Preaching in Alamo

John Nilssonchildren, church, Culture, faith, general, LDS, missionary, mormon, Mormon, music, race, religion, sacrament 34 Comments

Over spring break, I preached in Alamo.

No, not THE Alamo.

Alamo, New Mexico. It’s a non-contiguous part of the Navajo Nation southwest of Albuquerque.

It started when my brother-in-law invited me to accompany him on a stake high council speaking assignment while I was in town for the week. Turns out he wanted another speaker! I said sure. It sounded like fun, except for the actual writing the talk part.

Just getting there involved leaving the interstate at a ranch exit and looking for some kind of highway sign. We saw a few bullet-hole pocked signs, all with numbers which didn’t match the map, so we asked one local approaching the freeway for directions. She spat out an, “Oh my G–! You want to go there?!” and directed us down the road a piece. Her directions not being that great, we had to choose between a dirt road which looked like it hadn’t been driven on since the Vietnam War and a slightly larger dirt road. We took the road more traveled, and it made all the difference.

An hour later, after washboarding all over the red clay road, passing cattle, horses, and the occasional car, we pulled into Alamo in the middle of a dust storm and parked at the Chapter House. We were greeted by a man who handed me and my brother-in-law brooms and asked us to sweep the dirt out of the hallways in preparation for the meeting.

The members walked in and greeted us. Most were dressed casually, with jeans, boots, and windbreakers over T-shirts or white shirts and bolo ties. They all seemed intent on being there. We put up chairs and assembled the sacrament table together, and shortly before the meeting, I was asked by one of the branch members if I would administer the sacrament as well. The music was provided by one of the Church’s hymn CD’s played on a small boom box set on a metal folding chair next to the presiding officer.

My talk was OK, my brother-in-law’s was better, and the sacrament itself was a short, sweet experience, where each small child huddled in the back of the hall eagerly grabbed a morsel of bread and assisted their siblings and friends with carefully extracting the water cups from the trays. Gospel Doctrine, taught from the Gospel Essentials text by my brother-in-law, was another chance to sense the infuence of God as he shared a sensitive and painful experience from his own life which helped one brother in the congregation who had been victim to a similar tragedy.

Church ended, with a potluck lunch eaten by the rest of the branch, while we made our way to the pickup for the long drive back to Albuquerque. As we approached the door, a senior missionary assigned to the branch warned us, “You’ve got a flat tire.”

“At least we’ve got a spare,” I thought. We soon found that both rear tires had been punctured by the rough road we had traveled. The formerly quiet Navajo branch members swung into action, faces which had been more or less somber during the church service broke out into smiles, and excited chatter erupted as the opportunity to serve arose. Two different “rescue parties” headed out in pickup trucks to fetch tire repair kits and compressors from far-flung homes on the reservation. We soon had two repaired tires and a few new friends.

And I have my first bolo tie in commemoration of the experience, to my wife’s chagrin!

Have you ever had a “different” worship experience?

Comments 34

  1. John,

    Great story and great experience. My only experience that are even close was a time I went to Church in Grenoble, France during a visit there to our company’s site. The Church was held in an office building type structure and the chapel was a weird l-shape. It was a dedicated chapel. I don’t speak French but I was warmly greeted by the members who could speak English (which is common there). It was quite obvious that I was a visitor (visiteur). So, they introduce me at the beginning of their Sacrament Meeting and I have to stand up. Then one of the missionaries sat next to me and translated the talks which were pretty basic doctrinal stuff. I enjoyed myself very much and the folks were very friendly and nice. Which, I might add has always been my experience with the people in France and I have been there more than 40 times now!

    The other experience was going to Church in the UK (Pay attention, Stephen Wellington). Very much the same as the US except for one thing they did that was very different. After each hymn was sung, they would open their books to the next hymn and put it into the book holder with it open to that hymn. Almost everyone did that. Never saw that before in the US.

  2. Two “different” worship experiences come to mind:

    I attended a branch in the inner-city in Washington D.C. in 1995, wish I could remember the name. I was one of a small handful of Caucasian faces, the overwhelming majority being African-American, which was different having just come from the snowy (both meteorologically and ethnically) state of Utah. As luck would have it, it was a testimony meeting, which was a very inter-active meeting. Rather than having the speaker speak and the audience sit in silence, the audience spontaneously responded to the speaker’s message with “amens” and “uh-huhs” and “haleleujahs” and similar phrases you might expect to hear at a Baptist revival in the deep South. It was absolutely wonderful, it let everyone know how the speaker’s message was resonating with the congregation, and it kept us all awake.

