Native American gathering leads to COVID-19 relief effort

Synod of the Southwest is meeting the needs of Native communities during the pandemic

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

Volunteers put in thousands of hours to make sure Native American communities are fed during COVID-19. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — In September 2019 the Synod of the Southwest and the Native American Ministries Coordinating Committee (NAMCC) held a successful gathering of the 29 Native American churches and chapels that are a part of the synod. A debriefing followed that gathering.

Ruling Elder Conrad M. Rocha, synod executive and Stated Clerk of the Synod of the Southwest, said, “The discussions centered around what should be the next steps in serving our Native American siblings based on the learnings taken from the gathering.”

Rocha says the NAMCC came back together in late January 2020 and determined to consider the ongoing support and validity of continuing key areas: the Native American Theocademy project and how it would be overseen by the NAMCC with the resignation of its main staff support, the synod’s Native American consultant;  and follow-up with Native American siblings on the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on Native American communities.

The group decided it would next meet in early April. But before the plan could be implemented the country came to a halt as a result of COVID-19. Native American communities were hit particularly hard.

According to Rocha’s report, in April, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board met and at the behest of the Rev. Judith Wellington, a member of PMAB and the synod’s former Native American consultant, the PMAB considered whether it should “think about asking the ASG [the Administrative Services Group of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation] president and board to consider the reallocation of funds from the sale of the [Ghost Ranch] Santa Fe property in the Southwest … to support ministry among the Indigenous people of the Southwest, particularly in the way of funding internet services.” Following the Board’s discussion on the matter, the PMAB took the following action: “That communication be established with the Synod of the Southwest and its four presbyteries concerning this critical need immediately; and that the PMA president/executive director and senior staff identify and/or repurpose existing funds to be used for this serious matter.”

Originally, the synod and the NAMCC looked at using the funds to address the digital divide that exists in the Native community. However, the effort was cost prohibitive. The NAMCC members then concluded that given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous people within the synod, addressing the issue of food insecurity was a better and more effective use of effort, time and money.

The synod is home to 20 Native American churches and nine Native American chapels. Geographically, all but three of churches and chapels are located within the bounds of the presbyteries of de Cristo and Grand Canyon. Arizona is home to 19 churches and seven chapels serving Native American communities; three are located within the bounds of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, including one church and two chapels. Of the Native American churches and chapels inside the synod, eight churches and two chapels are located within the bounds of the Navajo Nation.

Also taking a toll on the churches and chapels was the discontinuation of weekly worship services. Rocha says that many of the Native churches and chapels serve as community centers.

To address this urgent matter, the NAMCC, with input from leaders of the presbyteries of de Cristo and Grand Canyon, the Navajo Nation and the Laguna Pueblo submitted a grant proposal, called the Synod of the Southwest Native American COVID-19 Project, to the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).

The proposal requested significant support to enable monthly food distributions to 200 Native American families throughout the synod, financial support to cover the cost of utilities for the Native American churches and chapels and financial support for the pastors and commissioned pastors serving those communities. The project would provide monthly support from July 2020 through December 2020.

Through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Mission Agency in less than 30 days processed and approved a $250,000 grant toward a project budget of $372,000. PMA immediately released $125,000 of the grant to the synod. In a truly connectional effort at the same time, the Synod of the Southwest allocated $25,000 toward the project and the Presbytery of Grand Canyon sought and received a PDA grant of $25,000 for this purpose as well. This left the synod needing to raise an additional $72,000 to cover the anticipated costs of the Project.

Rocha says thanks to the generosity of Presbyterians both within the synod and throughout the PC(USA), more than $65,000 toward the needed $72,000 has been donated to date.

In a truly collaborative effort with funds raised from the PMA, the Presbytery of Grand Canyon, the Synod of the Southwest, the Native American Ministries Coordinating Committee, along with hundreds of volunteers and Presbyterian churches in the area, St. Mary’s Food Bank  and local supermarkets, Native communities and families are being fed.


Many volunteers are needed for the Synod of the Southwest’s food distribution to Native American communities. (Contributed photo)

To date the synod is preparing and distributing 1,200 boxes of food and supplies each month, plus water and dog food. “Each delivery includes in excess of 35,000 pounds each month, not including the water and dog food,” said Rocha. The boxes are then delivered to five Native American Presbyterian church sites in the Navajo Nation and one site on the Tohono O’odham Nation, serving a total of 12 Native American churches/chapels and their surrounding communities.

He says to ensure that the correct type, size and number of dry goods, it is necessary to purchase, at wholesale with a discount, all the items directly from a big box store. “The actual contents of the boxes are based on recommendations from the Native American community as to what types and quantities of food they need and use,” said Rocha.

While these efforts have had a tremendous impact on the issue of food insecurity in the Native communities served by the Synod of the Southwest and the presbyteries of de Cristo and Grand Canyon, an ongoing need remains.

Individuals wanting to support this effort may do so by sending a check to the Synod of the Southwest and writing “Native American Project” on the memo line. You may make an online donation through the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon website.

Those living in the greater Phoenix area interested in volunteering their time to assist in the preparation, packaging or loading of the food boxes can contact Sharon Yates at (520) 791-9600.

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