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Schaap essay is cover story for Books and Culture magazine

January 12, 2009

Books And Culture

An essay and photographs by Dr. James Calvin Schaap, professor of English at Dordt College, will be featured in two consecutive issues of Books and Culture magazine, a bimonthly publication of Christianity Today International.

“Rehoboth: Righteous acts, filthy rags, and a mission cemetery,” begins as the cover story in the January/February issue and will be continued in the March/April issue of the magazine. The essay (without photos) may be seen online.

In the essay, Schaap claims his interest in Rehoboth, New Mexico, dates back two generations to his grandfather, the Rev. John C. Schaap, who was born to Dutch immigrants and lived in Dakota Territory at the time of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Later, as a Christian Reformed preacher,

Rev. Schaap played a significant role in the development of Rehoboth Mission, an 1897 Christian Reformed Church mission endeavor to the Navaho and Zuni Indians. Rev. Schaap served more than 30 years on what was then called the “Heathen Mission Board,” accompanying three inspection tours during his time on the board.

“I’m terribly proud of my church being there in New Mexico for 100 years,” says author Jim Schaap. He notes that the mission hospital served native people in Rehoboth long before the government stepped in to create the Indian Health Service. The hospital was moved to the city in the 1980s in a merger with a county hospital and renamed Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Systems. A residential dormitory was also closed two decades ago, but the Christian school continues to serve the Rehoboth community.

The need for good medical care on the nation’s largest Navajo Reservation was the open door the Christian Reformed denomination needed to begin ministry in the area east of Gallup, New Mexico. But, Schaap argues in the essay, it was a recognition of and response to the Navajo culture’s fear and revulsion of death/corpses which may well have expanded the ministry: the Rehoboth Mission frequently accepted the role of mortuary for the Native people, burying the dead bodies occasionally left at their door, bodies the Navajo feared were home to evil spirits.

Schaap’s essay delves deep into the mission’s history to expose not only the good intent of mission founders, but also the sometimes misguided processes used in an attempt to convert Navahos and Zunis to the Christian faith. “Good people—good Christian people, my own grandfather among them—were among those who carried out destruction, often with prayerful intentionality and the conviction that what they were doing was what the Lord wanted,” says Schaap. “How faithful believers could be so wrong is the story I’m trying to understand.”

Indian mission efforts in the colonial past, he writes, often attempted to quash allegiance to Native ways through what is now recognized as systematic cultural abuse. Boarding school students, some snatched from their homes, were forbidden to use their native tongue and coerced into trying to assimilate into white culture.

“The history of Indian boarding schools is not glorious,” Schaap says, “despite the heartfelt intentions of the missionaries who went in God’s name.”

Schaap is currently in the process of writing a book featuring the memories and stories of New Mexico families whose associations with the Rehoboth mission and school go back for decades. The projected release date for the book is December 2009.

Schaap is a professor of English at Dordt College, but has worked for the Rehoboth mission on a part-time basis. He has previously published a story about Rehoboth in the June 2008 issue of the CRC publication, The Banner, as well as several essays in the Rehoboth newsletter. His interests in Native life go back to an earlier novel he has published, Touches the Sky.

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