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September 2, 2018: Powerlift Priest

by Mother Diana


Each Eucharist at St. Christopher’s Mission to the Navajo in Bluff, Utah concludes with a prayer in Diné, the Navajo language. It begins: “Jesus Christ, tsilkééh naat’áani”—“Jesus Christ, young man chief.”

I was there to visit the Rev. Leon Sampson, a Native American and Episcopal priest. It was hot and musty in the teepee-shaped wood church. The Episcopal Church has an ugly history on the Navajo Reservation, he acknowledges. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church colluded with the U.S. government to separate families and educate children in English-only boarding schools. But Fr. Leon’s voice is bright with possibility. He sees connection between the Native reverence for land and family and the Christian ethos of creation and community. Priests in reservation towns across Utah and New Mexico are building new spiritual houses, reaching out to young people, and supporting women’s wellness. Perhaps most important, their churches speak to local people in their own language and imagery.

During one week this June, immediately following my own ordination, I met nine Episcopal priests, while driving with my husband and daughter from Phoenix, through Navajoland, down to Santa Fe, and up to Denver.       

My daughter, a budding movie producer in L.A., brought along a camera to make a small documentary about her mother, the Episcopal priest who body builds and chants OM. The three of us also worked out together at five different CrossFit gyms. My husband says that my face shines with contentment after I exercise. Lifting weights and practicing yoga are embodied forms of spirituality for me. The intense physicality, discipline, and awareness of breath required in CrossFit and yoga draw me out of my head and into a deeper sense of connection to God. I designed a logo for our “Powerlift Priest” project with a dove hovering above a barbell.

I went west to experience how priests work. How did their churches reflect the needs and values of the people? How was their worship formed by their identity? We heard priests talk about liturgy, theology, and mission in ways that were deep embodiments of the local culture. I thought of this as a different kind of embodied spirituality. In Denver we found the rich, lush, formalized worship of St. John’s Cathedral, and a few blocks away, a raw theology of grace preached and practiced at  “the House for All Sinners and Saints.”

The prayer recited in Diné at St. Christopher finishes with three repetitions of the phrase “hózhó náhásdlii’”—“peace has returned.” Diné, the name the Navajo call themselves, means “the people.” Each service and sanctuary I visited in June similarly felt authentic: the work of the people.

Last Published: August 29, 2018 1:56 PM
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