    Second experience is attending a ward in Kihue, Kauai last summer. We walked into the meeting and were greeted by several unfamiliar but friendly faces. As I’m seated in a pew reading the program, a young single gal puts a woven cloth lei around my neck and kisses me on the cheek and says “aloha.” She does the same to my wife. The ward makes these leis to give to visitors to take home with them to remember their experience. The chapel itself was also unique because the two longest walls were almost entirely made of glass, which let in a flood of natural light. A stark contrast to my dim, bunker-style chapel at home which was built during the Cold War, which seems to have been designed to withstand a nuclear holocaust. After the Sacrament meeting, we were invited to a member’s house to eat leftovers from a luau he held for his daughter’s birthday the previous night.

  3. I’ve had a couple of different Sacrament meeting experiences. The most memorable was several years ago when I was in a choir that toured in Israel. On Saturday, we went to the BYU Jerusalem center for church. Because we were such a large group, we met in the auditorium. The way it is set up, the front wall (behind the pulpit) is all glass and overlooks the skyline of Jerusalem. The view was breathtaking. The closing hymn was “Redeemer of Israel”. I’ve always loved this hymn, but it took on a new meaning in that setting.

  4. Alamo doesn’t have a cultural center. The Alamo branch meets at the Chapter House, equivalent to a town hall.

    There has been debate over how much the Alamo Navajos are related to Apaches, but remember that the name Navajo comes from the “Apachu de Nabajo,” both groups also being Athabaskan speakers. The Alamo Navajo family ties to Tóhajiilee and linguistic ties to the Big Rez are much stronger evidence than a few random historical misnomers. In short, to say they are mostly descended from Apache is inaccurate. There are a number of studies available at the UNM library which disabuse the “Alamo Apache” notion.

    I emailed a link to your post to a few Navajo members who automatically picked up on the overly-sentimental and patronizing tone, particularly the “excited chatter, rescue party” paragraph. It is disappointing to read it, I hope it didn’t also come through in your talk.

    FYI, it is still easier and faster to get to Alamo through Magdelena than Laguna, even though it is 20 miles further from Los Lunas/Belen as the crow flies. You also would have made it all the way on pavement. You sure your BIL wasn’t just taking you on the scenic route?

  5. Post


    Thanks for the corrections. I didn’t intend to patronize. One of the branch members told me he and others were descended from the Apaches, so I relied on his information. I think the self-definition of the branch members is important.

    I felt like they rescued us, and would have used the phrase “excited chatter” to describe my home ward in Utah as well.

    When I was in Alamo, I was told by my BIL to refrain from mentioning a friend who is related to the President of the Navajo nation, as “the politicians” are distrusted by the branch members.

    My talk was based on Section 137 of the D and C and was hopefully not patronizing.

    The route we took was from the north, leaving I-40 and taking 550 south from there. It was faster than the return trip to Albuquerque through Magdelena and back up on I-25.

  6. Please excuse but I must address this first:


    I am not sure how much sleep you had the night before you wrote your comment to the above post. You sound cranky and a wee bit high-horsed about the information you claim. It is a sad thing when an author shares a meaningful experience that may have been life-changing, perhaps, and a critical individual pipes up with a laundry list of complaints. I concede you have put in a certain amount of time to research the author’s statements. However, I would like to state that you missed the point ENTIRELY. YOU were not there and YOU did not have the experience the author spoke about. YOUR comment did not create a setting in my mind or recount an eye-opening experience. YOU did not share a worship-related story. Instead, you shared criticism as your only way to contribute. Perhaps, you could develop a website of your own and maintain strict accuracy of detail, thought, approach, opinion, and map content. I hope that didn’t sound too overly-sentimental and patronizing.


    Moving on, I have never had such a dramatic worship experience but hearing about it makes me respect those who meet in small groups with as much fire of testimony as any larger congregation. I love that the gospel is not just in cities but in homes, dwellings, structures, and the human heart.

