Visit to Navajo Reservation Enlightens CHS Students
by Lisa Tramontana
For the young men of Catholic High School who have participated in the annual mission trip to Klagetoh, Arizona, the memories are positive and powerful. But one experience stands out. It is a powerful Native American ceremony designed to cleanse and purify both mind and body, and it is the culmination of the missionaries’ week on a Navajo reservation.
The sweat lodge ceremony is central to the spiritual life and culture of many Native American tribes. Participants are seated shoulder to shoulder in a small igloo-shaped structure that is airtight and pitch black. Heated rocks are brought into a pit in the center of the lodge and water is poured over them, creating a hot steam bath effect. Conducted by a Navajo spiritual leader, the ceremony is a physical form of prayer that includes discussions about spiritual beliefs, struggles and life goals.
“It makes an unforgettable impression on our students,” said Scott Losavio, CHS campus minister. “It’s the perfect way to end an amazing week.”
St. Anne Mission in Klagetoh was established in 1927 by the Franciscan Friars to serve several communities on the Navajo Reservation. In the early 1990s, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and the Dominican Sisters became involved, sending mission groups throughout the year to provide sacramental ministry and to promote spiritual growth and development. The mission features a food bank, AA counseling, a youth program and other services designed to uplift and empower a population that struggles with poverty, poor education and alcohol abuse.
At Catholic High, eight students are selected each year to participate (along with six students from St. Joseph Academy). “It is a bit selective,” said Losavio, “because we can only take a very small group.”
Orientation begins on the day the group arrives, with a special Mass, followed by a hike through a national park. A focus on nature, a key component of Native American beliefs, is an important part of the mission trip experience, Losavio said. The week also includes a visit to Gallup, New Mexico, known as the Native American capital of the world.
CHS religion teacher Scott Manning has chaperoned the trip for nine years. “Our students help lead activities during a weeklong vacation Bible school,” he said. “This includes songs, Scripture lessons, arts and crafts, and outdoor games.” (And over the years, the local children have come to expect non-stop piggy back rides from their Catholic High visitors.)
Forty to 50 children of all ages participate in the Bible school, some who live in a housing development near the mission, others who live on family property surrounding the area. Evenings are spent with elderly residents, playing bingo, sharing meals, or just talking and visiting.
“We don’t go there to teach Catholic doctrine,” Manning said. “We talk to the kids on a fundamental level about God. We want them to know that God loves them and that they are special. We want them to come away from the experience knowing that someone truly cares about them, accepts them, and wants the best for their lives and their futures.”
Manning says Klagetoh is a special experience for him because he has personally witnessed some of the Navajo children growing up. “I’ve had the opportunity to see some of them go from 5 years old to 14,” he said. “It’s rewarding that they come up to me and remember me from past years. We’ve made a real connection.”
The effect on Catholic High’s young missionaries is remarkable as well. “For a short time,” Manning said, “they give up the comforts of their lives at home in Baton Rouge, and they gain a better understanding of what it means to answer the call to serve and what it means to be a faithful Christian.”
The students agree. “It allowed me to connect with a group of amazing people from Catholic High and St. Joseph’s, and it showed me how little things are sometimes the most important (like piggyback rides),” said junior Caleb Dugas. “The daily interactions with the kids on the reservation has stayed with me. Just spending time playing with them was a blessing. With the beautiful scenery, daily activities, and my experience in the sweat lodge, I was able to see the world in a different, peaceful way.”
Senior Breton Green talked about the interpersonal connections. “The kids got used to us very easily and vice versa. They treated us like family. They appreciated us. The trip has forever changed me because I now realize how important it is to ‘be present’ for others and I see how much it means to people when you show you care.”
Jake Schexnaildre, a junior, says he has changed as well. “Playing with kids who were raised in a different culture and lifestyle gave me a new appreciation for the life I have had. The children’s innocence and constant joy inspired me to look at life with a different outlook. Every child’s innocence and joy can be found if they receive the attention they deserve.”
For information on the annual mission trip to Klagetoh, Arizona, contact Manning at firstname.lastname@example.org.