating to wherever sealed holy water goes when it disappears. 

Three years ago I bought this sweet keepsake--two euros--at the shrine to St. Boniface in Dokkum, the Netherlands, a sort of open-faced house of worship that celebrates the life of a priest who may well have been Europe's most famous martyr. He already had a great vitae by the time some pagan Frisians offed him. He'd brought Christianity to the pagans, after all. He's the patron saint of Germany. 

Some historians pooh-pooh his tactics because his methods were extreme, well, primitive. He cared not a whit for what we'd call today the indigenious culture of those to whom he brought the gospel.  

The most famous tale of his saintly life surrounds his felling of Thor's Oak, a huge tree--so saith posterity--whose massive size made it a shrine, as in pagan. Boniface would have nothing to do with heresy, so he cut the monster oak down.  Some say that at the moment he was at it with his axe, a miraculous straight-line wind came along and broke the thing divinely into four chunks. The felling of Thor's Oak was the kind of mighty deed that sped his ascension to sainthood.

But he lost his head in Friesland when a gang of the world tallest heathens martyred him for destroying their shrines.  The date was June 5, the day before Pentecost, 754 A.D.

I couldn't resist the holy water. The bottle is beautiful, don't you think?--its water drawn right from the spring at the shrine of St. Boniface. But mysteriously now, this elegant little bottle is losing its currency. 

I can joke about it. My pseudo-sophistication allows me some comfortable distance from such spiritual tomfoolery. Besides, I had two dogs in that historic hunt. I'm a believer, after all; sometime--who knows?--some ancient barbarian ancestor may well have got himself converted by St. Boniface. Almost had to be. On the other hand, I can't help but be a bit proud of those hearty Frisians who did away with the man who belittled them. Truth is, both sides are worth telling.

Maybe that's why this pretty little bottle is precious to me, even though it's losing its holy cargo. Sometime, post-mortem, my kids will pick it up and toss it forthwith, as glibly as their ancestors did away with a saint. But to me, with or without its holy water, it's precious because, like any other symbol, it is what it is and so very much more. That little relic will hold that entire story even when the water is long gone. That's why it stands here today right behind me. It's not going anywhere yet.

Years ago, a funeral for one of my wife's aunts was held on a frigid January afternoon, one of those clear winter days when everyone in the county wonders why anyone lives out here in the face of a prairie wind so cold it'll take off your face. It was so bitter that afternoon that even though a caravan of mourners made its way out to the cemetery for the burial, there was no committal. The cold was simply too brutal.  

We watched from the car as the pallbearers lifted that casket from the back of the hearse and placed it on the brass set up beneath the snapping folds of a tent around the open grave. But no one--mostly it was old folks anyway--got out of the cars because the pastor had made clear that it was too cold for a psalm and prayer in that northwest wind.

But another aunt, a sister of the deceased, got out of her husband's car and walked, determined and alone, to the gravesite, stood there alone in the cold and took a single flower from the bouquet atop the casket, then brought that single flower with her back to the car. That reverential honor, borne out of love, I'll never forget.

And that memory explains the single blade of blue stem beneath the bottle in the picture above. I remembered the way that near-ninety-year-old aunt insisted on a flower from her sister's casket, how she walked alone through the snow to that canopy, took a sprig of color, then hesitantly traced her own footsteps through the snow back into the warmth of the car. 

Just last Saturday, I grabbed the one blade of blue stem some groundskeeper missed with the weed-whacker in a small-town South Dakota cemetery.  There it was--see it? Well, now it's here.

I pulled it up from the gravesite of a woman whose life I'm still trying to trace and understand, and now it's here on the shelf beside what little holy water I still have and a gallery of museum pieces no one else would find of any value. 

You'll just have to trust me when I say that single blade of prairie grass is far more than what it is.

Where does it come from in us?--this need to remember, to preserve, to hold to something larger than we are? Maybe I'm speaking just for myself here, but I think we all need to be awed. We're not really whole without something to reverence.

