Recovering a "Forgotten Generation"

The remote town of Crownpoint, N.M., is a two-hour drive northwest of Albuquerque and home to a Navajo reservation, where poverty, high unemployment, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy are all too common.

Not surprisingly, teen moms who live there face an array of obstacles. Many don’t complete high school, are unable to find jobs and subsequently live an isolated existence on or near the reservation where the cycle of poverty — and hopelessness — continues. But leading the charge to seek out these young moms, build relationships with them and share the Gospel is Barbara Johnson, who started Red Rocks YoungLives there in 2006, the first YoungLives in New Mexico.

Coming alongside Johnson is a growing group of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, including Betty Bennett, a 74-year-old Christian Navajo woman serving as the YoungLives committee chair. “I always tell Barbara that she’s responding to a forgotten generation,” Bennett said. “Values that used to be important seem to be slipping away. The young mothers are kind of ignored and on their own.”

Equipped by trials

For Johnson and her husband, John, answering the call to minister to the Navajo people has been part of a long journey, marked with pain and joy, yet it seems to have uniquely equipped them for fruitful ministry in a tough place.  
Johnson’s experience with teen moms began more than 20 years ago in New York, where she directed a crisis pregnancy center, while her husband was a pastor. “I had a passion for teen moms because I found they were open and looking for answers. We have the best answer in Jesus Christ.” 

In 1995, her husband, John, began to pursue a career in medicine, and Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was sad and scared,” said Johnson, whose mom had already died from cancer. “I would wake up some nights and just cry. But one night I felt like God was putting His arms around me, holding me, and telling me it was all going to be OK.”

In 1998, John entered medical school in Washington, D.C. Johnson began directing a pregnancy center in the city, where she first learned about the ministry of YoungLives.

Several years later, Ben, one of their sons, died in an accident while he was away at college. “I am sure God has used Ben’s death to make me more compassionate and empathetic,” Johnson said. “And it’s made me really want to turn people to God.” 

After medical school, John’s residency took them to Philadelphia, where Johnson started two YoungLives ministries. But when John’s residency ended, it was time to move again. “I always want to stay where I am, but God has bigger plans,” Johnson said. John had committed to work in an underserved area, and he’d had a heart for Native Americans, so in 2006 they headed to New Mexico.

About six months after they arrived, Johnson started YoungLives in Crownpoint. Their local church, Crownpoint Christian Reformed Church, enthusiastically supported Johnson in her endeavor. (It hosts club monthly.) “Barbara is very interested in our people,” Betty Bennett said. “You can always tell when people have prejudice toward us. I can only go so far with them as a Navajo because they will think they are better. Johnson and her husband are not that way.”

Facing obstacles

Even though it filled a great need, ministry to young moms has been full of challenges. One of the greatest challenges she and the mentors continually face is just getting girls to attend. “It’s so hard to get the word out,” Johnson said. “They also don’t have transportation, or can’t afford to put gas in their cars. They live far apart from one another, or their cell phone service is constantly getting turned off, or they say they’ll come, and they won’t. I do a lot of inviting before I will see them.”

These days club draws up to 70 people, including moms, dads, kids, family members, YoungLives mentors and childcare volunteers. It includes dinner, all the typical fun and humor of club, as well as some brief parenting education, and a Gospel message at the end of club. Before they leave, moms receive bags full of diapers, wipes and other donated items. In addition to club, Johnson also holds two Campaigner meetings each month as well as times for mentor and junior leader training. 

The time in between club and Campaigners is spent pursuing girls, visiting with them at their homes, which sometimes have dirt floors, or lack electricity, running water or basic furniture. She will also meet teen moms by going to the local Women, Infants and Children office or the hospital where she can meet teen moms who are there receiving pre- or postnatal care. 

Mentors, camp and money miracles

Key to their ministry is pairing teen moms with mentors, but this is one of the greatest challenges, mainly for cultural reasons. “Kids who have mentors do better, but in this culture, mentoring is a foreign concept,” Johnson said. “People don’t want to invade one another’s privacy.” 

It’s been a stretch for one such mentor, Andreana Lee, a Navajo woman raised in Crownpoint. “You’ve got to be there for them continually. You have to talk to them. I will have to force myself, too. God is trying to open their hearts, but the evil one is trying to blind them.”

Camp has also been a powerful tool in ministering to teen moms, and Johnson believes girls who attend camp are more likely to have a better quality of life in the long run. “Many of them have never left the reservation. At camp, they’re getting to see more of the world, that there’s more to life. We take them away from the chaos of home and we have a captive audience.”

That’s true for girls like Amanda,* a teen mom who attended Lost Canyon, Young Life’s camp in Arizona, this summer. She signed up for camp in 2012, but backed out at the last minute. She came to club occasionally the next year, often riding with Johnson, and ended up bringing two friends with her to camp in July. Turns out, she had been thinking about Jesus all year. At camp, her heart was ready, and she began a relationship with Him. 

Along with stories of transformed lives, the Red Rocks YoungLives group marvels how God has always provided financially, often in the nick of time. With most of the funding coming from across the country, Johnson said the committee is constantly encouraged. “It shows them that people care about them in this remote place and that God is at work in YoungLives.”

Credible faith, incredible impact

In the 18 years since her first diagnosis, cancer returned in 2009, and then again last November cancer was detected in her lungs and lymph nodes. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t stopped her. “Cancer has been the best thing in my relationship with kids,” Johnson said. “They’ve seen me without my hair. I’m not just a doctor’s wife. The cancer gives my faith credibility. If He can help me face cancer, they see He can help them.”

*name has been changed