Zuni Christian Reformed Church Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico

Over the next several issues, Perspectives will be presenting “church reviews.” These reviews
are intended to give a glimpse into what is happening in Reformed churches across North
America. We have selected a wide variety of congregations within the broader Reformed tradition
to be reviewed. Some are “tall-steeples,” others obscure. Some may be avant-garde, while
others archetypal.

A review is meant to be more light-hearted than mean-spirited. No congregation is going to
receive a hatchet-job or “three stars out of a possible five.” A reviewer visits the congregation on
at least one Sunday, taking the role of both theologian and keen social observer. To relieve any
anxiety and create a little distance, for both the reviewers and the congregation, some reviews
will appear with a pen name in the byline. We owe a debt of gratitude to the British website
Ship of Fools, www.shipoffools.com, for inspiring us with their “The Mystery Worshipper” feature.
Visit their website for an archive full of interesting church reviews.

On a Sunday night in late May, members
of the Zuni Christian Reformed
Church, Zuni, New Mexico, are cordially
invited to a worship service that will
circle up on the rodeo grounds at Vander
Wagen, New Mexico, a service hosted by the
church and led by Pastor Mike Meekhof and
a few others from the congregation. The service
will begin with what the church bulletin
calls, without explanation, a “Bullriding
Challenge.” It’ll cost you ten bucks for admission
to the rough stuff, so the bulletin claims,
but those who would like to come but haven’t
the money should contact Pastor Mike.

There’s a twist here. One of the cowboys
(who are all actually Indians) is a member of
the congregation. He’s the one who sets up
the worship, because, he says, many of the
bull riders are Christians too. They want
prayer.

There may be other North American
churches in the Reformed family that have
scheduled worship as a prelude to bullriding,
but certainly there aren’t many. But then
there are few churches anywhere on the continent quite like Zuni CRC, a multi-cultural,
mixed-race congregation where the public
prayers the day I attended were spoken in two
languages, neither of them English. I’m sure
God Almighty understood, even if I didn’t.

One hundred years is little more than
a trifle to a people who’ve lived in the same
land–historians guess–for more than a
thousand. But for the last century, and not
without a struggle, Zuni CRC has worshiped
God right there at the very ancient heart of
the Zuni pueblo, the largest pueblo in New
Mexico, home to approximately 12,000 Zuni. Zuni CRC
The Zuni CRC meets for worship in the
A:shiwi–Vander Wagen Ministry Center, a
building complex that includes a multipurpose
room used jointly by the church and an
adjacent Christian school. From the outside,
the Ministry Center fits comfortably into its
unique setting, its traditional red, adobe exterior
a match for the pueblo dwellings all
around.

Even though the church–and the Zuni
pueblo–might be considered well off the beaten
path, the congregation sees visitors almost
every week of the year and greets them easily
and comfortably, me included. In truth,
when I walked in, I was accompanied by other
visitors, people well known to the congregation; but I was greeted kindly once we took
our seats on plastic chairs obviously used all
week long by school kids. People walked over
to shake hands.

The morning I attended, the seats on the
gym floor were maybe half full, although the
numbers kept growing throughout the service.
Singing (mostly very traditional gospel
hymns like “Blessed Assurance”) was led by
an energetic guitar strummer with a strong
baritone, a man who took his teenage son
along–and his guitar–for backup since he
claimed he’d somehow cut the pointer finger
on his chord hand.

The congregation is made up mostly of
Zuni people, although a goodly number are
Anglos–teachers at the
Zuni school, as well as
other schools in the area.
Young and old alike sit
scattered around on
those school chairs, but
the auditorium buzzes
with conversation before
the man with the guitar
calls them all to attention
with a few soft chord progressions.

It’s a friendly place.
Zunis can be friendly
people. They like to
laugh, love food and conversation.
Zuni CRC is a
place where one gets the
sense–albeit as an outsider–that people genuinely
like each other, at
least they very much enjoy
each other’s company
once a week. If worship is all about community,
then Zuni does it right. Halfway
through the sermon, an aged woman needs
to find the rest room. Pastor Mike stops his
sermon and asks the young lady running the
overhead if she’ll help the old woman find her
way. Things are not high church at Zuni, but
beauty is a coat of many colors.