  7. Andrew,

    We had the same experience in Kauai. And expect to have it again in July when we return. Wonderful, wonderful people there. In contrast, we were in the Big Island and went to Church in Kona. We walked in (7 of us), no one greeted us, no one talked to us and no one directed us to classes after Sacrament. So we left and went and had lunch. One of my kids took the initiative and ended up in a Sunday School class and we pulled him out of there. Quite a surprise, I had never experienced before or since.

  8. It is disappointing to read your original post and some of the subsequent comments. Too frequently we see a under current of paternalism towards members outside of the Mormon corridor, especially minority members. In the same sense that those same members, who behave that way, feel unfairly dismissed as “those loony polygamists in Utah with ten wives.” I went with my convert mom to visit my sister who was attending a student ward in Provo, her first comment in Sunday School was “all these little white girls look the same to me.” I almost fell off my chair.

    Here are two Navajo reactions to your post, I IM’d the link to some friends and family

    “he’s a little…not sure what the right word is, he acts like he was in freaking africa, he was on the rez..I was annoyed by the tone”

    “too funny… what a dork…i can just see him..these type of people bug.”

  9. Post


    If anything, the branch members were teaching me. They were my spiritual parents that day.

    I certainly used no pejoratives to describe these wonderful Saints. Both of your comparison quotes contain pejoratives and “belittlers”.

  10. John, having raised and housed minority children and families in a predominantly white town, and having dealt with truly condescending attitudes, I am a bit sensitive to racial condescension. Fwiw, I didn’t get even a whiff of such an attitude from your post. I read “excited chatter” exactly as you clarified it – the hum of voices grateful for a chance to serve – a GOOD thing.

    Others might be even more sensitive than I, but I just don’t see it.

  11. MAC,

    You must be an impeccable individual. You come to this blog with an amazing self-assurance. I can only assume that you never treat people the way you claim these bloggers are classifying people. Your posts leave a bad taste in my mouth and in no way uplift my mind or heart. I can guess that the two people you “quoted” were not ones that helped the author. I hope in your home life, you are able to be less judging than you have been in print.


  12. SentimentalMom

    I didn’t intend to paint a picture, I intended to communicate distaste, which was my honest reaction.

    I didn’t miss the point, I didn’t comment at all on the author’s experience. I questioned the impact that attitude and tone of the post would have on others.

  13. Distaste. Excellent. That exactly describes your writing. Thank you.

    Attitude and tone are supremely difficult to convey in short blogs. It is interesting that you took the author’s the way you did. It seems you were waiting to pounce.

  14. Post


    Your experience in France is interesting. Church buildings abroad have different architectural plans from the US standard designs, I’ve noticed. The UK bit about propping open the hymnals was interesting. What does that tell us about the Brits, I wonder? Eager for the next song?


    I’ve always wondered what worshipping in Hawaii is like. Thanks for sharing.


    Another wonderful experience. I can only imagine what that must have felt like.

  15. Ray,

    Good point. If I was daintier with my responses then his would seem more glaring.

    Blogs have a weakness–you cannot know the intent of the writer. I, perhaps, judged Mr. MAC too harshly.

    I think deep down we strive to find meaningful experiences. I lament that my comments detracted from the original post and added to the negativity.

  16. I don’t begrudge the author any of his experiences. I have spent enough time in Alamo to know that the members there would probably be thrilled to have not one but two guest speakers.

    At the same time I would be embarrassed to have any of the same Alamo members read their actions and service described in the way they were here.

  17. “Your experience in France is interesting. Church buildings abroad have different architectural plans from the US standard designs, I’ve noticed.”

    It is an office building not a standalone Church Building. I drove by it three times before I spied the sign on the corner of the building. I drove by many times since and it is still there.

    “The UK bit about propping open the hymnals was interesting. What does that tell us about the Brits, I wonder? Eager for the next song”

    We need Steve W to comment on this…

  18. I was a “dork” in a mostly Native American branch for a number of months. We met in a dedicated meetinghouse and had services following the standard plan. The visiting speakers were almost always enthusiastic about their experience of being a guest where the surrounding community culture was different from their own. The sisters often wore colorful dresses, usually referred to as “camp dresses” and buckskin shoes, which is what would commonly be worn for special occasions in their community. Initially, I did have a feeling that I was a foreigner in a different country, but the rez quickly became more like home and the people like family. Seeing the branch members comfort each other when tragedies occurred was a memorable example of living the scriptures to me. I also enjoyed the branch president’s use of the harmonica during sacrament meeting from time to time. Hearing the familiar hymn tunes on an instrument of simplicity really led the spirit to be with me during the meeting.

