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Chilchinbeto, Nazarene church feel ‘scapegoated’ for COVID spread

Chilchinbeto, Nazarene church feel ‘scapegoated’ for COVID spread

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times


An ICU nurse held up an iPad cocooned in a plastic bag for both Bessie Dele Bryant and her husband, Danny Bryant, so their families could say goodbye on Zoom.

“I said we love them and we’re going to miss them,” said Leslie Dele, Bessie’s eldest brother and the Dele family spokesperson, as tears rolled down his face.

Leslie shared with his sister and his brother-in-law memories of some things they all did together before the coronavirus upended life around the world, when life felt normal.

“It was the last moment. I told them we’re going to miss them very, very much,” Leslie said. “I told them we love them, and we did what we could to pray for them. And we watched them as they took their last breath.”

Bessie and Danny died one hour apart at Flagstaff Medical Center in mid-April after contracting the coronavirus at a quarterly Northern Zone Rally at the Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene on March 7.

Bessie and Danny resided in K’ai’bii’tó, Arizona, where Bessie was an educator at Kaibeto School.

Some of coronavirus cases in the Nation have been linked to this Zone Rally, where people are said to be “saved or sanctified.” In the course of just a few weeks after March 7, numerous Diné men, women, and even children got sick.

Many recovered, but some died, and some were buried without ever being tested – and certainly without them all being autopsied, said Michael Begay, funeral director and owner of Valley Ridge Mortuary in Tónaneesdizí.

Thus, it’s not entirely clear how many died of the virus and how many died of other ills.

Rallies are spiritual

Zone rallies are a time of spiritual feasting and evangelistic appeal, according to an August 1954 issue of The Preacher’s Magazine, which said, “Surely every zone should be alive and active as an integral part of the district, and to be alive it must have the active support of every church and every pastor on the zone.”

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The Chilchinbeto church is part of the Church of the Nazarene’s Southwest Native American District, under which there are 32 churches, the majority in the Navajo Nation. Services are conducted not only in English but also in Diné Bizaad.

The Northern Zone comprises seven Nazarene churches: Cameron, Chilchinbeto, Kaibeto, LeChee, Shonto, Twin Hills (Tonalea-Red Lake, Arizona), and one other.

Members of the church are encouraged to participate in everything and to work hard to get a large group – members and nonmembers – to attend every Zone Rally to secure a “zone banner” for either attendance or achievement, or both.

The attendance banner is based on attendees from a single church and the number of miles driven to the rally. The achievement banner is based on a single church’s average Sunday school attendance compared with the number of attendees from that church at the rally. And every year, each church tries to win at least one of the banners.

“Whoever comes in with the largest amount of people to participate, usually they have a banner that they give out,” Leslie explained. “And everybody’s trying to win that banner. That’s how they got a lot of people over there and then a lot of them ended up getting the virus.

“My mom and my sisters, they went there to participate in the rally,” he said, “and when they came back, about two or three days later, they started sending people out to … Flagstaff (Medical Center) and all over the place, trying to get treatment.”

Leslie’s mother, Fannie Dele, and younger sister, Rose, also went to the rally, where Rose helped prepare and serve food for the multitude while she kept her distance from people because she noticed the local pastor drinking a lot of water and looking unwell.

“Nobody knew what was going on until a few days later when everybody started getting sick and then they’re getting shipped out to different hospitals,” Leslie said. “So, that’s how my sister (Bessie) got sent out to Flagstaff.

“We noticed that a lot of the people who were sent out to Flagstaff, they never made it back,” he said. “They never came back. It was a one-way trip.”

Both Fannie and Rose got sick and recovered. Bessie and Danny, however, were placed on a ventilator.

“We kept telling her, ‘Go get checked, see if you’ve been exposed,’” Leslie said. “Finally, one day, she went in – I guess she talked to my other sister, (saying) ‘I don’t know why they’re going to send me to Flagstaff.’

“I asked her if she has any breathing problems,” he said. “She said, ‘No. I went there earlier but they told me to quarantine.’ She did that.”

Leslie and his family spent so much time – and they still are – in a futile attempt to understand what really happened and why Bessie and Danny were sent to Flagstaff even though they didn’t have shortness of breath nor trouble breathing.