For twenty-some years, Pastor Mike
Meekhof has been holding forth at Zuni
church. His passion for the subject this Sunday–the nature of the church–is sincere
and evident in the manner by which he studiously
avoids the big old podium up front,
walking around it and up to the edge of the
gym stage as if the distance between himself
and his people is particularly annoying.
Zuni CRC
His sermon, based on Acts 2, is one of a series
he’s doing on “The Story of the Early Church,”
with clear application to the here and now.
Frequent illustrations and stories keep it all
interesting and relevant, and his self-deprecating
humor makes the whole congregation
giggle time and time again. It’s difficult not to
get the impression that there’s mutual admiration–and love–in the old gym.

I’m away from home. Zuni is not Sioux
Center, Iowa, and about that there is little
doubt. Parishioners are notoriously immune
to punctuality–they laugh about their tardiness
themselves, call it “IT,” “Indian time.”
From the opening song to the doxology,
folks continue to come
through the front doors.
Some even show up only
for the snacks afterward.
At Zuni, where
poverty is a way of life,
tardiness isn’t counted
among the seven deadlies.

Almost daily, right
across the street, a half dozen
masked kachinas
begin strangely harmonic
drumming and
then march, fully costumed,
to the ceremonial
grounds, for rituals
of prayer and singing
not unlike those they’ve
practiced for centuries.
In a very demonstrable
way at Zuni, Christians
are aliens, even though
the CRC has been here, in the heart of the
pueblo, for more than a century. When the
whole place burned down, years ago, most
people believed–members and non-members–that the arsonist had his reasons.
Christians of all colors are not always welcome
here, but mostly they are respected.

The Zuni people are deeply religious; like
Muslims, they practice their faith in a deliberate
and scheduled way. Anthropologists
call the rhetoric of their faith “prophylactic,”
the ancient rituals intended to ward off the
evil that comes along in everyone’s life. Pastor
Mike is occasionally asked to come into
a difficult situation–someone dying–and
pray, not because those who ask him place their faith in Jesus Christ, but because they
believe Pastor Mike has, as do their kachinas,
definite mystical powers.

Some parishioners are members of families
that have worshiped in this church for
generations. There are old-timers. If a congregation
measures its life by how many new
bodies line the pews or fill the plastic seats
week-in and week-out, Zuni church should
have been boarded up a half century ago at
least. Preaching the gospel of Christ in an ancient
pueblo like Zuni is no cakewalk. Zuni
CRC is no role model for church growth.

On the other hand, this congregation
and mission has had a profound effect on the
pueblo. The “ministry center” is named, in
part, for pioneer missionary Andrew Vander
Wagen, whose love for a good horse was legendary,
taking second place only to his love
for the Lord. You may have missed it, but just
in case you want to attend worship and the
Bullriding Challenge, you’ll find it at a community
center along the road called simply
“Vander Wagen.” Attendance at the Zuni CRC
may occasionally be sketchy, but the church
and its ministry have not been invisible in
Zuni.

In a few years, the entire Ministry Center
and school will be brought down systematically
and a new place built, right there in the
heart of the pueblo, the fourth in 100 years.
Ask any member to show you the plans.

When worship is over, some members
move the room dividers to the side, and refreshments
are served out of the kitchen.
Often as not, there’s a pot luck. But even if
there isn’t a hot dish in sight, if you don’t stay
around and grab a brownie or some veggies,
you risk giving offense. At Zuni CRC, even
the finger food is oddly sacramental.

If you love order and decorum in worship,
you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you
want a place that rocks. . .well, find some
canyon in the nearby Zuni mountains.
But if you want family and fellowship, plus
the strangely harmonic sounds of kachina
drums just outside the door, do stop at the
Zuni pueblo and worship some Sunday at
Zuni CRC. You might even want to stop at
the rodeo ring at Vander Wagen on the way
up, just in case the people are there for a
Bullriding Challenge.

Tell you what–just come anytime. It
only starts when you get there.

James Calvin Schaap teaches English at Dordt College
in Sioux Center, Iowa. His most recent book is
Sixty at Sixty: A Boomer Reads the Psalms (Faith
Alive, 2008).