  19. There is always a filter (call it “paternalism” if one wishes) that a member of a dominant culture sees thru when visiting a minority culture. And vice versa, when minorities visit a dominant culture filters are usually in place. Mac’s right that it is good to be sensitive; but how does one improve sensitivity if feedback is not delivered with sensitivity? MAC missed an opportunity to teach and uplift, were there one. (It made it seem like the branch is just waiting for the opportunity for the “stupid white guy” to do something offensive or insensitive. It’s my idealistic hope in the goodness of man to believe such wasn’t so.)

    One of the best things for lessening one’s own cultural filter is through travel, through deliberately seeking out new experiences, and approaching them with a willing heart. John has shown in this post and elsewhere that he is a person who has travelled, and is not a person of a naive heart. He’s not condescending, and if so, not intentionally so. And on this day he served and accepted the service of others in shared faith. I’m uplifted that worship he enjoyed had a little local cultural flavor — it didn’t sound “McMormonized.” Sure, I wish it were so common to accept Mormon congregants to come and be accepted just as they were that it needn’t be mentioned the attire in which worshippers were dressed. Still, this was a wonderful story of “interfaith” exchange. Not any intentional effort to belittle believers of another culture.

    Thanks John for sharing an “out of the usual” experience from the usual navel-gazing we tend to chat about.

  20. I have to say I’m a bit flabbergasted by MAC’s outburst over this post.

    MAC, I hate to say it, but I think you have likewise been insensitive of John’s culture in your virulent rebuke. If you haven’t figured it out yet, there are some things you should know about white liberal city-dwellers. Thankfully, there is a website that can help you become more aware of the cultural baggage that white liberal city-dwellers carry with them. And hopefully if you study the website, it will help you understand that people like John, like any other white liberal city-dweller, have some unique cultural characteristics that should be understood and tolerated, and not be mocked and ridiculed.

    The website of which is speak is Stuff White People Like

    I, for one, humbly admit that I possess some of the cultural characteristics that are humorously identified and explained on the Stuff White People Like website. For example, I have been totally guilty of #20, “Being an expert on YOUR culture,” #71 “Being the only white person around,” and #87, “Outdoor performance clothes.”

    Another blogger here at MM, is guilty of #82 “Hating Corporations.”

    Also, based on the tone of your comments, and your perceived need to “educate” John about how “patronizing” and insensitive you think he’s being to the Navajo, I’d guess that you too are white and that #18 “Awareness,” fits you to a T.

    So MAC, please familiarize yourself with the Stuff White People Like website so that you can understand, tolerate, and even learn to appreciate the culture of people like me and John, so that you can be more culturally sensitive next time in addressing your concerns.

    I mean, cut us some slack, MAC. We’re pencil-pushing desk-jockeys who are chained to our office chairs Monday through Friday. The farthest we ever travel from home is maybe an hour away to catch a baseball game “downtown,” and we keep the windows rolled up and doors locked to make sure we aren’t car jacked by the natives. So if we make it sound like we were “in Africa” when we traveled on a dusty road on an Indian reservation, it’s probably because that’s exactly how it feels from our perspective. And our perspective is based on our limited experience, which creates our unique culture that you should respect and tolerate.

    By the way, ironically enough, your friend’s complaint that John made it sound like he was “in freaking africa” is patronizing and culturally biased in itself. I can hear some of my African friends responding in their heads: “Freaking Africa?! Africa has major metropolises with sky scrapers! How dare he suggest that an Indian reservation is far more civilized and advanced than Africa! I don’t see any sky scrapers on ‘the rez’.”

    So let’s just keep it chill, aiiiiight? (See #69.)