Worried at a distance

Ruby Benally Morton, 73, was a devoted Christian and always went to the LeChee Church of the Nazarene in Łichíi’ii, Arizona, where she served as president of the Nazarene Missions International and secretary of the church board, among other callings.

“She always went to church on Sundays,” said Ruby’s youngest son, Jonathan Morton, “but my brother wasn’t (a churchgoer).”

Joseph Ruben Morton, 50, wasn’t religious, but he accompanied his mother on March 7 to the rally, where he and Ruby contracted the coronavirus.

Both got sick and died 13 days apart. Joseph died March 19, just two days before his 51st birthday. Ruby died April 1, three days after her 73rd birthday.

It was Joseph’s day off from work at Safeway in Dá’deestł’in Hótsaa, so he drove his mother to Chilchinbeto to attend the rally. The two of them lived in Page.

“They came back and I talked with my mother over the phone and she said (they are both) sick,” Jonathan said. “She thought it was the regular cold or something. She did go to the hospital and she got diagnosed with bronchitis. Her voice was pretty coarse, talking to her over the phone.

“I called them every other day and sent text messages to her and stuff,” he said. “We had no idea it was the coronavirus.”

Twelve days after the rally, on March 19, Jonathan – who resides in Queen Creek, Arizona – got a call from a Page Police officer who told him he should be with his mother.

Thinking she got into a car accident or got pulled over by the police, he asked the female officer what happened. The officer said Joe Morton had passed away.

His father is also named Joseph Morton, so he asked if it was the elder Morton or the younger. Jonathan thought it was his father who passed on since he’s in a rehabilitation clinic where he’s receiving care for liver disease. Jonathan was alarmed when the officer said it was his brother.

“So I got off work after letting my supervisor know what happened and I called my (older) brother David,” Jonathan said.

David was also alarmed when he got the news and had questions about how their elder brother died.

“I didn’t know,” Jonathan said. “On the phone with the cops, during the initial call that he passed, my mom couldn’t even talk. The ambulance was over at (her house) and they were talking to her. So, I got off work and drove home. Eventually the cops left.”

Ruby called Jonathan later and he noticed she could hardly speak and gasped for breath. Jonathan told his mother to get off the phone and call 911 because there was obviously something wrong.

Calling dispatcher

Instead Jonathan hung up the phone and called 911, which rang at a dispatch center in Maricopa County. He was transferred twice before he reached the dispatch in Page, where he told the dispatcher what was going on and that Ruby needed an ambulance. Ruby was picked and taken to Page Hospital.

“At the same time, we (my brother David and I) were down here,” Jonathan said. “We packed our stuff to go back home. We both have families. They were going to stay because there was a possibility it could be the coronavirus.”

David made the decision to stay put because visitors aren’t permitted to visit or accompany patients, except in certain situations. The brothers texted and talked to their mother over the phone instead, before she got admitted and was tested for COVID-19 since there was speculation she may have contracted it.

The physicians and nurses at Page Hospital treated Ruby as though she had the virus. Ruby stayed at the hospital for at least one night before she was put into a medically induced coma for the flight to Flagstaff Medical Center, where she was placed on a ventilator. That was the last time David and Jonathan spoke to their mother.

The brothers called their mother’s medical team twice a day for the next 10 or 11 days and got updates on her condition.

“Ever since she was at FMC, she was never conscious really,” Jonathan said.

Pneumothorax, or collapsed lung, occurred in Ruby’s right lung. This may have happened because the ventilator can create an imbalance of air pressure within the chest and the lung may collapse completely, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When this happened, Ruby’s medical team asked both David and Jonathan if they would like to let their mother pass peacefully or treat the pneumothorax. The brothers chose the treatment option.

“But eventually, her oxygen levels really deteriorated,” Jonathan said. “She was pretty much in the 70s, sometimes dipping in the 60s.”

Jonathan said if his mother had survived, she could have suffered severe health effects for years as research shows long-term health issues can stem from the virus.

Jonathan added Page Hospital physicians and nurses did their own contact tracing and found that she had gone to the Chilchinbeto rally.

