Servant of The Holy Mighty
In 1942 the San Juan River Valley, a remote waterless, scrubby corner of South Eastern Utah was possibly the last place someone would expect to find a middle aged, Anglo-Catholic priest like Harold Baxter Liebler. The area was not a hotbed of Anglicanism, or even of Christianity. The tiny town of Bluff, Utah was little more than a trading post. There were few white settlers and no church; the Mormons had tried to evangelize the area but met little success. The town is adjacent to one of the most remote parts of the large Navajo Indian reservation, where thousands of men, women, and children lived as they had for thousands of years and were alternately ignored, dismissed, or exploited by the United State Government.
But in 1942, Fr. Liebler, then Rector of St. Saviours Church in Old Greenwich, Connecticut—came to Bluff looking for a mission site. He loved learning about Native American culture, and had since he was a boy. After nearly 30 years as an Episcopal Priest, Fr. Liebler was going to do something that seemed insane: establish an Episcopal mission to the Navajo where the Gospel would be preached in a way that the Navajo would hear. For nearly 30 years, Fr. Liebler would live, worship, and work at St. Christopher’s Mission to the Navajo– the mission he founded. Nearly 90 years after he founded the mission, Fr. Liebler’s story—the story of the people of St. Christopher’s—may still have something to teach us about faithful witness, fearless evangelism, and loving those who are different from us.
When Fr. Liebler arrived in Bluff, the Navajo population he met bore the scars of their interactions with Americans. In 1866 the United States government began forcibly removing Navajo people from their land, a period known by the Navajo as “The Long Walk.” Many died along the way or during their three year internment at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner. Fr. Liebler would minister to a number of Navajo who had family memories of the Long Walk, or of hiding in the hills around the San Juan Valley to avoid internment. When the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland, those along the San Juan River Valley became adept sheep farmers who traded with the few Anglo settlers in the region. During the Great Depression the US Government—in a bid to slow soil erosion and artificially inflate the wool market–passed the Livestock Reduction Act of 1933—effectively eliminating the one industry of the San Juan Valley and forcing the Navajo residents into severe poverty and a mere subsistence existence. When Fr. Liebler arrived in 1942 the area was still economically devastated. There were no schools, hospitals, or services available to Navajo anywhere in the region.
Fr. Liebler was a maverick of a missionary. He wore a black cassock every single day—even in the heat of the Utah desert—but grew his hair long and wore it tightly wound on his head, Navajo style. He rejected the “Kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy of mission which, up until that point, had been the only model of Anglo-Indian relations in the American West. He did not think that the Navajo people needed to stop being Navajo in order to be Christian. In an audio recording he sent to a young seminarian in the 1960s Fr. Liebler says:
We do not follow the practice of the other Protestant missionaries of using the English word “God” for our God … it gives the impression, no matter how hard you try otherwise, that we are preaching an English-speaking God. The minute you put a foreign word for God in you encourage the thought that this is something of the White man’s culture that is being forced upon [the Navajo], and we don’t want that at all. [We use] the Navajo Diyin Ayóí Átʼéii, which means “the Holy Mighty.”1
It was essential to Fr. Liebler that the Navajo people see their relationship with God as something that was part of their culture, not something imposed on it from the outside. To that end, Fr. Liebler often participated, as an observer, in traditional Navajo cultural and religious practices like Beauty Way rituals and puberty rites. He provided supplies for traditional Navajo religious and cultural ceremonies and encouraged local Navajo to hold them on or near the mission. He did not believe that Navajo culture was mutually exclusive with Christian faith and piety.
The missionaries built a log chapel which blended the design of a traditional Navajo hogan with the cruciform shape of a traditional church. The altar was set with the traditional high-church six candlesticks, but would sometimes also display a woven Navajo blanket as a frontal beneath the fair linen. Candles burned at a small altar to the Blessed Mother—depicted as a young Navajo woman whom the people of St. Christopher’s would recognize as one of their own. Beginning on the first Christmas in 1943, the mission displayed a Navajo Creche, complete with the infant Jesus in a cradleboard, and Wise Men from the East in full Pawnee battle dress. It was this creche, according to Fr. Liebler, that conveyed the story of Christmas all those years ago on a different continent to his parishioners. The baby Jesus was in their community, not far away.
