Called from Kenya to minister to the Navajo
Missions | Benson Ndolo teaches GED classes on the reservation but his most important lesson is about Jesus
by Sophia Lee
Posted 12/16/14, 10:45 am
GAMERCO, N.M.—The house perched on a bumpy remote hill is impossible to miss. It’s painted an almost-neon green that clashes with the garish purple sign announcing free GED classes and church services on Sunday. One wall, once vandalized by gang members, is now painted with murals of American flags and Bible verses.
It’s not just the bright colors that catch neighbors’ attention. The owner of the house, Benson Ndolo, is a tall, ebony-skinned, 58-year-old missionary from Kenya who greets people with a wide smile, a thick East African accent, and an eagerness to talk about Jesus. After nine years working on the reservation, he’s become the Pied Piper of the Navajo people.
Several times a day, groups of Navajo men and women visit the house, most arriving by foot with shoes scuffed by miles of dirt. They are either Ndolo’s GED students or his church members—sometimes, they’re both. Recently, the number of current or former students turning into church members has been growing. Ndolo prays they will multiply. That’s what his ministry, Native American New Life Ministries, is all about: to transform Navajo lives—not just their earthly circumstances, but their eternal souls as well.
In a way, Ndolo’s story about his journey from Kenya to his mission work to the Navajo people is like Jonah’s: He repeatedly resisted God’s calling, was broken into obedience, and is now continuously in awe of God’s grace, steadfastness, and providence for His people. Ndolo has come a long way since his first mission trip visit to the Navajo reservation in 2000. At the time, he was a 44-year-old divorced man, who later became “truly born again” and was studying business management at Hope University, a Christian school in Southern California. Like every other business student, he planned to make money—lots of money—then maybe somehow glorify God through his profits. But God had a different plan.
On his second mission trip to the Navajo reservation, Ndolo was reading his Bible under the shade of a tent in Pinon, Ariz., an extremely rural area where the nearest market is 20 miles away. Just as the afternoon was cooling, a soft voice spoke: “Benson! You’ve been asking where your calling is. Your calling is for the Navajo people. Start a church here.” Ndolo immediately protested, “No way! I don’t even have a car.” The voice replied, “The Lord will provide.” And Ndolo said, “Okay, okay, okay. Lord, let it be.” That was June 19, 2000.
Although the experience shook him up, it wasn’t enough to immediately uproot his life and change course. Ndolo showed obedience in the moment but lost the desire to serve once he considered the serious discomforts of living on the Navajo reservation, a land of extreme poverty where all the amenities he took for granted—water, electricity, groceries, sidewalks—would be sparse. As a non-Navajo, he can’t even buy a house on the reservation.
So Ndolo ran. And God blocked every path he tried to take, until in August 2005 he ended up back where God wanted him to be: among the Navajos.
For about three years, Ndolo worked for the youth program of the Four Corners Native American Ministry, founded by the United Methodist Church in 1977. Through Four Corners, Ndolo gained practical experience in starting youth-based programs and made connections with Navajo churches and leaders. But eventually, he felt like his “hands were tied” with the program, which seemed to emphasize situation-changing, “social justice-oriented” work more than life-changing gospel evangelism.
In 2008, Ndolo left Four Corners to establish his own nonprofit, non-denominational ministry with the vision of meeting the physical, spiritual, and socioeconomic needs of the Navajo community. He also gradually built trust with the local Navajos who, despite his skin color and accent, accepted him as one of their own. A Navajo couple in Blue Gap, Ariz., informally adopted him as their son, and he still calls them “mum” and “dad.”
Meanwhile, Ndolo also worked as a substitute teacher at a Navajo high school. He soon noticed a consistently empty desk in his class, so he asked another teacher, “Where is this student?” The teacher replied, “Oh, he dropped out.” Ndolo asked where the student went, but the teacher didn’t know.
Later, Ndolo realized high school dropouts were common—far too many students across the reservation dropped out of school for various reasons, including teen pregnancy, family financial problems, poor quality of education, substance and alcohol abuse, lack of adequate transportation, or lack of family support. Studies show the average high school dropout rate in the Navajo Nation is about 40 percent, compared to 7 percent nationally. The reservation’s high unemployment rate, dearth of Navajos with professional jobs, and bog of economic and social issues started to make more sense to Ndolo.
With nine textbooks borrowed from the Santa Fe, N.M., library and a $5,000 literacy grant, Ndolo started his first free GED class in early 2012 with three students aged 19 to 25. Within two months, his program grew to 77 students. Many of them can’t afford a vehicle, so they hitchhike to class, some coming more than 40 miles from home. Ndolo’s class, one of the few GED programs available on the reservation, filled a desperate need. So far, more than 100 Navajo students have earned a diploma, and more than 20 of them currently attend college or university.
Today, Ndolo runs three facilities: one in an old chapter house in Twin Lakes, N.M., another in the Navajo capital Window Rock, and a headquarters at his home in Gamerco, a working-class town that borders the reservation. The still-expanding program includes an after-school program for middle and high school students, college and career preparation classes, and a computer lab for online college courses. Students are always invited to Ndolo’s Bible studies and Sunday services.
One former student, Aaron Nez, whom everyone calls “Wolfman” because of his wild facial hair, told me Ndolo is different from all the other outsiders he’s known, including the Mormon missionaries who baptized his family. He calls Ndolo the “father figure” he didn’t have when he was growing up, and said if Ndolo wasn’t a Christian, the program wouldn’t exist because “he probably wouldn’t care about the [Navajo] community. He’ll leave, just like everybody else.” Nez, a 28-year-old father of three, graduated in June 2012 and now works full-time for Ndolo as an associate director and teacher. He’s also taking online classes through Ashworth College to become a certified mechanic.
“If not for Benson, I think I would have been dead,” Nez said.
Since his ministry is not directly funded by the federal, state, or Navajo government, Ndolo feels free to witness, always reminding his students, “God sent me here all the way from Africa to share this message with you. It’s not about the GED, it’s about having Jesus Christ in your life.”
Some Navajos have grumbled about Ndolo preaching the Bible in a GED class. The locals in Twin Lakes, a deeply traditional community, were perturbed enough to call Ndolo into a chapter house meeting. But a Navajo woman spoke up for him and ultimately dismissed the complaints. “He’s a man of God,” she said. “Do you think he can just watch people go to hell? Just let him do what he’s got to do. What he’s doing is good. He’s helping and changing our kids.” The woman wasn’t even a Christian.
Such has been God’s guidance and providence since Ndolo first obeyed His calling, he said. Ndolo runs out of fingers to tick off as he counts the ways God miraculously provided for the needs in his ministry—a car, a van, a school bus, on-reservation housing, financial support, and a house-church where he has lived and served since March 2014. That’s why instead of saying “good morning,” Ndolo likes to greet his students with, “God is good!”
Some have learned to answer, “All the time”— and actually mean it.
Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.