The truth is, I'm about out of holy water.  I guess I'll live.  

But there are images, even little idols in my life, and they're all around me, bringing comfort and good cheer; they seem to accumulate with every passing year.  What's sits and stands right now behind this Protestant, as I sit here at the keyboard this morning, is an open-faced shrine bedecked with fetishes, all of which proves, I think, what's there in the creed I've recited a thousand times:  really, every last one of us is part of the holy catholic church, even the Calvinists.

We do want to honor. We do want to worship. All of us.


Savior of Silent Stone

Dowa Yalanne is the kind of place that really deserves the word monumental. There it stands like a momentary eruption stopped in time, a bundle of fisted hands reaching skyward, not necessarily aspiring, but signalling power and strength that some who live in its presence quite understandably call eternal.

At least three times--maybe more--the Zuni people took refuge on top the mountain. I've never been up there, but some I know who have been say it's full of holy places. The Zunis hid from the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Apaches up there, where the world at the top is so wide you can't see to the other side. There's room to live up top, and lots of reasons for an enemy to turn his horse around and simply go home once he looks up its dusky cliffs. For 7000 years, Dowa Yalanne was a citadel of strength, a savior to those who lived in its presence.

It looms almost parentally over the Zuni pueblo just as it has since men and women first began to think of the world beneath the mountain as the birthplace of life itself. You want to know where the Zuni came from?--there's a place just down the road.  For thousands of years for thousands of Zunis all of life was right here in the shadow of the mountain.

Think of it this way: Dawa Yalanne has astonishing stage presence, so much of it that volumes of Zuni lore originate in its caves and promintories. Once upon a time, when the whole world was flooded, a gargantuan sea monster bit off a chunk of the mountain. Two promintories are the pinnacles from which two children jumped to their deaths to save the people (versions of that story may well have moderated over the years). The mountain is not simply a citizen of the pueblo, it is, in a way, its magistrate. There it stands, always, perfectly indomitable.  

But there's nothing there to tell the epic story of a people who've been in residence right in this very spot longer than any people have been anywhere on the continent. Some say 7000 years. You won't learn that at the foot of the mountain.

There are no historical markers, no signs or displays anywhere to tell the stories, because the Zunis really don't want people around their mountain; they are of the belief that there's just too much divinity, too much precious, too much of the people's heart and soul and mind right here. They're not looking for crowds.


So unless you know the stories from your grandma, the only joy you'll take away from a visit to Dowa Yalanne is the grace it bestows simply by its magnificent presence. The Zunis don't really care if you don't know what happened on their mountain. It's their story, and if you're not one of them, it's not yours.

Even though I've read a little history, I stood there at the place where the sea monster bit off a chunk of the mountain, and I couldn't help but wish that someone would tell me the story.

If you're not Zuni, you can always read what you can of the mountain elsewhere; you can page through its myths and legends. And you can go there and listen. Sometimes there is far more to meet the soul in a space where there seems to be nothing at all. If you do go, don't make a fuss. Be still.

But you're on your own. No one will tell you the story. No one will preach the Zuni word, precious as it may be to them. No one will ask you to believe.

Some call the Zuni, even today, a mysterious people. If you stand there, alone, in the silence, maybe you'll understand. 


Red Rock Miracles

Henry Whipple was one of the first students. Don't be fooled--not the Henry Whipple, the famous Minnesota missionary who, in 1862, pleaded with President Lincoln for the lives of hundreds of Dakota braves and won.

This Henry Whipple was a cute little Navajo six-year-old, who no one on earth had called "Henry Whipple" until he came to the new school at the mission, Rehoboth Mission. In 1903, that Henry Whipple was one of Rehoboth's very first students. He's the little guy down on the left.

First crack out of the box, his teachers named the kid Henry Whipple because the Henry Whipple was a missionary hero.

But there was another reason too, that one not so noble. Those very first teachers, all of whom spoke with thick Dutch brogues, didn't stand a chance of pronouncing Henry Whipple's Navajo name--whatever it was--so they simply dropped it and gave him a name rich with honor and a whole lot easier to pronounce.

