Thursday, January 23, 2003

Sign of the Times

"It must be a sign of the times," he said. I had walked across the porch to the steps of the cafe. Father Ian was standing at the top of the stairs talking with Mark. It was a beautiful January day, so I stopped to chat. Ian was dressed in black trousers, a blue blazer, gray shirt, lavender sweater vest and priest's collar, so I mentioned that he was looking exceptionally nice. Ian said that he had been attending a Mormon funeral. "A Mormon funeral?" I asked, since Ian is an Episcopal priest. Although his assignment sounded a little odd, I long ago realized that, in this part of the country, you have to be versatile. Ian was just being flexible in his calling. People often ask how we manage to keep the businesses alive and make a living in such a small town. To me it is like managing a series of small drainages that eventually empty into a modest stream. In this desert climate large rivers are rare, so flexibility and cautious management is key.

Picture of St. Christopher's Mission, east of Twin Rocks Trading Post
St. Christopher's Mission, east of Twin Rocks

Ian is the priest at St. Christopher's mission, which is located approximately two miles east of Bluff and is home to Bishop Steven Plummber, the first Navajo Episcopal bishop. Father Baxter Liebler founded the Mission in 1943, a year after he left his home in Connecticut to visit this area. After his initial visit, he determined to return and establish a mission to the Navajo people on the banks of the San Juan. The Navajos referred to him as "the one that wears a long coat to the ground", because he wore a black cassock. His mission was based on the principle of respect for, not merely tolerance of, the Navajo culture and religion, and his services frequently incorporated the Navajo language and beliefs. As a result of his convictions, and his love for the Navajo people, he was able to build a very successful relationship with the residents of Bluff.

Since I was only four years old at the time of his retirement, my memories of Father Liebler are probably less my own than those of others who were older and more intimately acquainted with him. In spite of this, I am frequently reminded of the work he did and feel that I knew him well. I remember him as a very dynamic, very charismatic and very handsome man who rode to town on horseback, or in an old Jeep, looking very striking with his long gray hair tied in the traditional Navajo bun and wearing his black cassock. The old rock buildings of the mission hold many memories of days spent playing with the children of priests who followed in Father Liebler’s wake.

He learned the Navajo language, and never demanded that the Navajo use English instead of their native tongue. At that time it was standard procedure for the boarding schools attended by Native American children to forbid the students from using their traditional voice. I recently spoke with Emma Pauline, a member of the Mohawk tribe, about her tenure at boarding school. Emma is a retired school teacher who comes to Bluff every winter from her home in Minnesota. She assured me that her teachers made sure she did not speak Mohican at school. When I asked her if she was bitter, she just smiled and said, “No.” Emma is not bitter about anything.

In addition to religious services, in its heyday the mission also maintained a school and clinic, which served the local population. Susan, Craig, Barry and I all attended the little rock school, and even though we were being raised Catholic, Craig and Barry were altar boys at the church. As mentioned, one has to do with what is available here in Bluff. It seems that everybody in town loved Father Liebler and therefore has a soft spot for the mission. Over the years the mission has fallen into disrepair, and now needs a lot of work to bring it back to its glory days. That's where Father Ian comes in. I am not sure just when he arrived, but shortly thereafter the mission seems to have gotten a new lease on life. Coming to Bluff by way of England, Canada and Africa, Ian seems well prepared for the challenges of raising funds and repairing dilapidated buildings necessary to restore the mission.

On this particular day in mid January, the sun was warm and bright, so Ian, Mark and I stood on the porch a while longer than usual. After a time, a Navajo man came out of the restaurant and paused before proceeding down the steps to the parking lot. He turned, and looking at Ian, Mark and me, said to Ian, "Do you own this place?" Ian replied, "No, it belongs to Steve." Since I was standing there in work boots, Levi's and baggy sweater, my standard winter garb, the man seemed a little surprised, but paid us a nice compliment and went on his way. That's when Ian turned to me said, "It must be a sign of the times." He explained that in today's society people rarely recognize the collar as a sign of the clergy. He then proceeded to illustrate the point.

Ian, who is sixty years old, with longish, graying hair, said that recently he had been traveling on the Reservation when he spied a young man who was obviously in need of a ride. As it turned out, the young man had left his ruck sack on the side of the road while he went into the convenience store to take care of some business. While he was inside, someone had driven by and grabbed his bag. He and Ian gave chase. As the journey began, the young man turned to Ian and, even though he was wearing his collar, said, "So, what do you do?" Ian explained that he is a priest, and that he was doing some work in the area.

They eventually wound up at a Navajo village, where the thief had gone to evade them. Since it was not readily apparent where the miscreant had hidden himself, the car and the bag, the young man suggested that Ian just let him off to proceed with the search on his own. Before the youth got out of the car he turned to Ian and said, "I need to give you something for helping me." He then produced a bag of marijuana and handed it to Ian. Ian, more than slightly taken aback said, "I can't take that, I'm a priest." Thereupon the young man replied, "Well, if you can't take it with you, why don't we just smoke it here?"

I guess it's a sign of the times.

Copyright©2003 Twin Rocks Trading Post