Really!? . . . A pastor born in 1960 . . . graduated High School at age 4 ½ . . . saved at age 7 ½ . . .
Two-year Bible School diploma at age 9 ¾ . . . assigned his first church at age 11 ½ . . . REALLY!?
Well, yes, considering that Navajo Pastor Virgil Chee has a “real” birthday only once every four years! A leap year baby, born February 29, 1960, Virgil just celebrated his 14th birthday and his church, Pine Tree Mission, held a big dinner and party in his honor. He is greatly loved!
I recently interviewed my friend, Pastor Virgil, and found his life story fascinating and well worth sharing with you. Here are some of my questions and his answers.
Q: Where did you grow up and in what kind of home?
A: I am number 10 of 12 children, six boys and six girls, born to Navajo parents. We owned acreage in the Vanderwagen area of NM, south of Gallup on the edge of the Navajo Reservation. We had no electricity until 1970 so used kerosene lamps and cut wood for heating. My mother raised us kids since my father worked for the railroad and was only home on Saturdays, leaving again each Sunday. Both my parents also made Navajo jewelry to sell to traveling buyers.
Q: Was your home a “traditional” Navajo home?
A: No, not really. A “traditional” family holds to many ceremonies and rituals that are conducted by the medicine men. They supposedly cover just about every need in life such as health issues, many kinds of blessings, good fortune and well-being, with the emphasis on being in contact with and pleasing “the spirits”. But, my mother was early influenced by a Wesleyan Covenant missionary couple, the Ingram’s. She was the first of our family to be saved and became very involved and faithful in the church and serving the Lord. She interpreted for the missionaries at church and house-to-house, taught ladies how to sing out of the Navajo hymnal, and taught Sunday School. Mom always took us kids to the old log church that had originally been Pine Tree Tavern before its purchase and conversion to Pine Tree Mission. She was a wonderful example and a big influence on many people.
Mom also did not share the traditional fear of death and often helped prepare the dead for funerals and burials, a skill I learned from her and use often in my ministry today! So, from early memory I knew we were Christians and different than most Navajo families. Dad followed the traditions longer but was saved later in life.
Q: What is your personal life journey and testimony of coming to the Lord?
A: I went to church with Mom, but did not give my heart and life to Jesus as a boy. I quit high school after the 10th grade but two years later I did go back and get my GED. I took up the jewelry making trade learned from my parents and in those days there was a good lucrative market for Navajo jewelry and I made good money. My heart was captured by the money I was making and that was my life’s goal from age 16 to 30. I had a common-law marriage that produced two children, but that ended badly after 10 years. Then came a good steady job driving school bus and a new legal marriage. But, unfortunately, my wife’s family was much more traditional than me and that marriage fell apart when she left.
This brought me to my knees and I committed my life to the Lord at 30 years old. I decided I needed a big change and took a truck-driving job to get away and out on my own traveling across the country for about seven years. My uncle and aunt, Joe and Jane Lee, were pastoring at Pine Tree mission and holding many tent camp meetings around the reservation. On one of my return trips home Jane convinced me to give up the driving job and stay home to help them.
I spent two years, 1997-1999, attending a church-sponsored Bible School near Gallup, NM and earned a two-year diploma. During the schooling I did nine months of prison ministry, traveling every Sunday over to Grants, NM to witness to the young people in the Navajo Detention Center. God used this to burden my heart for the youth, and I had invitations to speak at high school assemblies.
After Bible School, the next six to seven years was busy helping Pastor Joe and Jane: setting up the big revival tent for camp meetings, helping at the church, leading the service openings, playing my guitar and leading singing, and learning all about the ministry.
Q. How did you finally become a pastor?
A. The Mission, now a part of Evangelical Church Missions (ECM), had another church called Blue Mountain Navajo Church in Prewitt, NM, just over an hour’s drive east of Pine Tree Mission. In 2006 Pastor Joe told me they needed a new pastor at Blue Mountain and this was a great opportunity for me to put into practice all I had learned. It was a very small fellowship; some Sundays there were just four of us in worship! But, gradually others began to attend and the church grew to about 20 people.
A few years later Aunt Jane passed away and Uncle Joe retired from pastoring. Pine Tree Mission floundered without a pastor and services discontinued for a while. There were still many of the church members who wanted it to continue, so, in 2011 the Mission offered me the opportunity to go back home and become pastor at Pine Tree Mission Church. That was really where my heart was so it was an easy decision.
I love what I am doing helping my people and community. I’m often called on to transport and prepare bodies and lead funerals. This last year I have conducted 34 funerals for people throughout our area! It can be draining but is a much needed ministry opportunity. A while back money was donated through ECM to buy me a tow-behind wood splitter and I offer that service to people in the community. They cut their logs in fireplace length and then I come and split it and share about Jesus. Pine Tree Mission now averages over 30 adults and about 10 children. At the Christmas service there was standing room only when we gave out the Christmas Shoe Box/Backpack Gifts to many families. What a blessing!
I know what it means to make money, but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. My home is still here on our family acreage. My house has electricity, but I still haul my water in five-gallon buckets and jugs, and cut firewood for my heating stove. My sister lives across the driveway and she has running water at her place.
Q. What are the biggest challenges in ministry that you face?
A. In general, convincing Navajo people that the Bible is the truth and that the “traditional way” is not the way to fellowship with God and eternity in heaven. The usual comment is, “That is white man’s religion, we don’t need that”.
Pine Tree Mission Church is basically just a sanctuary that can seat about 70 comfortably. We have no classrooms or other meeting space. This makes it very hard to attract and keep teenagers. They may visit but say, “There’s no place for us to meet”, so they don’t stay.
We are currently raising funds for the expansion of Pine Tree Mission to accommodate these youth and others the community is reaching for Christ. If you or your church would like to get involved please contact Jack ONeill, Executive Director of Mission Mobilization at 503.342.3595 or by writing him at email@example.com.
Please pray for Pastor Virgil and his leaders at Pine Tree Mission as they continue to bring Christ’s love to the community of Vanderwagen, NM.