“That’s where she got it.”

Small community

Before the coronavirus hit Diné Bikéyah, Janet Thurston, a family nurse practitioner, imposed visitor restrictions and posted notices on the entrance door at Canyonlands Healthcare, the Chilchinbeto clinic, asking those who were coughing or ill to remain outside, and to visit Kayenta Health Center or Chinle Comprehensive Health Care for health screenings, such as COVID-19 testing.

“We started our safety here immediately,” Thurston said. “We educated everybody right away. People don’t come in unless they have to – only if they are not sick, for (instance, immunizations).”

People of the community could once walk into the Chilchinbeto clinic. They could get registered to be seen, pick up their medication at the pharmacy, and even get help filing for Social Security benefits and then leave the building.

Today, all visits have to be virtual as a way of safely treating patients and trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“I had to do that (restrictions) immediately,” Thurston explained. “I put that sign on the door and said to (my staff), ‘We’re not doing this, we’re not doing that. Distance and masking, we have to do it.’

“I was very aggressive. My reaction was, ‘We’re going to protect.’ And we have protected with education and knowledge. And we rolled into telemedicine,” she said.

Thurston said the Chilchinbeto clinic staff turned to telemedicine in early March. Seeing a physician or a family nurse practitioner through a computer, tablet, or a smartphone, though, is hardly new, said Thurston, who lives near the clinic in the chapter house complex.

“You think a Navajo can’t telemedicine? Yes, they can,” Thurston said. “Some people (here) have a computer (or a device) that does Facetime (Facebook’s video chat app).”

Without traveling to the clinic, patients can request a telemedicine visit – a videoconference – with Thurston and have treatment prescribed as needed.

Thurston receives between 10 and 15 telemedicine visits per day from patients sitting at home where they can safely show various body parts to her. From there, she recommends treatment or orders a test, or a prescription that patients can pick up outside the clinic.

“If it’s a whole family, 10 to 15 (patients),” Thurston said. “We used to see like 18 a day in the clinic, but it’s very efficient, I mean this is efficient enough for me because I still have to do notes and do prescriptions and do all that. But they can talk to me … and it’s excellent. It’s HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) covered.

“We need to have telemedicine and we need to have this, whether it’s a phone or whatever,” she said. “The elders need it. The young people need to go to their elders’ house and help them. I’m getting follow-up too, like people with diabetes.”

Thurston also sees COVID patients who survived and are now facing a new and difficult challenge: recovery. Many are struggling to overcome a range of troubling symptoms such as shortness of breath and weakness.

She also receives telemedicine visits on her days off. And if there’s something not within her range, she calls physicians within Indian Health Service for advice.

Thurston and her staff not only use virtual visits, they also keep the worried well cared for and away from clinical care while directing the most at risk to proper treatment in either Kayenta, about 23.5 away, or Chinle, which is nearly 50 miles one way.

“They can call me any day and call me if they’re upset,” Thurston said. “I’ll help them. We have medicine for it. I tell (my patients), ‘If you’re lonely, just call me.’ Because they’re stuck in a room.”

Tragedy unfolding

When the Navajo Nation declared a public health emergency in the middle of March, Tsiiłchinbii’tó in Navajo County was declared a hotspot, or the epicenter, for coronavirus cases by the Navajo Department of Health. But Tsiiłchinbii’tó is no longer a hotspot, said Thurston.

Deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic here took many lives and wreaked havoc on the community – and on the rest of Navajo Nation – and the routines of ordinary life.

The prospect of death in Navajo County grew real that month and people in Chilchinbeto were well aware that they were living in the eye of the storm.

“It is a loss, but there is also – we need to have hope,” Thurston said. “And they were great people. It’s just crazy how we lose people. ‘How can it be? We just saw them five days ago.’

“Everything’s OK, and then five days later, what happens? The hard part is the family and the widows,” she said.

But one cannot scapegoat Chilchinbeto and the Church of the Nazarene for the virus as though the community helped create the health threat now endangering the Navajo Nation, said Thurston.

“If someone in your family got it, where did you get it?” Thurston asks. “You didn’t know, and it came along. As far as a ‘hotspot’ goes, … we are no longer a hotspot here, as far as I’m concerned. We need to watch it.

