Renee Begay grew up with a slew of family members in a trailer on the Zuni pueblo in Western New Mexico, near the Arizona border. She was a small and underweight child, so her grandpa fed her sardines to fatten her up.
Her family was poor, but it didn’t feel like that to Begay, whose family name is Kylestewa.
Her family found ways to survive. When the electricity was shut off because of unpaid bills, they used candles. When the water was turned off, they hauled water from the homes of neighbors and family members.
In spite of those challenges, Begay’s mother, a single parent, found a way to pay for Begay to attend Saint Anthony Zuni Indian Mission and School in Zuni through eighth grade and Rehoboth Christian School, just outside of Gallup, for high school.
“It was a really great experience,” Begay said of the education she received at the private schools. “It set me up to really study well.”
It also set her up with her faith.
Begay is a Christian who comes from a family with close ties to its Zuni culture and religion. She made the decision to become a Christian during a Zuni holy week, when she was a sophomore in high school.
That week, family members got into an intense fight as they prepared for a fast, she says. Some family members fought physically, while others were shouting and crying. She stood back, paralyzed.
Instead of taking part in the holy week event, she went home and sat on her bed. She recalls wondering what could help her family change, if not the holy week.
She turned to a random passage in the Bible, Psalm 139, and started reading. It reads, in part, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…”
Begay says she decided then to follow the Christian God because she saw that other efforts to heal her family weren’t working.
It was a difficult decision — one that had been brewing for more than a year — because it contradicted her family’s beliefs.
“I have deep respect for my people and my family,” she said. “It was very countercultural, and there were times where I may have disappointed my family because I decided not to follow their religious ways.”
In 2000, Begay came to New Mexico State University with her then-boyfriend, Donnie Begay (the two married in 2002), who also attended the Christian high school.
On the Las Cruces campus, both felt culture shocked and lonely.
They slowly branched out, getting involved with Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “Cru”) and finding their community. But they still felt a longing for the familiar.
As she headed toward graduation, Renee Begay wanted to help other Native students on campus. She prayed in 2002, asking God what to do. She says a vision came to her mind.
The Begays started Nations at NMSU. The nonprofit Christian organization “is a campus movement of Native American students and faculty who embrace and honor First Nations people while recognizing that there is one true Creator who desires to restore what has been lost by placing his Son Jesus Christ at the center of American Indian life and culture,” according to its website.
Today, Nations is on 10 college campuses across the United States.
“We weren’t trying to replace (students’ homes),” Begay said, “but we wanted to be able to form a community where they felt they belonged and that they could have friendships and stuff to help keep them going.”
Begay has become a prominent figure in Cru. She travels to universities across the country to promote the Nations movement and spoke at a national Cru conference in 2013.
Begay says the work is fulfilling. She has seen students move from shyness to having friends. But she also deals with difficult situations. During an interview, her voice shook as she described sexual abuse as “the No. 1, hardest thing we encounter.”
One in three Native women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. Native women experience sexual assault at a rate 2.5 times higher than the national average, according to the DOJ.
Hearing stories of abuse and being a source of comfort comes with the territory for Begay. She said that’s “overwhelming sometimes.”
As she spoke, her emotion was apparent. At her family’s kitchen table, where many of Nations’ lively conversations take place, Begay needed a moment to regain her composure before putting on a smile and talking about the social activities students engage in during meetings at her house.