Team NOEL’s mission is all about the heart

Marilyn Miller

“When we know, we care; when we care, we share.” Cindy Ritchie Walker, co-leader, Team NOEL (Navajo Outreach Expressing Love)

On Sunday, Oct 8, 2023, 18 representatives of First Baptist Church of Minden set out on the first leg of their annual journey to Gallup, New Mexico to minister to the people of the Navajo nation. 

The largest Native American tribe in the United States, the Navajo reservation includes 27,000 square-miles and 298,000 people, with boundaries extending from northwestern New Mexico into northeastern Arizona, and into southeastern Utah. A portion of the thousands of acres comprising the Navajo Reservation snakes along the boundary line of Gallup. Three bands of the Navajo, including To’hajiilee, are non-contiguous, existing outside the boundaries of the larger nation.

There were many different “missions” involved in the overall Team NOEL effort, starting almost a year before the actual trip began. Members of the Dorcas Ministry worked all year sewing together small “blessing” bags for the Navajo women. New toys were collected and taken along that will be stored and made available to the Navajo children at Christmas. The youth of FBC helped sort the toys by gender and age. Many Sunday School classes, including Heart & Hands and Salt & Light, made monetary donations, as did various individuals.   Most importantly, people prayed.

After over-nighting in Childress, TX on Sunday, Team NOEL made their way to To’hajiilee, where they shared a fried chicken dinner with members of the To’hajiilee Baptist Church on Monday evening. Bro. Jerry Johns, a native, is the leader of the small congregation. In his late 80’s, he accepted a donation from FBC on behalf of his church, and shared his testimony and history. He also gave a brief talk about the Navajo “Code Talkers” and was asked to pray for the group in Navajo. When he finished, Bro. Jim Wallace of FBC, asked if he would repeat the prayer in English.

“We didn’t do that for the Japanese,” Bro. Jerry replied, referring to the Code Talkers’ role in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He “brought down the house.” And then he prayed in English.

Tuesday morning found Team NOEL at the Journey Church in downtown Gallup, unloading toy bins for storage and getting the day’s directions from full-time missionaries, Bro. Rob and Michele McIntosh.

While a handful of volunteers remained at the church to paint a room for a visiting family of missionaries, the remaining volunteers traveled onto the reservation to set up for a Block Party at the Creator’s Fellowship Church in the Miller Community. Volunteers cleaned, swept, blew up inflatables, set up games, blew up balloons, set up tables and chairs, and shooed away dogs… 

That evening, children and adults alike showed up to dine on pizza, have their faces painted, to create visors with their names and stickers on every square inch, and to play putt-putt golf, football, bubbles, bowling, fishing, and other games of skill. The rewards were candy, candy, candy!! And door prizes were awarded throughout the evening.

Wednesday morning saw one team venturing out to purchase baskets, and fruit, raisins, peanut butter and more to fill those baskets for distribution the next afternoon to families in the East Community. Another team joined Bro. Rob to insulate an expansion project at the missionary’s home, while another team remained at the Journey Church to clean, and later stuff the edibles into a dozen food baskets.

Wednesday afternoon saw the Team NOEL caravan traveling into a different time zone in nearby Window Rock, AZ, where they toured “window” rock and a large Code Talkers Memorial, as well as the Navajo Nation Museum.

On Thursday afternoon, a team distributed the food baskets to the families in the East Community, while a second team continued painting and insulating. Then it was time to prepare for the East Community Block Party, which attracted a record crowd! Native Marlinda Martin was the recipient of a lap quilt made by Nona Sale, a First Baptist Church member. The Creator’s Fellowship Church in the East Community lost almost all of their elders during the two-year COVID outbreak, which was intensified by a lack of water and electricity.

Friday morning, the caravan headed east for Amarillo, TX, where they would spend the night and dine together at the Big Texan Restaurant. And NOBODY tried to eat the 72-ounce steak!

The 18-member team from First Baptist Church of Minden (including one Methodist and one Presbyterian) included Bro. Jim Wallace and Margie Wallace, Tommy and Cindy Walker, Bro. Bob and Suzanne Jameson, Jennifer Estes, Teresa Cockrell, Jean Chatman, Jo Shelley, Charlotte Dunn, Karen Rushing, Ann Brown, Kevin McCann, Tina Kingston, Tori McKinney, Marilyn Miller, and Jan Shaw Verrechia.

Prior to the first Team NOEL visit to the Navajo people in 2018, First Baptist Church concentrated much of its missionary efforts on Nicaragua. According to Cindy Walker, who made 18 trips to the Central American country, missionaries had a compound there where they felt safe when they first visited in 2006. However, Nicaraguan discord began in April of 2018 when demonstrators in several cities of Nicaragua began protests against the social security reforms decreed by President Daniel Ortega that increased taxes and decreased benefits. Nearly 400 people died. “We have never been back,” Cindy said.

So when Bro. Wallace suggested the Navajo Nation, where he had served as a youth, as Team NOEL’s new mission field, it was a resounding “Yes!”