Navajo men serve tornado survivors in Oklahoma: 'Now it's time for us to give'

Story by John Iwasaki / Photos by Carla LaFayette and courtesy of Pete Belon and Debbie Holland

Ernie Begay has seen dust devils, the thin whirlwinds of dirt and debris that scoot across the dry lands of the American Southwest. But he never knew the devastation of a tornado until he recently volunteered to help survivors of massive twisters that battered Oklahoma in May 2013.

Ernie and 10 other skilled volunteers drove a van from the Navajo Nation in New Mexico to the Oklahoma City area in late October and early November. The men cleaned up debris, built fences and decks, put up a roof, and installed floors, carpet, and insulation, among other projects.

Volunteers from the Navajo Nation help tear down a destroyed trailer

Volunteers from the Navajo Nation help tear down a destroyed trailer.

While their weeklong work was deeply appreciated, the fact that they wanted to serve might be even more significant. The Navajo Nation struggles with poverty and often benefits from out-of-state volunteers, not the other way around.

"We talked with our leaders and said, 'Let's do something this year and help other places and let our young people get involved,' " says Pete Belon, founder of Cornerstone Ministries in Smith Lake, New Mexico. World Vision is among the organizations that for years has supported Belon's ministry, which serves more than 150 churches and ministries in the Navajo Nation.

Ernie says he is used to seeing "people from back East coming to the Navajo reservation and giving us supplies or helping us with buildings, things like that." Then he heard that Pete was organizing a group of volunteers to respond to the tornado.

"Speaking for everybody, it was like, 'We want to go out now and help others who are in need,' " Ernie says. "We see that need and we wanted to go help. This was our opportunity to come out and show our love to these people. We've been receiving in the past. Now it's time for us to give.

"We know that by giving, God is going to bless those whom we come into contact with through us, through our love, through His love shining through."

The volunteer effort is the fruit of a long-term relationship between World Vision's U.S. Programs, Cornerstone Ministries, and the Smith Lake community. World Vision's ministry to Smith Lake includes offering supplies and Targeting Hope, one-day learning events that bring together community and faith-based organizations and individuals to improve the well-being of children and youth.

Brian Gruber works at a project site

Brian Gruber works at a project site.

"This is a great story of transformation," says Phyllis Freeman, national director of domestic disaster response for World Vision's U.S. Programs. "When we talk about the power of relationship, this is it: an opportunity to 'pay it forward' to children and families who are in need of skilled labor from a group of skilled adults and young people."

The volunteers worked with Church of the Harvest in Oklahoma City and World Vision to help the communities of Carney, Newalla, and Shawnee. They also assisted Convoy of Hope and Nazarene Disaster Response in those organization's relief efforts.

"What a blessing they were to us," says Debbie Holland, who assists the tornado relief and recovery efforts of Church of the Harvest. "You should see how they cleaned out our barn [in which the church built free, temporary huts for displaced people]. It was such a disaster, and now it is amazing. Almost made me cry tears of joy."

Some of the volunteers, age 16 to 57, are unemployed. Some had never stepped off the reservation.

"I wasn't planning on coming. I was going to look for another job," says Kendell Yazzie. "[But] I knew God was tugging at my heart to put aside my needs, to forget about myself."

Floyd Clark says he volunteered because "that's just my heart to go out and help someone. Sharing as a team—the joy, the laughter, the smiles—all that was happening."

Several of the volunteers felt empathy for the tornado survivors because they live in communities in need themselves.

"I have a little experience of what [struggling] people go through," says Edward King Sr., pastor of Gospel Lighthouse Church in Haystack, New Mexico. "It gives you a good feeling that you've helped somebody."

Volunteers from the Navajo Nation help tear down a destroyed trailer

The team from Navajo Nation included Kendell Yazzie (foreground). Standing (left to right) are Philando Sandoval, Floyd Clark, Colvin Charley, Edward King Sr., Pete Belon, Brian Gruber, Adrian Mestas, Donovan James, Jairus Vandever, and Ernie Begay.

Colvin Charley had never traveled so far to volunteer, but "it doesn't matter where you're from," he says. "Whether it's physical, spiritual—everyone has a need that needs to be filled in. There are people suffering more than you. People's homes were destroyed. You go out and meet the needs of others first."

He's particularly moved that young men from the Navajo Nation volunteered.

"When people see young people coming out, it encourages them," says Colvin, who is 22. "It's like, hey, you guys care. [Young Navajos put their video game] controller down, turned their TV off, came out here, and took a step of faith."

Eighteen-year-old Jairus Vandever, who graduated from high school this year, says that after the tornadoes struck, "I wanted to do something, not just look at it on the news and says it's just another disaster. It's a good feeling when you help somebody."

Pete, the Cornerstone Ministries' founder, views the trip as a catalyst for outreach beyond the reservation. Some leaders in the Navajo Nation had discussed how to develop an emergency response team that could help out when disaster struck.

"This was the first time it happened," Pete says. "Now it's really creating some interest in the churches in [the Smith Lake] area. Maybe next time, we'll take three vans and ladies who know carpentry. Some of the guys are thinking about leading the team and driving."

The Church of the Harvest has already invited Pete's team back to Oklahoma City for another project. He believes God will honor the selflessness of the volunteers.

"I see their hearts," Pete says. "Having these kids here, I see a miracle about to happen. They are here by faith. They are a candidate for a miracle God's going to do on their behalf."