In the former lumber town of Navajo, New Mexico, CUI cross-cultural ministry graduate Tim Norton and his family minister to people of the Navajo Nation in the midst of high poverty, social problems and great cultural and natural beauty. With the help of CUI teams and interns, Norton leads the people of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church as they bring the restoring message of the gospel to the reservation.
“What keeps me in it is to see people being transformed from death to life,” he says. “There are a lot of people who still haven’t heard the gospel in a personal and profound way here.”
Norton recently received Concordia University Irvine’s 2021 Great Commission Award.
“It was quite an honor to get this award,” he says. “It came out of the clear blue sky.”
The Norton family lives in Gallup, an hour south of their mission field. The church, founded in 1969, barely weathered the closure of lumber mills in the 1990s which put the town of 2,000 on “a pretty depressed track,” says Norton. Ninety percent unemployment is common, and almost every person in the congregation has been affected by problems such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or sexual abuse. The congregation had shrunk to a single family when the Nortons arrived in 2013.
Today, it counts 35 baptized members, and the people gather multiple times a week to worship the Lord, hear the Word of God preached, and grow together in love. Meetings usually end with shared meals which include Navajo favorites such as fry bread, stew with hominy, chicken, and mutton stew with corn.
Many members are not from a Christian background. One couple who lived just down the road visited the church with their children. Both parents had suffered traumatic experiences as children, and their lifestyle reflected that brokenness. Living together, they were not married, and the household was rent with alcohol abuse.
After getting to know them, Norton encouraged them to get married as a way to step forward together in wholeness. They did, and now their children all have been baptized at the church and are “little evangelists” who invite their neighbors to come. The father texted Norton recently to say, “Praise the Lord for life, for my family and for sobriety, and for your part in all that, too.”
‘You’re asking too many questions’
The slower, more relational pace of church-building on a reservation had to be learned. Norton’s first approach — asking a lot of questions — fell flat. “[Westerners] learn by gathering information, searching the internet, going to college,” Norton says. “That’s the way I approached situations in the community, to ask a lot of questions.”
He soon learned that the people he served didn't like that.
This is where God wanted us. We could see how our experiences molded us for ministry here.
“They wanted me to just observe, to not be so nosy,” he says. Correction came through an older lady in the congregation who told him one day, “You’re asking too many questions. You need to just observe.”
“At first I was like, how else am I going to understand anything?” Norton recalls with a laugh. “Then I understood what she meant. She was saying, that’s not the way we learn. We learn by observing.”
Today, Norton can converse in Navajo, but can’t quite preach in the complex language yet. But he does speak fluent French and a West African language — due to his family’s prior calling.
New Mexico via Africa
The Nortons’ missionary journey began in Guinea, West Africa, where they served as missionaries to a Muslim-majority people. Tim preached and conducted radio evangelism in foreign languages, and believed he would serve in Guinea for the rest of his life.
“In Guinea you have to trust that you are planting seeds,” he says. “You keep at it and believe the Lord is going to use it even if you don’t see a bunch of stuff immediately.”
But he and his wife began to notice that their son, Philip, wasn’t very social and had a hard time with things like unexpected changes of plans. Tests showed he is on the autistic spectrum, and the Nortons felt it best to return to the U.S. “to help him get his feet underneath him,” Tim says. Today, Philip, 19, is a freshman at CU Nebraska and thriving, as is his sister, a high school junior in Gallup. But leaving Guinea caused Tim to grieve. “It was very hard to let that go,” he says.
Believing they would transition to ministry to Muslims in the U.S., Tim enrolled at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston in 2011 and earned an MA in missions and evangelism with a concentration in Islamic studies. But the Lord didn’t open doors in that direction.
Norton admits being “very confused when the next call came from Lutheran Indian Ministries — a service organization of the LCMS — with an offer to serve down here,” he says. “I was like, ‘Huh? This is way different. I don’t think so.’”
But after visiting and praying, it became clear that “this is where God wanted us,” he says. “We could see how our experiences molded us for ministry here.”
Navajo is scenic, and perfect for Tim’s love of hiking, but his deeper fulfillment comes through connections with people.
“The Navajos are an easygoing, fun-loving people,” he says. “They love to joke and laugh. A lot of people have the ‘stoic natives’ stereo-type, but that’s not at all true. They are always cracking jokes.”
Norton says the Navajo value for family is stronger than in American society generally. They keep strong friendships with members of their extended families, and consider elders and children to be their most important resources.
“The elders pass on wisdom from previous generations, and children are their hope for future generations,” Norton says.
The Navajo also take a while to warm up to newcomers, made trickier by the near-absence of public gathering places.
We get to know them and love them as best we can, and the Holy Spirit opens the doors.
“When I first got here, there was no restaurant, no place for people to hang out,” Norton recalls. “The way to get to know people is privately. They have to invite you into their homes. You couldn’t just hang out at a coffee shop and notice new customers.”
When people began inviting the Nortons into their homes, true community began. In 2013, to bolster his cross-cultural understanding, Tim enrolled in CUI’s Cross-cultural Ministry Center, earning an MA in Theology in 2017.
“It was great,” he says. “I enjoyed the professors and really enjoyed my classmates. They are wonderful people from diverse ethnic back-grounds — one from China, another from Ethiopia. I loved every minute of it. I still keep in touch with them.”
Norton’s connection with fellow-student Jonathan Ruehs ’95, MA ’15, who is now a professor at Concordia, led Tim to invite short-term student missions teams from CUI to serve at his church. Two teams of CUI students, and three student summer interns, have blessed the Nortons’ efforts. One such intern, Owen Duncan ’20, is returning for his third summer with the Nortons this year, between academic sessions at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Duncan lives in the parsonage on the church grounds, builds relationships with people nearby, and directs mission teams who help run Vacation Bible School programs and do other valuable local work.
“VBS is a great ministry for the church,” Duncan says. “A lot of families started coming to church because of the program.”
Duncan says that Norton “really loves the people and the ministry. He has a great sense of humor and is very practical. He instilled in me this idea that missions look like people having conversations, making friends, being available and sharing the gospel as it happens. It’s relational.”
The Nortons’ daughter will be traveling to CUI with kids from the reservation to attend the weekend-long Crosswise Institute this year. In all the work the Nortons do, “the real end is sharing Jesus with people,” Tim says. “We just try to meet people where they are at, get to know them and love them as best we can, and the Holy Spirit opens the doors.”