If you were dropped off in Zuni, New Mexico, you might think you were on a mission field far away and long ago. Except right up the road, past miles of cornfields, waffle gardens, and flat-topped mesas, is a McDonald’s and a Walmart Supercenter. And right in the middle of the pueblo is a modern school building full of mostly Zuni kids, where what is true, good, and beautiful in their culture is honored and where everyone can learn about Jesus.
John Moore lived near here as a teen, when the scenery in and around the pueblo (the area of the reservation where the Zuni have built their homes) looked pretty much the same as it had for centuries and still does now. But it wasn’t until decades after he moved away that God would bring him back and develop in him (and in his wife, Connie) a deep love for the Native people of this area, who call themselves A:shiwi.
John moved with his family to New Mexico when he was 16. His father was a pastor in Zuni, and his stepmother worked as a teacher in a public school there. John went to high school in nearby Gallup, where he was a minority in a primarily Navajo student population.
Though he went home after school each day, John’s Navajo classmates lived another kind of life in dorms. It was 1967, and many Native American children were still living under policies that removed them from their culture, language, and families and exposed them to abuses. Though, just a year later, President Johnson would sign the Indian Civil Rights Act, it would be another eight years before Native communities would be allowed to run their own school boards and Native American parents would be allowed to determine their children’s education.
John was only there long enough to finish high school. He headed to college in Texas, where he enrolled in Air Force ROTC. But something about that place and the Native people, among whom he had lived, stuck with him.
He served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and then was assigned to southern New Mexico, where he met Connie. They were transferred out of state, but in 1980, the couple both felt certain they should return to New Mexico, though they were not sure why. There was a sense of calling back to that place, not far from where John had gone to high school, so they returned to New Mexico.
Over time, John built a successful business. He and Connie were serious about their generosity and opened a Giving Fund with NCF, so they could give from more than just cash. (John especially enjoys giving appreciated securities.) He doubled down on sharing generosity through his financial practice and helped his clients to meet their personal goals and discover the long-term impact they wanted to have on the world.
As the couple worked to be more strategic about their own giving, they knew they wanted their focus to be local. They also felt sure they were called to support missions to unreached people groups, but those are usually on the other side of the globe. As they were talking, it dawned on them, “Why not Zuni?”
Investing in the kingdom locally
Though the Zuni Pueblo is very close to them, it is a mission field. Most Zuni still hold to ancient beliefs and practices, and most still speak their native language. Many Zuni have never heard the gospel. There is no full translation of the Bible in the Zuni language (though a Wycliffe team has translated portions of Scripture with the help of members of the Zuni community).
Connie and John started to research what opportunities were available to serve on the reservation.
It wasn’t long before John and Connie were visiting the reservation with their friend, Virgil Dugan, from National Christian Foundation, and his wife, Sandy. They were especially interested in the work of Zuni Christian Mission and School (ZCMS). “John had firsthand knowledge and a heart for the Zuni,” Virgil says. “When I introduced him to the work, he got right in the middle of it.”
The Moores felt a connection with ZCMS, which was part the Christian Reformed Church that was planted by missionaries to the reservation more than 100 years ago. Though the relationship hasn’t been completely without struggles, the community has allowed ZCMS to coexist with them. As a former teacher, Connie still had a passion for kids’ education. So, as the couple toured ZCMS, she shared John’s enthusiasm.
They learned that this school has always been a day school (not a boarding school) and has always sought to involve the community. Students have never been removed from families or forbidden to speak their own language there.
“Many Zuni children come to ZCMS when public schools don’t work for them and other private schools are too expensive,” says Tim Becksvoort, the school’s principal. “It’s a safe place to be a Zuni child and receive an education, free from bullying” (which is rampant in many other schools on reservations). Many children do better because of the smaller class size offered and personal attention given.
Honoring Christ and culture at school
The staff is a mixture of white and Native. And Zuni language is taught as a subject, just as English is, and the staff works to regularly involve the community. On a recent evening at the end of a teaching unit, the school held a game night, and students presented a capstone project, which featured a parent or grandparent (some even borrowed someone else’s grandparent) teaching the children a game from Zuni culture.
Some students say the school makes them feel safe. This may seem strange until you think about the traditional background they come from, which doesn’t elevate values like forgiveness, mercy, grace, and salvation. “Most kids at ZCMS aren’t familiar with these terms until they attend the school,” Becksvoort says. Singing has been a favorite school activity, and many students have said they feel hopeful when they sing in the school chapel.
Most students at ZCMS would never get teaching about Jesus at home. But the school and the Wycliffe translators have formed an essential partnership (with community input) to bring portions of Scripture and teaching materials in their native language.
The school had existed for a long time in run-down, temporary buildings. But, after receiving approval from the community, they began a fundraising campaign for a permanent building. A large amount of funding for the new school came from the church that had founded the mission and school over a century before. Then John joined in, supporting the school and helping them tap into local churches that would partner to serve Zuni.
Each year, John holds an annual event and shares about a charity or ministry with his clients. He invites them to join him in giving and matches their giving up to a set amount. When he invited a Christian Zuni police officer to speak about what the school meant to him growing up on the reservation, it had a huge impact. “For them to see a real person from Zuni doing a difficult job … as a follower of Christ, because of where he had gone to school, it really resonated with people,” John says.
John and Connie visit the reservation and get to know the people. Connie buys crafted items, like jewelry, and then gives them to others to spread the message about needs of the people in the Zuni Pueblo.
Geographic and cultural isolation has been a key factor in maintaining their tribe of 10,000 people and preserving their heritage; but it has worked against them economically. Most Zuni are culturally rich but financially poor. Almost 30 percent of Zuni now live below the poverty line, nearly 2.5 times the national average.
In 2020, COVID hit the people hard. A number of Zuni residents died, and the reservation was on lockdown. And because 80 percent of all Zuni families earn at least part of their income through their art (especially pottery and jewelry making), the loss of tourism caused severe hardship. John and Connie paid the tuition for all the children in the school to complete the school year. They visited other tribes during this time, too, meeting people to deliver needed supplies.
Though they give in other places, John and Connie are passionate supporters of these Native people. What motivates them to focus on these people and this mission? John doesn’t want to ignore his wife’s passion for children’s education. “And we don’t want to miss the mission opportunity that is right around the corner,” he says. “Besides, I have personal history with Zuni.”