When the Reverend Herman Fryling, the missionary, came to the Zuni pueblo in New Mexico in 1906, he had with him his wife and two grade school age children who needed to receive an education. Fryling thought the Christian faith would grow best among the heathen Zuni if evangelism were begun with the next generation of leaders--the children. The Indian school at Black Rock offered him time to talk about Jesus to the resident students there, so Fryling thought it would be a good idea to begin a Christian school right in the pueblo, his own two kids among the first students.
The woman above on the left and there in the middle of the children below is Nellie de Jong, a woman who'd come to Zuni from Armour, South Dakota. Don't know why exactly, but for months I couldn't help wonder what it was like for a Dutch immigrant woman like Ms. Nellie, to come to live and work in the Zuni pueblo. She was barely accustomed to life in America, after all, her family having immigrated just a dozen years before; and here she was, already something of a stranger in a strange land, suddenly made a citizen of a community vastly more foreign than anything she might have imagined.
Nellie de Jong wrote letters to her family in the Netherlands when she came to Zuni and told family members what she was experiencing, letters collected and published in a bilingual collection that's just as huge as it is fascinating, Sister, Please Come Over.
"We live in an Indian village; I am living in the house of some missionary called Frijling, who has been working here for two years," she told her sister and brother back home in Friesland. "The missionary's children have to be taught and a school is to be set up for the little Indians."
What could she possibly have known about the Zuni? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
But, oh, they do not want to go to school and the parents do not like it either. They are complete heathens, very idolatrous and hate the missionaries. They will not enter the church, they have to be visited in their houses and have of course to be treated very carefully.There's a petulance in that last description that likely arises from the aggrieved soul of a teacher who discovers that all is not perfect in his or her classroom, someone who may well have assumed that naughty boys and girls occasionally require the rod. Not so these. These little heathens "have to be treated very carefully."
"The sun, the moon and the stars are their gods and they worship them fervently," she says. That's likely not all wrong, of course, but it's half a continent from the whole truth. "Cleanliness is not to be found and many are clad in rags. I saw a little child quite naked, but there are some that are quite well dressed and generally speaking they are getting to be friendlier towards the missionary, which they were not in the beginning."
Two months later, she writes her sister again. "Next week we hope to make use of the school, up to now we have used my room for lessons." She'd been living with the missionary's family, her schoolroom was the room in which she lived. Zuni Mission School had no union, apparently.
Apart from the missionary's two children, I am teaching five young Indians, and they say that more will follow. Up to now I have had no problems with them at all, a few times some of the older Indians have visited the school, they were curious. When they left they told Reverend Frijling that they were satisfied, they had noticed that I was so composed and that pleased them.Interesting, isn't it, that what the Zunis were looking for may well have been what any Anglo couple may have been looking for back then too--or now: order.
"One Sunday when I had been here only a few weeks," she says, "I went to visit the Indians in their homes in the company of the missionary and his family, we met a few Indians who stopped and asked who I was and what I was doing there. They said that they didn't need any more strange people."
Same thing might well have happened back home in Friesland or South Dakota right about then, and here too. Lots of places, I'm sure.
"I do not understand their language," she writes, "and it will be quite some time before I can understand anything at all."
In his measureless grace, God sent missionaries, some of them no more blue-blooded American than the indiginous men and women they met there on the dusty streets of a tawny desert pueblo, missionaries whose fervent dreams envisioned triumphant moments when all around them, every pagan knee would bow.
That just didn't happen. "It will be quite some time before I can understand anything at all," she says, with the wisdom of an Old Testament prophet.
Today, a century later, what happened on those streets and in those homes back then seems impossible to imagine, very strange people who could not in any conceivable way be more distanced from each other, in a Babel of strange tongues, somehow sitting there together.