(Oklahoma City) — Oklahoma is home to 39 federally recognized tribes and holds the second greatest percentage of Native Americans in the country, according to the United States Census. Ministering to this unique population requires a great understanding of culture and history.
“Our Native people long for community and fellowship,” said the Rev. David Wilson, Conference Superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC). “The strength of this conference comes from Native leadership that understand culture, ceremonies, history, economics, and tribalism that affect Native Oklahomans every day.”
Wilson, a member of the Choctaw tribe, recalls that United Methodist Native churches were historically a safe place to speak Native languages.
The Methodist church has been in ministry with Native Americans since the 'Trail of Tears' in 1838. Several of the congregations in the OIMC are more than 100 years old.
“I recall my father would come to church in order to speak with other fluent Choctaws. It was the only time they had to do it.”
This holds true today. A dozen OIMC Churches offer language classes as a part of ministry outreach in Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and Kiowa. In addition, Native hymns are incorporated into worship across the conference. For many urban Natives, Sunday services are their only chance to hear their languages.
“The language is part of who we are and helps form our identity,” said Wilson.
The language and cultural preservation is also a key part of ministry with children in the conference. Clinton Indian Church and Community Center, in Clinton, Okla., works to connect children with tribal leaders in their community. “I look for local elders to interact with the kids and tell tribal stories,” said Donna Pewo, pastor of the Clinton church. “The young people know they are Cheyenne and Arapaho people, but because of disconnect in our community, they are searching for a deeper meaning.”
Pewo says there is racial tension in the Clinton community between Natives and non-Natives and a history of social injustice. This combined with high unemployment and drug abuse has left many Native families struggling. “Our church has really become a refuge for Native children and youth.”
In addition to Sunday worship, the church provides bible study during the week, computer labs and tutors to help the children with homework. The Clinton Indian Church and Community Center is also a mission project of the General Board of Global Ministries with Advance #3021377.
'My youth tell me, ‘I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have this church to come to’,' said Pewo.
Because of the geographical location of the OIMC, leaders could not ignore the need for a disaster recovery ministry. Oklahoma averages around 80 tornados per year. In May 2013, a series of deadly weather systems sparked tornados across the state. OIMC joined efforts with the Oklahoma Conference, the Red Cross and other faith-based organizations to provide disaster recovery support for Oklahomans effected by the tornados. A case manager was put in place to work specifically with Native families. “In times of disaster, we felt it was important to have a person who relates well with the Native community to offer the best care possible to our families,” said Wilson. The OIMC and the Oklahoma Conference have provided resources for short-term and long-term recovery efforts. Most recently, the conferences partnered with the Jewish Federations of North of America, the Chickasaw Nation and the New York Says Thank You Foundation to rebuild the 1 Day Ranch near Shawnee, Okla. The 1 Day Ranch is an animal rescue center that also trains therapy horses for children with autism.
Many United Methodist churches outside of the OIMC have turned to the conference for help in ministering to Native communities in their states. The Mississippi Annual Conference has three Choctaw churches out of more than 1,000 churches. Wilson says those churches are struggling because leaders say they feel they don’t fit the traditional ministry model and find themselves in isolation.
“You have to understand culture and all of the nuances that make us who we are as Native people to be successful,” said Wilson.