Memoirs continue to sell and sell well because our lives always will make the best stories, one way or another, even when those lives are imaginary, as is Harry Potter's. Besides, they almost always have similar plot lines, and we like repetition, just like our kids. Time after time, memoirs show how so-and-so overcame this or that problem or series of, to become what they've become. The ugly ones--and they are legion--detail ugly lives. They too do well.
I just finished a short one from an older man whose first language is not English but Navajo. "My Walk of Faith," by Ernest Phillip Benally, is short, but not sweet, telling but not at all sordid, even though it includes it's share of ugliness. Benally grew up in a hogan, hearing only Navajo in a thoroughly Navajo cultural world.
His father had two wives, as did his grandfather. Bigamy was perfectly acceptable, he says, as it was in the Old Testament, a way of life and frequently practiced. As a child he never questioned it, just as he didn't question his father, who he says was rather painfully shy and, by his account, a good, good man, who happened to have two wives.
When Christianity came into Ernest Benally's life, some judgments had to be radically altered because the religion his parents practiced, as well as his father's bigamy, was, to the Christianity of the missionaries, perfectly unacceptable.
What the story of Ernest Benally's life does--even though it may not be the mission of the story--is help white folks like me understand how mission efforts were capable of not only turning people away from Christianity but even making them bitter. His readers have no reason to question the integrity of Ernest Benally's parents; they maintained moral values to their kids: stay away from alcohol, get a good education. They were, in every way, loving, caring people.
But those parents were, by Protestant standards back then, the heathen, a word that has little, if any, redeeming value. What white Christians asked the heathen to do was forsake a way of life that, whatever its religious character, was wrong or evil or sinful--and all those words scald the soul.
The basic plot line of all memoirs is here. Ernest Benally, a thoughtful Christian, somehow, by the hand of God alone, overcomes paternalism and outright prejudice to discover who he is, a Navajo and a Christian.
Benally's Navajo name is Naa't'tyil Haswood, which means, he says, "a leader came over the horizon." Perhaps his parents, who never did convert, understood better than they knew because their son's career, in the church and in profession of social work, shows himself very much a leader, a leader of his people.
Even here, in his story, he's leading the rest of us to learn more about being believers.
Ernest Benally’s “My Walk of Faith” is beautiful and telling in so many ways, especially for those who want to understand Native America in general and Native American Christians in particular. Honestly and courageously, Benally walks us through a life fraught with unintended prejudice, well- meant but so often demeaning, a story that ends, nonetheless, in commitment and faith. I’m thankful—all of us should be—for Ernest Benally, his life, his faith, and his story.
"My Walk of Faith" is available from Rev. Al Mulder, who urged his good and long-time friend to sit down and tell the story. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or else write Ernie's wife Ruth at email@example.com.