St. Christophers marks 80 years in Bluff
by David Boyle
A host of clergy and worshipers gathered at St. Christopher’s Mission in Bluff June 9 to 11 for the 47th Convocation of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland.
Reverend Joe Hubbard is the Vicar of St. Christopher’s Mission.
As the mission celebrates 80 years, Hubbard shared in a recent interview the beginnings of the mission and its work to get back to its cooperative roots
Convocation events featured Episcopal and Diné ceremonies, as well as preaching from Indigenous leadership in the church.
“This weekend is very much a celebration of the rejuvenation or restoration of what was at St. Christopher’s Mission and what can yet be.” Hubbard said.
The mission was founded in 1943 by Father Baxter Liebler. Hubbard explains the Connecticut Episcopal Priest went out looking for a group to discover what the gospel looks like when he encountered the Diné in Bluff.
“A big piece of Father Liebler’s ministry was joining the people in experiencing God in their language. He learned Diné Bizaad and at the end of his ministry he spoke very fluently. He learned traditional prayers and ceremonies. He was called the bilagáana hataałii, the white medicine man.”
Hubbard shared that when the Bishop of the Episcopal Church came to dedicate the mission, he was told by Liebler to wait until the local Hataałii arrived.
The ceremony that followed made the mission the only church in the history of the Episcopal Church to be consecrated by a Bishop and a local holy man.
Church leaders later became uncomfortable with some of Liebler’s methods and reassigned him to Monument Valley at the age of 72. Hubbard explained the 47th Convocation signaled a refocused effort to return to that tradition.
As part of the convocation, the church recognized its history and as part of the ceremony, Reverend Hubbard wrapped Reverend Cathlena Plummer in a Pendleton blanket. Plummer is the daughter of the first Diné bishop on Navajoland Steven Plummer.
At the convocation, the church also held a commissioning of lay pastors including Margaret Benally and Nathan Sosa.
Over his three years at St. Christopher’s Mission, Hubbard has been focused on connecting with the foundational principles of the mission. Hubbard came to the mission in the summer of 2020 in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic his work was focused on food box distributions across the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
That relationship with ministry and food evolved to the mission’s current community garden project.
Hubbard notes the history of the mission included Diné families coming across the river to garden at the mission. Hubbard and his family built four beds at the mission before partnering with local agencies including the San Juan County Extension offices, the town of Bluff and others to build 36 garden boxes.
The mission also has a farm manager now helping to expand into the 30-acre field east of the mission.
The mission project to bring housing to the area also aligns with tradition.
“It was very much a place where families could come and live there seasonally because in the summertime, access to water is very limited on Navajo Nation. So they’d come across the river, put up their hogans, and live there where they could garden and herd their sheep and so we’ve moved back to that model.”
Hubbard explains the mission is working to provide seasonal housing in tiny-home units. The 12x14 units are self-contained with miniature kitchens and bathrooms that can fit a small family or two adults.
“The goal is that we have seasonal housing for our workforce in southeast San Juan County to help support our businesses who are running on a seasonal operation model. You can’t find housing in the town of Bluff that an hourly worker who’s working nine months a year could afford.”
Hubbard says they also offer the space for unsheltered and unhoused women and children as they get connected to other services.
While Reverend Hubbard has accepted an appointment sending him to work in South Dakota he says St. Christopher’s mission remains focused on giving back to the community.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the friendships and partnerships that we have forged across the county. We are a place of hospitality. We know we are doing our job well when we are seen as a good neighbor. The hope and expectation is that it will continue.”
While Hubbard’s replacement has not been announced leadership going forward will continue to include indigenous and non-indigenous clergy and community leaders.