“Truthfully, it could have come from anywhere,” she said. “Regardless, that is just something to say, you can’t blame. For example, you can’t blame Navajo. You can’t blame things. We can’t blame people. Blaming isn’t going to help us. And no one person is responsible.”

Northern Zone Rally

In the month since the virus exploded in Chilchinbeto, it claimed the notable and the anonymous, including two well-known Nazarene pastors. One was 83 and the other was 73.

Both of them, along with at least 78 other people, attended the Northern Zone Rally, one of four zones under the Rev. John R. Nells, superintendent of the Southwest Native American District.

Nells is ‘Áshįįhí and born for Bit’ahnii. He resides in Tsézhin Dilkǫǫh, Arizona.

Each of the zones has leadership that periodically gives motivational and inspirational messages to their church members. Nells said the churches within each zone come together every three months for fellowship, preaching, singing, and sharing.

And that’s what was going on March 7. A zone rally often lasts for about three to four hours. The attendance for the rally that day was about 80 people.

“Update, singing, and stuff like that,” Nells explained. “This is a great time of gathering. Of course, with food as well. That’s what a Zone Rally is. It’s a gathering about once a quarter at different locations. That’s what we do.”

But what went on at the rally has contributed to questions about who might have brought the virus. Was it one of the pastors or the rumored traveling white pastor from Oklahoma, the “three white visitors” or the rumored “basketball coach” who attended the rally?

Was the virus “bused” or “carried” in from Tucson? Was the virus already here before the rally began?

Virus emerges

Here’s a look at how the coronavirus emerged from China and landed in Chilchinbeto, a community fewer than 1,000 where there is only one school, a chapter house, a small clinic, a few dozen homes, and the world’s largest Navajo rug that embodies self-sufficiency and leadership.

No, it wasn’t the rumored traveling white pastor from Oklahoma. Nells said there are no white pastors in the Northern Zone. And there weren’t any white visitors at the rally.

And one of the pastors, along with his wife, stated they were infected and may have contracted the coronavirus within the community, but they didn’t know it was COVID-19.

The basketball coach is a local coach who traveled with his team to Tucson to play in the 2020 Arizona Middle School Basketball Championship from Feb. 28 through March 1, during which the Chilchinbeto Scorpions played at least four games, against the ALA Gilbert North Eagles, Rincon Vista, the Dodge Bulldogs, and the EmilyGray Bobcats.

The coronavirus pandemic has sickened more than 18 million people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

As of Tuesday morning, 155,478 people have died, and the virus has been detected in nearly every country, including Navajoland, where it has sickened 9,139 people and taken the lives of 462, according to the Navajo Department of Health’s Aug. 3 COVID-19 dashboard.

Valley Ridge Mortuary since March 1 has seen 259 deaths, of which 173 were COVID-19 positive deaths; 74 tested negative; and 12 are unknown.

The World Health Organization declared the situation a pandemic on March 11. A couple days later, on March 13, a national emergency was declared in the U.S. concerning the COVID-19 outbreak.

The outbreak was initially defined by a series of shifting hotspots, including Wuhan, China; Iran, northern Italy, Spain and New York.

Since December of 2019, an increasing number of cases were identified in Wuhan, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. On Dec. 29, the first four cases were reported, all linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. And the four cases grew to dozens by the end of December, meaning one infected person infected many others.

By March 1, thousands of cases were reported in Italy, Iran, and in South Korea. China was no longer the only hotspot.

The forgiving scapegoat

“This is the very early stages,” Nells said. “There was hardly any health education … to promote and train. So this is at the forefront. It could have happened in any community. But it seems like because of the rally … (we, the Church of the Nazarene, are to blame). It’s called scapegoat – bik’idiit’ą́. We’ve become the scapegoat.

“We are still being put as a scapegoat,” he said. “The Chilchinbeto rally, the ones that were affected, they weren’t the reason of the outbreak.”

Nells said the news of the Chilchinbeto rally has taken a mental toll on members of the church.

But the psychological fallout from the blame has yet to fully show itself because Nells told his congregation early on to be redemptive, to be Christlike and to forgive those – including the media – that criticize them and write inaccurate stories “for they know not what they do.”