  21. Guilty Mid-life Middle-class White Man Here.

    I guess I left the church just so I could check off #1 Coffee, #13 Tea, #23 Microbreweries, #24 Wine and #3 Film Festivals (So I could see all those vogue rated-R foreign films, some via NetFlix [#39]). And obviously now I also Belong to a Religion my Parents Don’t Belong To (#2). 🙂 I lived in Japan (#58), married a half-asian woman (#11), drive a Prius and Volvo (#60), use Apple products at work (#40) while listening to NPR (#44) or indie rock (#41). Presently dressed in Performance Outdoor clothes (#87) so I can getaway at any moment to the mountains in my Volvo Cross Country (#60). As evidenced by my comments above, I’m still working on being an expert of other cultures (#20), especially via food (#5, #6, #48, #54). If I can count Nick and Stephen W as friends, then I can check off #88 and #82. And because of my more diverse Christian church circle of friends now I can check off #14.

    I now feel much more assured of my cultural grounding. Or maybe it just means I’m an aging hipster Gen-Xer. Thanks for a huge smile Andrew! 😉

  22. Andrew, #22

    Unfortunately I have had all too much exposure to white liberal “culture.” Had I not, I would not have been able to effectively focus my rebuke in a way that would make sense to, and get the attention of, the white liberal sensibilities. Apparently I underestimated just how deep the river of guilt runs and the hurtful the challenge to one’s liberal cred would be. Sorry, you can sentence me to spend a week sitting in a booth in a fair trade coffee shop wearing a Yeigo Bush t-shirt.

    As far as my Navajo friend’s cultural bias, she isn’t too concerned about it (she has been lurking the post), cultural bias is pretty ingrained and perfectly acceptable in Navajo culture. I bet if you tried to convince your African friends that cultural bias was somehow wrong they would look at you funny (I know, I know #20, but try it anyway). So in accusing her of cultural bias, you are in fact displaying yours.

  23. Unfortunately, John’s story of a journey which he celebrates and wishes to share with the rest of us has quickly denigrated into a finger pointing contest of who is cultural biased. The only thing left here is for some to use the dreaded “R” word and the journey will be complete. Shame on you!

  24. Rats! I just contributed to rampant thread hijack! Sorry about that John, your sentiments are clear and they resonate.

  25. Andrew – darn! I was going to find a way to figure Stuff White People Like into a post. I had the great pleasure of pointing out to my boss that she hit the list (#57 – she and I both love the movie Juno). I also hit on 16 (gifted children), 19 (travel), 26 (Manhattan), 35 (Daily Show/Colbert Report), 43 (plays), 45 (Asian fusion food), 47 (Arts degrees), 55 (apologies), 64 (recycling), 77 (musical comedies), 79 (modern furniture), 88 (having gay friends).

    Having said that, like MAC, I thought the description seemed a little culturally paternalistic. I have to say I’ve attended much more “out there” services than that, and even so, they are all still pretty much the same to me. No matter where you go, people are basically the same.

    Like Andrew, I attended in Lihue, Kauai where the members sang “Aloha Oi” at the end of the services together for the visitors and did a lei greeting. Very welcoming. Unfortunately, that was after I had convinced my husband that everyone would be wearing Aloha-wear, and then we got there and every man had a white shirt on. Admittedly, I just wanted to not have to go back to change after church. Growing up, we used to have church at the Oddfellow’s Hall, and it was set up kind of like a courtroom in the area we used for a chapel. We were next to the fire department, which was interesting at times. On my mission, we held church in our apartment every Sunday in one area, and someone brought a puppy one week that peed everywhere. The “piano” was an electric keyboard on the pass-through to the kitchen. In another area of my mission, a member prayed that the newly baptized sister would believe snakes were in her mouth the next time she tried to take a drink of alcohol.

    But, I would also say, it was obviously intended to share an uplifting experience John had, and that’s why we come here. Mostly.

  26. I have an interesting worship service memory I’d like to share:

    I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. We were a small branch. I mean really small, my mother was the Ward Clerk, because there weren’t enough men. My father was a Counselor in the Branch Presidency. We met in a mortuary. After Sunday school (in those days that is what the morning meeting was called) I decided to explore my surroundings. I pulled back a curtain and found a dead body laying on a table. I had a distinct impression I shouldn’t be there. It was a while before I explored any Church again…I certainly avoided curtains….

