TAOS (Taos News) - There is no state or government agency a person can call when they need someone to hold their hand through fear, suffering, pain, or loss. For such intimate and personal support, the mechanisms of the social welfare system have little to offer. A person can, however, call Bennie and Edna Romero.
Answering calls of those in need constitutes life in the ministry - no matter who or where they are. To minister is to become, as far as possible, the human expression of the Lord’s love. It requires a radical sacrifice of self-interest that most reasonable people are reluctant to make. Bennie Romero was no exception.
“I’ll do it when I’m older,” Romero told himself. Although the leadership of the First Indian Baptist Church was available to him, he wasn’t sure that he was ready. He did not yet feel the urge to speak to people about the Lord. That changed 43 years ago.
Romero and a good friend, Dr. Steve Cetrulo, set out in the predawn light to hunt a bull elk Romero had been scouting for days. He knew just where it should be. By 10 a.m., the pair had not yet taken the bull, and Romero realized he needed to return to the pueblo to teach a class at the Taos Day School. Rushing home, their Jeep went off the road and rolled three times, eventually settling on the tires. Romero regained consciousness to find he was alone in the Jeep.
Romero searched, unsuccessfully, for Cetrulo. Unable to start the Jeep, he collected the rifles and crawled to the top of the hill he had just rolled down. There, he found Cetrulo — thrown from the vehicle — with a broken femur. But, it was Romero that had Dr. Cetrulo alarmed. Romero was bleeding from his ears.
The doctor recognized signs of a severe head injury in his friend. The men fired their rifles about 20 times, eventually drawing the attention of a U.S. Forest Service ranger, who came and found them. Cetrulo had already bandaged Romero’s head.
On the way to the hospital in the Forest Service truck, a bump caused Romero’s head to tap the surface behind him. His next memory is from 23 days later at St. Joseph Hospital, Albuquerque. He remembers walking down a hallway with his father, asking what happened that put him in the hospital. Gesturing to the hospital gown worn by Romero, his father told him that it was he, Bennie, who was the patient.
Cetrulo had hired a plane to fly Romero to Albuquerque to be seen by a neurosurgeon. His injuries were too extensive to be treated at Holy Cross Hospital, Taos. His wife, Edna, was on the plane and at the hospital when Romero woke from the coma. His ability to speak, sit and walk returned first before his memory of himself or his family.
Yet, somewhere inside, Romero’s sense of self was present. It was while in the coma that Romero surrendered “to the Lord.” Recognizing the state of his body, he professed, “Lord, I don’t have much to give you except this broken body. But, if you see fit to keep me alive, I will give my life completely into your service.” When he woke, for the first time in his life, Romero felt compelled to speak to the patients on the floor about the Lord. He accepted the role of pastor at the First Indian Baptist Church, in which he has served ever since.
Romero took over stewardship of the church from Edna’s father, Michael Naranjo. Naranjo had moved the family from Santa Clara Pueblo to Taos in 1954, the same time that Edna Naranjo moved to Texas to attend Baylor. She came home from college for a visit, and Romero “saw her laughing inside the parsonage.”
“He was quite athletic,” Edna recalled. It is no surprise he made such an impression, as Romero was by then a runner of some renown. “My family has always run in footraces,” he said. “My father [Querino Romero] used to take us out for a run every morning,” knowing that running would “develop our power and strength.” It is perhaps due in part to that physical strength that Romero was able to survive the accident.
Immediately drawn to Edna and her whole family, Romero said, “The family was very different. They said grace at every meal.” In Edna’s family, there was “happiness that I’d never seen,” he said. The happiness he witnessed was hard-won.
“My mother was the one who was courageous,” Edna said. Edna’s mother, Rose Naranjo, was a famous potter. Mrs. Naranjo invited a woman named Pauline Commack to offer Bible study in their living room to Edna and her younger sister. Edna and her sister had been attending services with Commack in Española. The other children, eight in all, also began to listen to Commack’s teaching. Eventually, so too did Edna’s father, Michael Naranjo.
Michael had always taken to things quickly. Professionally, he was a carpenter at Los Alamos National Lab during World War II. He was also a welder and a mechanic, and “he could pick up any instrument and play it,” Edna said. That ability may have come to him through his mother’s blood. Though he was raised in St. Catherine’s orphanage in Santa Fe, Michael shared his mother’s musical abilities. He was well-liked by the nuns, but he didn’t wish for the life of a priest. He ran away from the orphanage so many times he was eventually taken in by a bachelor uncle.
For Michael, the Bible study he heard in his living room was life-changing. The community of listeners outgrew the living room, so he built in their backyard “the first Protestant Church on any of the 19 pueblos,” Edna said. “We, the children, built the church. We built the adobes.” Eventually, Edna’s father reformed his way of life, became a missionary, and accepted the post in Taos as pastor of the First Indian Baptist Church.
Both of Michael’s parents had been teachers and, after college, Edna and Bennie took up the family profession, teaching at Taos Day School. Edna taught there for 25 years and Bennie for 17 before he entered full-time into the ministry. Teaching at Taos Day School provided the Romeros’ with the chance to integrate into the community “by being there when people needed us,” Edna said. “We recognize the value of education and service to our community,” said Edna. It shows. All of their children went to college, and several of Edna’s siblings hold advanced degrees.
While most people know that pastors perform marriages, baptisms and funerals, the typical day of a pastor is, in a word from Edna, “unexpected.” “We might get a call in the middle of the night,” she said. Their plans were continually evolving in response to the needs of others. It took many years to build the trust of the community, and having done so is what the Romeros consider their most significant accomplishment.
“We’re there for the people, no matter who they are,” Edna said. The ministry “isn’t just for turning people into Baptists.” Instead, for the Romeros, success is someone coming to their home and asking, “Bennie, can you help me?”
The Romeros do many things for the community that they are too humble to mention. Mary Bernal, who nominated the Romeros as Unsung Heroes, told the Taos News about a few of them. They included the distribution of Christmas packages to adults and children at Taos and Picuris pueblos and also Thanksgiving food boxes. Edna gathers and distributes clothes to both pueblos. She collects and distributes school supplies and backpacks to kids around Taos County and at Taos and Picuris pueblos. The Romeros have also organized groups to help families and seniors in need of residential repairs and property cleanup. “She is the glue” that keeps the church functioning, said Bernal.
Though Bennie officially retired Jan. 1, 2019, the church has yet to find a suitable replacement. So Bennie and Edna continue their work as before — except without any pay. The Romeros have poured themselves into preparing the church for their successor. They put on an addition — a fellowship area — behind the kitchen, installed new windows and insulation, and made other updates, “so whoever comes will find a nice place,” Edna explained.
In addition to their continued work at First Indian Baptist Church, Bennie leads a Tiwa Bible Study (in English) at the Taos Living Center. The Bible study is open to “whoever comes through the doors.” So, too, are Edna and Bennie, who continue to answer calls both locally and from Colorado, Albuquerque, Farmington and beyond. They continue to go “to whoever is hurting.”
This story originally appeared in the Taos News (taosnews.com).