Native Christianity

In Denver, Indian Christians have a place to call their own


By Cindy Yurth

The Navajo Times


            DENVER — Back in its heyday, when these decaying but still gracious Victorian houses were new, this West-Central neighborhood was known as the Scottish Quarter.


            Famously thrifty though they were, the Scots immigrants evidently spared no expense when they built themselves this exquisite little church on an unassuming corner of Pearl Street. In Presbyterian style, the décor is simple, but the talented craftsman who carved these concentric semi-circular pews couldn’t resist adding a few ornate flourishes on the edges, and the rosy stained glass could be windows to heaven.


            The Scots have long since been replaced by a diverse community of more recent immigrants, who are in turn being replaced by upper-middle-class professional types intent on restoring the stately Victorians to their former grandeur.


            But the church is Native American turf.


            Since 1975, it has been the home of the Christian Indian Center, motto: “The Lord is our strength and our shield.”


            Once a mission of Denver’s Christian Reformed community, it’s now an independent Christian Reformed church that sometimes, according to second-generation member Richard Silversmith, functions more like a chapter house.


            CIC attenders are few in number — on this Sunday before Christmas, there are 23, exactly the number Silversmith estimated as average attendance. About half, Silversmith estimates, are Navajo, like him and his wife Susie, who are running things while the church looks for a full-time pastor.


            Although he sometimes wishes the congregation were bigger, Silversmith vigorously defends Native Protestants’ right to have their own church in this mostly white city.


            “It makes us autonomous,” he said, “and autonomy is a very important concept to Native Americans.”


            He also thinks a Native worldview spills over into Christianity.


            “For us, there isn’t as much of a separation between the material and spiritual worlds,” he observed.


            Freida Naegle of Ganado, Ariz., was visiting her son and daughter in Denver and attending the CIC for the first time Dec. 23.


            “I’m glad there’s a church just for Native Americans,” she opined, adding that she thinks faith plays a more central role for Native people simply because they need it more, perhaps, than does the majority culture.


            “Our lives are hard,” Naegle stated. “I raised four children by myself and had to find time, little by little, to get my degree. I couldn’t have done it without God’s help.”


            “For us,” she added after some reflection, “Faith is like air and water. It’s something we need to survive.”


            Indeed, a middle-class white congregation might have found Silversmith’s sermon, in which he mentioned that he just got back from a funeral for a cousin who froze to death, a little gritty for holiday fare.


            But it struck a chord with the Native attenders, several of whom asked the congregation to pray for an alcoholic relative.


            Although half the congregation is Navajo, Silversmith tries to include other Native traditions in the service so the non-Navajos won’t feel left out.


            “There are symbols we can use that are common to most of the Western tribes, like smudging with sage and using eagle feathers, or playing drums,” he said. “Sometimes we have to consciously take the Navajo out of our ministry.”


            For instance, some tribes conduct certain ceremonies in cemeteries, and Silversmith attends although it makes him cringe a bit.


            “For us (Navajos), that’s really taboo,” he said. “But our congregation is very diverse, and I have to respect all their traditions.”


            Music director Darlene Silversmith, Richard’s sister, selects Native-themed religious songs like “Rise Up, Mighty Warrior” in English or tribal languages.


            Remarked Susie, “I think Native people appreciate hearing tribal languages even if they don’t understand them.” She feels at ease lapsing into Navajo when she offers a communal prayer, but usually translates it into English afterward.


            The little church on Pearl Street also attracts the occasional non-Native … recent African immigrants seem more comfortable here than they would at a mostly white church, Susie Silversmith observed, and folks who used to live on a reservation and just miss Natives sometimes stop by.


            “Then there are the curious New Agers,” Richard Silversmith said. “Hopefully we have something to offer them too.”


            On weekdays, the CIC hosts secular events like baby showers and parties, functioning, as Silversmith puts it, more or less like an urban chapter house.


            A thriving Alcoholics Anonymous speakers group meets here, and the church annually  fields a slow-pitch softball team.


            The best-attended events are the Native gospel concerts the church often hosts, most recently Diné singers Elizabeth Bryant and Virginia Graymountain.


            “I enjoy listening to gospel songs sung in my language,” said attender Anselma Mitchell with a smile.


            The pleasantly funky mid-city neighborhood is gentrifying fast, and perhaps one day the CIC will have to move to an area with a higher concentration of Natives. But for now, the little red church with its curved pews is a comfortable fit for the tiny, close-knit congregation.


And, although the Scots Presbyterians who built it certainly didn’t anticipate this, the acoustics are just perfect for rawhide drums.