From the earliest days of the mission, Fr. Liebler made a point to use as much Navajo language as possible in the liturgy. On the first Easter, less than a year after St. Christopher’s was founded, he read the Gospel in Navajo after it was chanted in English. From then on, Navajo language was always part of the liturgy at St. Christopher’s. Over the course of the next 25 years at the mission he would become fluent, and translated large portions of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into Navajo.
Fr. Liebler was committed to conveying the core truths of the Gospel, even when linguistic and cultural differences made it difficult. When it came time to preach and teach on Good Friday, Fr. Liebler found a resistance among the Navajo to talking about death. The idea that God—the Holy Mighty— could die was almost impossible to communicate. In order to bridge this divide, Fr. Liebler used sand painting—an important part of Navajo ritual—to depict the Crucifixion and animate the story. He had a similar problem explaining the Resurrection. He writes, “I avoided the . . . comparison with the rebirth of nature after winter’s sleep, for in this there had been only a sleep and no real death—and every Navajo knew that he could tell a dead tree in winter from a merely deciduous tree . . . it was and still is a difficult theme, but it is central to the Christian religion and cannot be sidetracked.”2
Fr. Liebler “retired” from St. Christopher’s in 1966, and went on to build St. Mary’s of the Moonlight Episcopal Church in nearby Monument Valley, Utah. When he died in 1982, just shy of his 93rd birthday, St. Mary’s and St. Christopher’s were both filled for days with Navajo mourners. It is unknown exactly how many Navajo children and adults were baptized by Fr. Liebler in his time at the mission, but all estimates indicate it was well over 1,000.
Read with modern eyes, some of Fr. Liebler’s writing can sound condescending toward his parishioners. This may reflect some of the attitudes of the culture in which he was raised. When St. Christopher’s was founded, Navajo people were not eligible for citizenship in the state of Utah, and most Anglo Americans believed there was no point to trying to “civilize” American Inidians. Fr. Liebler rejected these assumptions, but his writing does lack the nuance and cultural sensitivity that we would prefer today. Nevertheless, it is telling that Fr. Liebler is held in such high regard by the Navajo people of the San Juan Valley, even today. Mark Maryboy, a Navajo man who was raised near St. Christopher’s Mission writes: “Father Liebler was called ‘Long Hair’ by my people. As we watched him in church, we heard him talk and sing in the Navajo language, which we understood clearly. He was one of the kindest men I ever knew. As a child, for the longest time, I thought he was Jesus Christ.”3
Mark Maryboy touches on a profound theological truth. A faithful priest, through the grace of God, is an image of the Good Shepherd. Fr. Liebler was sent by God to meet the Navajo people in their own language, culture, and customs, just as Christ came to all of us in our own bodies, minds, and souls. His belief that it was possible to be fully Navajo and fully Christian reflects the wonderful mystery that as we become more like Christ, we also become more truly ourselves. He was, of course, just a man: fallen and finite like the rest of us. But he also serves as a witness to the power of ministry that is driven by devotion to the Gospel of Christ. Fr. Liebler’s success should not be measured by the dramatic improvements he helped make to living conditions in the region, the work he did to educate Anglo-Americans about Navajo culture, or even the number of Navajo people whose lives were converted to Christ. These are all good, true, and beautiful accomplishments. But the truly inspiring thing— the thing that should cause all Christians to reflect on our own faith and call—is the way he loved God, and invited so many so different from him to love God too.
Images from St. Christopher’s mission are courtesy of the Utah Indians Digital Archive: https://utahindians.org
(2)Liebler, Harold Baxter. Boil My Heart for Me. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1994: p 69.
(3) Boil My Heart for Me, Preface by Mark Maryboy.