Maryland Women Journey with Navajo Widows
From UMWNews, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 2010
When a group from New Mexico needed a ride to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., United Methodist Women at Asbury Town Neck United Methodist Church in Severna Park, Md., not only gave them a lift, but also joined the Navajo Native Americans on a historic journey in search of justice.
In September 2009, nearly 20 Navajo men and women went to Washington, D.C., seeking justice. For the visitors, many of them widows of former uranium miners now in their 80s, the trip was filled with “firsts,” marking their first time leaving family and homeland in New Mexico, their first time flying in an airplane, their first time riding escalators.
“The trip was made in an effort to gain awareness; we were requesting an epidemiological health study on women and children exposed to take-home uranium — that’s uranium brought back from the mines on clothes,” explained Gilbert Badoni, president of the grassroots Navajo Nation Dependents of Uranium Workers Committee. The committee requested $500,000 to fund an independent research group to investigate uranium-related health problems; congressional field hearings in Ship Rock, N.M., and Chinle, Ariz.; and funding for two monuments to remember Native American uranium workers.
Uranium mining was conducted from the early 1920s through the 1980s, when men worked daily in uranium mines and often brought back mine water for cooking and drinking. Exposure to uranium causes a slew of abnormal health problems and illnesses for the Navajo people, including a range of cancers, birth defects, tumors, fibrosis and thyroid problems.
“We have lived all of our lives with our family not knowing how dangerous it was until a few years ago,” said 71-yearold Helen Phyllis Nez, one of the elder Navajo women who traveled to the nation’s capital for justice. Ms. Nez’s husband suffers from Parkinson’s disease; and she lost her father, grandmother, sister, all of her six children and a great-grandson to a range of cancers.
But for this D.C. visit, ground transportation proved a tricky logistic. Sandy Ferguson, Baltimore-Washington Conference’s social justice/mission director, reached out to Asbury Town Neck United Methodist Church for help. In further serendipity, the conference United Methodist Women’s summer School of
Christian Mission featured the Native American Survival mission study — a study that Marie Watkins and other Asbury Town Neck United Methodist Women members took to heart.
“When we did the study, and back in school, it made me think about black American history,” Ms. Watkins said. “There’s a drive that makes you want to learn more and participate, and you want to see everyone come out on the winning side.”
“Several women in that study group felt that they really hadn’t filled missional goals this year, and so it was both irony and blessing,” explained the Rev. Kay Albury, pastor at Asbury Town-Neck. The women could show hospitality, and the church bus was just the ride.
“That really cut our costs because we didn’t have to pay for taxis,” Mr. Badoni said. While shepherding the Navajo group through bustling Capitol Hill, the United Methodist Women members often waited outside of legislative offices or helped make the long walks easier for the older Navajo women. “We just connected with them; let them know that there was someone by their side,” Ms. Watkins said. The two-day visit was packed with legislative visits, a quick tour of the new Native American Museum, lunch at the General Board of Church and Society and more.
Not all of the Navajo women spoke English, but the two groups of women forged bonds of sisterhood. “One elder gave a presentation in Navajo, and I didn’t know what she was saying but her voice was so strong, so passionate,” Ms. Watkins said. The last night, the Maryland United Methodist Women unit treated the Navajo group to a soul food dinner at a restaurant known locally as “Daddy Grace’s.”
“We found ourselves talking and chitchatting, but more importantly, we showed hospitality and solidarity,” Mr. Albury said.
Since the September visit, the Asbury Town Neck United Methodist Women unit has prayed for the Navajo group and uranium-related health problems as they follow legislative developments on the issue. Asbury Town Neck United Methodist Women plans to send letters to area elected representatives to garner support for the uranium study funding and compensation. Baltimore- Washington Conference has given the Navajo group funding to help some of the elder Navajo women travel to a uranium conference and is also following the Navajo legislation.
“Our trip would not have been successful without Asbury Town Neck church’s help,” said Mr. Badoni, who is planning another Capitol Hill visit with the group this fall.
*Carrie Madren is an independent journalist and storyteller sharing stories of sustainable living and faith, especially pertaining to the United Methodist Church. She is based in Olney, Md.