They likely didn't ask him. After all, changing the boy's name didn't matter because they were there in New Mexico on a mission to teach the Navajo the gospel of Jesus Christ; and they were sure--just as all Anglos were back then, even those with thick Dutch brogues--that accomplishing that mission meant stripping a six-year-old Navajo kid of just about everything he'd ever known: cut his hair, dress him in white man's clothes, teach him the Bible, the English language, and Heidelburg Catechism. That's how Indian education was done, after all, in this country.

The truth is, there was a school at Rehoboth mission only because the mission wasn't on the Navajo Reservation. It wasn't placed where there was already an Indian school, where the government gave missionaries lots of good time with kids anyway because the government believed that bringing Native people Christianity was a super good way to make them forget they were Indians and make them real Americans.

It's no wonder that many Native people across the continent, even today, think of Christianity as the white man's religion. Even the government thought so: teach 'em to look decent, to speak English, drive a tractor, build a shed, and go to church. You know, get with the program: be an American like everyone else.

Today, no one knows what happened to Henry Whipple, the cute little boy you see on that first Rehoboth school picture because no one really knows his name. On that picture, he's just Henry Whipple, not the missionary Henry Whipple.

Not long ago, Rehoboth Christian High School was named one of the premiere 50 Christian high schools in the nation. It's a great honor really, even though no educator fully understands how someone decides who's number 27 and who is 127. Rating institutions must be something of a crap shoot.

That being said, I'm sure Rehoboth Christian High is greatly thankful they are among the chosen, the elite, recognized to be what they are, one of the finest Christian high schools across the length and breadth of this country. Being one of the fifty best, no matter what kind of wizardry got them there, is far better than not showing up on the list.

That they are there is not a miracle. A school that began as a mission enterprise in the racist footsteps of every other educational institution on American reservations has slowly and stubbornly become something compellingly unique, a reservation school that not only works but excels, and one that does it all in the name of the Lord. There are teachers and administrators at Rehoboth--and I am blessed to know some of them--who work their hearts out to create a school dedicated to the glory of the risen Christ.

Hard work, dedication and endless prayer have played significant roles in creating an institution that's become nearly as stunning as a sunset on the red rocks in the school's front yard. There are many to thank, including some of the earliest folks, who recruited Navajo and Zuni kids the hard way, by building friendships, one family at a time, through long hours sitting in front a fire on the dirt floor of a hogan.

An old Rehoboth grad, someone whose kids and grandkids have all attended Rehoboth, told me his father claimed that the only reason he sent his boy down the road to the mission school was because that missionary, that Rev. Van--when that white man talked about living a good life he was really talking about what his father called "the beauty way." 

His father wasn't a Christian, but his father sent his little boy to school at Rehoboth because he'd learned to trust the man who said the boy should be there.

There are other schools with Dutch Calvinist roots among the fifty best Christian high schools in the nation--Eastern, in New Jersey, Pella, in Iowa, Lynden, in Washington, Sioux Falls, in South Dakota, and Holland, in Michigan. Each of them has ties to each other and to Rehoboth, schools where the mission is teaching kids something akin to what one might find in John Calvin:  "There is not one blade of grass, no color in the world, that is not intended to make us rejoice." All of life belongs to Him.

But only one of those elite Christian high schools was not built for Dutch Calvinist kids. Only one was built for others, and only one was built for this country's first nation people. That one is Rehoboth. We did a lot of it wrong through the years, but God almighty quite regularly weaves gorgeous blankets out of our filthy rags. 

Really, Rehoboth Christian School is a miracle.  Soli deo gloria.



Count me among the millions of those who watched the agony of Kunte Kinte a half-century ago and were deeply, deeply moved.  Roots, a story--a novel, really--by Alex Haley, affected me so powerfully that it sent me scurrying to uncover my own. Sometimes people wonder why I care about my own Dutch Reformed background. Alex Haley made me wonder who I was when I really didn't know, and ethnicity--even the lack it--is one ingredient in the identity cocktail. 