  27. I give John credit for going out to Alamo. I am glad that he went and I appreciate his service.

    I am pretty sure (as SentimentalMom noted it is hard to infer in a blog) that John had the best of intentions and it is a big leap from cultural bias to the Big “R.” But let me show you what I heard when I read it. Something that was reinforced by the reactions of a few Navajo members I showed it to. A caveat here also, these Navajo members are people in
    my close circle of friends and family, I would have discussed it with them in any event.

    Title – Preaching in Alamo. Every where else in the Church we give talks and testimonies. I guess the Alamo members need to preached to.

    John referred to the chapter house as a cultural center. If one has just has such a transcendent experience shouldn’t you at least be able to say where it was?

    There is a perfectly good paved road that goes almost to the chapter house door. John knew this if he returned through Magdelena, as he stated later. It is unnecessary hyperbole to suggest that Alamo is so back water that it requires travel down “a dirt road which looked like it hadn’t been driven on since the Vietnam War and a slightly larger dirt road.” This would be equivalent to telling someone, who is unfamiliar with NYC, that you swam the Hudson to get to Manhattan and neglecting to include that there is a bridge and tunnel.

    He includes an aside “She spat out an, “Oh my G–! You want to go there?!” reinforcing the idea that it is a undesirable place.

    Consider some of this language on its own,

    “each small child huddled in the back of the hall eagerly grabbed a morsel of bread” hat tip Victor Hugo.

    ” The formerly quiet Navajo branch members” Don’t they have names? Brother Secatero? Sister Pino?

    ” faces which had been more or less somber during the church service broke out into smiles, and excited chatter erupted as the opportunity to serve arose.” Service is such a rare event that the nice white man should be commended for providing the opportunity?

    All in all there is a definite argument that the members and the Church there are not being included in the greater body of Saints. It is too far down that dirt road, too dusty, too somber, too needing of help simply performing their sacrament, too isolated in a place far from anywhere important …

    You want to be a Church tourist, go for it. But when you get back home and go all Tal Bachman, about poison spitting toads and drinking sewer water, don’t complain if you get called out on it.

    Anyone who grows up outside of the Church, a minority in the Church, or in an area where the Church is small is sensitive to the treatment they receive when the ‘authentic’ Mormons show up in their suits and ties. I am glad the John had a nice experience, but I have spent enough time in Alamo to know that the members there have not been portrayed fairly in this post.

    jjackson, #26

    I would refer you to comment #22, which I took as tongue-in-cheek and I appreciated for the chuckle. In that context, my comment was also tongue-in-cheek. Either we are both joking around, or we are both burdened by massive subcutaneous chips. So I might also add “chill, aiiiiight? (See #69.)”

  28. MAC,

    Though I suspect your intentions are purely honorable in defending the good members of Alamo, your speaking on behalf of them shows to me that YOU are “choosing to be offended” instead of honoring the spirit for which John intended his post to be. About his experience with them and their kindness toward him. The same experience might be had in any small branch of the church anywhere in the world, irrespective of “culture.”

    Your statement, “Anyone who grows up outside of the Church, a minority in the Church, or in an area where the Church is small is sensitive to the treatment they receive when the ‘authentic’ Mormons show up in their suits and ties” is just not true in all cases. Some might feel that way, but many do not and welcome those in suits and ties to help instruct them in the gospel because, in most cases, they have more experience in the church. Our missionaries provide that function all over the world. The people are generally grateful for that, not demeaned, as you state.

    If you could accuse him of anything it might be naiveté toward a group he was never exposed to before. But your criticism toward him is harsh and unwarranted.

  29. Post

    Oh, and I wore no tie, and had lots of facial hair as I preached. Preaching sounds more dramatic than the somnambulent giving a talk. My intention was to highlight that Christian charity exists in out-of-the-way places, more so than in the large Church centers for the most part.

    The Navajo Nation is a sovereign political entity. My highlighting of differences was meant to recognize this reality, not pretend it’s just like any other part of the U.S.

    Again, my calling it a cultural center was based on what one of the branch members called it…as was my ascription of Apache heritage.


  30. About as unusual as it ever got for me, at least in the lds world, was someone bringing pumpernickel bread for sacrament. Your experience sounds totally cool and I suspect such a beautiful part of the world made it even more spiritual.

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