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. 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.

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).