Reverend Stanley Jim
When commencement at Calvin Seminary transitioned to an online ceremony in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it prevented the chance to celebrate two distinguished alumni in person. For one of them, Stanley Jim, the deadly virus threatened his church and community more severely than almost any other area in the United States.
In early May, the Navajo Nation, located in portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, reported a per-capita rate of infection that was exceeded only by New York and Louisiana, and suffered hundreds of deaths. Poverty and lack of infrastructure made the area especially vulnerable.
“It’s gone down dramatically, but it had spiked pretty high,” says Jim, pastor of Window Rock Christian Reformed Church on reservation land in Arizona. “We had lockdowns for a lot of weekends from Friday evening to Monday mornings, until the numbers began to go down.”
Jim is one of many pastors whose churches have had to make drastic adjustments in their worship and ministry, though few faced the threat of the virus at such a scale.
“We gather outside for drive-up services, in vehicles parked six feet apart,” Jim says. “We’re also doing Zoom ministry for all of our services, Bible studies, and council meetings. That’s working for us until we can come back together.”
The pandemic has been the greatest challenge for Jim since he came to Window Rock in 2016, after 17 years working for Christian Reformed Home Missions (now part of Resonate Global Mission). There, he was the driving force behind the Red Mesa Indigenous Leadership Development Program, which cultivates native pastors and leaders in Navajo and Zuni churches. He also helped move native churches to self-sufficiency and phase out subsidies from Home Missions.
Then, Jim says, his calling was to return to pastoring a church.
“My passion was really being a pastor,” says Jim, who served First Navajo Christian Reformed Church in Tohatchi, New Mexico, after his ordination in 1996. “I wanted to get back to that.”
Today, whether driving up to worship at Window Rock or tuning in online from multiple states, worshipers hear Jim preach in both Navajo and English.
“People are drawn to that. The elderly are drawn to it, and the young people have learned some of the Navajo language that way,” Jim says. “I often hear from them that the message is clearer to understand when you hear it in both languages.”
Jim says studying at Calvin Seminary helped to prepare him to reach across cultures.
“It helped me to articulate Jesus’ ministry in our context,” he says. “Now the doctrines that I preach here, they’re in our context, in the language that we speak. I’m able to connect Jesus’ work and God’s whole mission with the culture that I’m in. I’m able to speak with the medicine men from a point of view that I’m not condemning them, but bridging that gap in love. That’s what God did with us: sent Jesus into this world—he is the bridge to helping us understand who God is.”
And the path to building bridges, Jim says, is building relationships.
“As I go out on the streets, I see people down and out, drug addicts and alcoholics. I have conversations with them, listen to them, get to know them, and some lives are changed,” Jim says. “People come to me, non-churchgoers, and they tell me, ‘You are our pastor.’ They come to me asking for prayers.”
While Jim said he learned a lot from the predominantly white Christian Reformed Church, he says this emphasis on building relationships is something he wants to offer back to the white church.
“Western thought and the Western mind is all about results, results, results,” he says. “Early on I began to realize that I was always working for some kind of result—how many people did you contact, how many came to the Lord?
“Native culture isn’t about results, it’s about relationships. When Jesus ministered here, his work was about building relationships. One of the things I think Western culture needs to learn is that it’s not so much about results. We as Christians should be more relational.”