When the novel coronavirus invaded the land, Flagstaff, Arizona, pastor Jackie Holgate knew it could become more problematic for Navajo Nation than the general population. Holgate, pastor of Mountaintop Assembly of God since 2007, realized some Native Americans in small, rural, and isolated communities would have a difficult time surviving COVID-19.
Roughly 40 percent of the population lacks access to electricity or indoor plumbing. Multigenerational families densely living under the same roof is common. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and unemployment are much higher than the national average.
So for the past seven months, Holgate has organized forays to 30 communities on the reservation to deliver nonperishable groceries, bottled water, cleaning supplies, paper products, and other essentials as a lifeline. Most of the small towns in Navajo Nation remain on lockdown from Friday nights to Monday mornings.
Through Mountaintop Project Hope, Mountaintop Assembly and Holgate — who is Navajo — have consistently delivered two to three tons of necessities to Navajo communities every week or two. Distribution occurs through local churches to ensure accountability.
Mountaintop Assembly, which is 90 percent Native American — predominantly Navajo with a smattering of Apache — is located in Flagstaff, a city of 75,000 on the southwest edge of Navajo Nation. The tribal lands cover 17.5 million acres on sections of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah — a land mass larger than West Virginia.
But few goods and services are available. Only 13 grocery stores exist on the entire reservation, where 170,000 indigenous people live.
Initially, church volunteers loaded up goods in cargo vans and a trailer and headed to Navajo Mountain, a reservation community on the Utah boundary line with Arizona. But local residents kept coming, and the provisions ran out. So Mountaintop Assembly repeated the distribution the following week.
Holgate knew he needed to make a long-term commitment, and thus launched Mountaintop Project Hope. He also knew the outreach no longer should involve borrowing or renting vehicles to haul the loads. With financial help from his mentor Dobie Weasel, who operates Life Tribe Ministries in Omaha, Nebraska, Holgate bought a new trailer in June. He also traded in his 2003 Silverado pickup that had 200,000 miles on the odometer and purchased a 2020 Silverado.
However, an unknown thief stole the trailer from a church parking lot in early October.
“We’re praying that the Lord will see that our trailer is returned,” Holgate says.
Holgate says COVID-19 has compounded long-held fears in the Navajo culture. Many superstitiously believe wildlife such as owls and coyotes are messengers of doom. Some of the Native Americans avoid cemeteries over trepidation that evil spirits will come back to life to haunt them.
Those who have contracted COVID-19 in some cases have become outcasts, and thus have struggled with food insecurity.
“We’re going to them, even if their own families ignore them,” Holgate says. “We’re taking necessary precautions, but we’re not afraid to minister to people.”
Some reservation residents, who aren’t allowed to leave home on Sundays, are tuning in to Mountaintop Assembly services broadcast live over social media.
Holgate, 50, is a proponent of Native Americans taking care of their own. As a young child in a U.S. government-operated boarding school, Holgate says he endured efforts to eradicate his Navajo culture. Immediately upon arrival, Holgate had his hair shaved off. He had to speak only English; if caught talking in his native tongue, he had his mouth washed out with soap. He had to watch Western movies three times a week, with the plot invariably involving cowboys defeating Indians.
“I hated the white man for what they did to my people,” Holgate says. “I was angry and resentful, but my Father in heaven loved me and wanted to restore me.”
That process began when Holgate’s aunt Thelma Atene, who adopted him as a baby, began attending church with Jackie, then only 7 years old. He identified with a sermon about the Good Samaritan. He saw Jesus in the role as the healer, the Levite as the government that violates trust, and the Navajo as the wounded people who fell in among thieves.
“The peace of God came over me and has never left,” Holgate says. He went on to graduate from American Indian College, the Assemblies of God school in Phoenix now known as SAGU American Indian College. Holgate met his wife, Lenora, at the college. The couple have two sons, Matthew, 20, and Caleb, 14.
By mid-May, Navajo Nation became a COVID-19 hot spot and the indigenous population has sustained more deaths per capita — 574 through Oct. 20 — than any U.S. state. Although Navajo Nation rescinded a strict shelter in place order Aug. 16, daily curfews and weekend lockdowns remain in effect in an effort to curb the infection rate.
The Living Word Assembly of God in Kayenta, Arizona, has received food and water donations from Mountaintop Assembly in September and October. Living Word pastor Fred J. Billee, who is Navajo, shared the goods with five other congregations in the community of 5,100.
Billee, 56, notes that because the community remains on extended lockdown throughout the weekend, church services since August have been conducted on Wednesday evenings. Congregants can’t gather inside the church building, so they remain in their vehicles in the parking lot.
COVID-19 dealt a crippling blow to Kayenta, according to Billee. An area coal mine that employed 1,000 workers shut down last year. The bivocational Billee, who has pastored in the community since 2009, is a substitute teacher for the largest remaining employer, the local school district. The nearest Walmart is 135 miles away.
Albert A. Nez, an AG Navajo minister in sparsely populated Hard Rock, Arizona, says Mountaintop AG has provided supplies three times to the community. Nez, 59, metes out the food to those in need, especially the elderly.
“The majority of people just stay home all the time because of COVID,” says Nez, who has been pastoring Hard Rock Missions Church for 17 years. “People aren’t working and we’re on lockdown from Friday night to Monday morning for 57 hours.”