Even though the news of the rally caused more a ripple than a tsunami, Nells told his congregation not to write letters to any editor at any newspaper and to not talk to any reporter asking for information.

“I said to them, ‘Let’s wait it out. It’s too early. Let’s be redemptive. Look at Jesus. They accused him wrongly. He became the scapegoat.’

“I told them ‘No, it’s too hurtful now,’” he said. “’Our people are in the hospital. Some have been placed on ventilators. It’s too hurt to be responding.’”

“I said to my people, ‘Let’s wait because Jesus was wrongly crucified from the cross. One of his last words was: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Nells said. “That’s why I’ve been carrying this with me for five months. I was praying for the time when our voice can be heard. We’re not the cause.

“It was going to approach each state,” he said. “It was going to approach New Mexico. Chilchinbeto has nothing to do with it – what’s going on. That’s what’s hurtful. We’re still hurt. It was already in the community.

“I’m pretty sure (Chilchinbeto residents) are hurt as well,” he said. “I’m sure there’s guilt as well. It’s not my spirit, as well as our Christian people’s spirit to point (people) out and (blame).”

Virus-fueled anxiety

But every life lost is a family broken and grieving. And angry. And hurting.

A June 9 letter to an editor has not been printed yet because Nells advised the writer, one of his church members, to refrain from sending it until later.

The letter was written by a Chilchinbeto resident, who along with her husband, is a COVID-19 survivor.

“We have been tremendously affected by this virus both physically, spiritually, and mentally,” wrote the female author. “We have yet to completely heal from it.

“Our children attended the community school where they were infected with the virus,” she said. “Our oldest (grandchild) was sent home ill from school. We were not told that there was already an outbreak at the school. I took him to the hospital. Again, we were not told it was COVID-19 or even displaying the symptoms of the virus.”

The writer stated she, along with her family, were advised by medical professionals not to wear a mask because they didn’t need them. After being prescribed amoxicillin and then feeling better shortly afterward, she went to the rally that the church hosted that day, during which a number of events took place in and around the Chilchinbeto community.

“There’s a result of lack of information in treatment,” she wrote. “We both became severely ill and were admitted into the hospital for treatment. My husband was airlifted into Scottsdale because his health was so dire. But we have been blamed because of the rally. We hosted after the virus had been spread throughout the community.

“We have received death threats due to incorrect reporting by the media that made it seem that the church was initially responsible for the spread,” she said. “It has affected us personally in our family, our friends, and in our church body. We grieve with you.”

Another church member, who did not want to be named, said, “I don’t like the perception that the Nazarene Church started COVID-19. As far as I know, the Church of the Nazarene has not been gathering and our church has been doing their own online – via Zoom – churches.”

Nells said this is true and he concurs with the feelings of his church members.

“Now, some of them are going through depression,” Nells said. “Reports, press releases, news articles were all pointing toward the Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene. We walked into it and it was already in the community and the people were affected by it. Again, this was in the very early stages. It still would have hit us.”

Nells said the Church of the Nazarene is a compassionate ministry and the church has given financial assistance to families struggling to pay for burial fees, to buy groceries and cleaning supplies.

“These are not heard when there’s compassion out there,” Nells said. “But like I said, we’re redemptive people and want our people to heal. That’s our focus.”

Nells and his wife were also infected with the coronavirus. The couple self-quarantined and made a healthy recovery, as did two other pastors who were at the rally.

Sunshine and rain

A rainbow appeared over Chilchinbeto on June 16. Thurston, the family nurse practitioner in Chilchinbeto, said the rainbow meant blessings, especially after life throws a challenge, like the coronavirus. And every challenge comes with rainbows and light to conquer it.

“We’re trying to help the people,” Thurston said as she showed photos of the rainbow after a rainstorm in Chilchinbeto.

Thurston and her team give masks and hand sanitizers to every patient. The Chilchinbeto clinic over the last several months received homemade masks from seamstresses in the community.

“This is our clinic, how we do things,” she said. “I have many years of experience. I’ve been doing this for a long time. So, I feel very comfortable taking care of the people.”


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