[I spent too many years reading term papers not to say anything about Haley's shameful plagiarism in that book; but that's a story for another time.] 

Kunte Kinte's story was very bitter but incredibly wholesome. White folks don't fare well in Alex Haley's portrayal of the lives of his ancestors. Roots was a main stage production that wouldn't let America look past the rising action of its own story. Me either. And even though I'd spent a number of years outside the church back then, it still hurt me to see that sometimes--oftentimes--the madmen spouting scripture did the most savage bloodletting.

That phenomenon is front-and-center in 12 Years a Slave, too, a great film that likewise creates downright beasts out of bible-toting Christians from south of the Mason-Dixon, men as deft with a whip as they are quick with proof texts. When it comes to slavery, the sullied past of evangelical America is haunting.

And it's there again in Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, Oprah-blessed, The Invention of Wings, a powerfully plot-driven novel of two women, one of whom Ms. Kidd pulls from the pages of real American abolitionist history, Sarah Grimke. Sarah and her sister Angelina turned their back on their family, went north from their home in Charleston, and became marquee lecturers on the abolitionist circuit by forswearing their own slave-holding past. 

Fascinatingly, Ms. Kidd's novel creates something of a twin character, a slave girl named Hetty or "Handful," who is all of that. Hetty's mother teaches her that the only way to live with slavery is to keep a live portion of yourself in all-out revolt, a spitfire revolt that doesn't kill you--because it can--but maintains the fire of her own authentic human spirit.

The villians of The Invention of Wings are evangelical Christians like the Grimke's mother, who requires her slaves attend a Sunday School she serves up using a slaves-and-masters curriculum designed to perpetuate servitude. It's awful--not the book, but once more having to realize that men and women used the Bible to justify a way of life that would not have existed if it hadn't been fueled on blood.

Just once, I'd like to read a book about good Christian slave-holders. Did they exist? I'd like to see a movie that told stories about Bible-believers who bought into both Jesus and slavery, who didn't lock people in leg irons cast from their own damned fire and brimstone. There had to be some like that, don't you think? I have to think so.

A book some might call "the greatest American novel" doesn't have any either. When Huck Finn finally decides that staying with the slave Jim as Jim makes a break for freedom, he knows, inside and out, that his decision to keep going down the river, to not turn Jim in, is not only a crime in the South he's leaving behind, but, much worse--a sin. 

And that's why little Huck utters the most famous line in all of American literature:  "All right then, I'll go to hell." 

The book my parents read from when I was a boy, the Bible specifically designated for kids, an early version of Catharine F. Vos's The Children's Story Bible, made it perfectly and memorably clear that that son of Noah named Ham got himself cursed for laughing at his soused father and then went south in the family's diaspora, to Africa, where his people would live and prosper as servants of the other brothers. Slavery was that clear, that biblical.

I put out a note to faculty years ago, just to see if anyone had that fat old blue book around somewhere, and I found one. I photocopied the passage and, as long as I taught Huck Finn I brought that passage up in class to college students who seemed nowhere near as shocked as I had been at the way I'd been reared. It was a passage I remembered hearing as a boy, a biblical interpretation just as dangerous as anything those Southern Christian bigots could spout. 

It was in me too somewhere, this despicable theology of race and faith. 

Dutch immigrants to this country, I'm told, deliberately steered away from the American south in the immigration wave that populated west Michigan, southeast Wisconsin, and south central Iowa before the Civil War. Despite their own slave-trading past, those wooden shoes wanted no part of an institution that America held onto longer than most in the Western world because it clearly empowered the American South. 

A century later in a small town in Wisconsin, when the Schaap family finished supper, my father would grab our well-worn copy The Children's Story Bible and read a story or two to us kids, our own family altar.

I never had a slave, never owned a whip; but, as a boy, I knew something about slaves because I knew the story of Noah and his sons, and where specifically one the boys, that one named Ham, had gone, where he went and what he did and why it was he served us.

That's what I was told.