NTC Youth Serve, Learn on Third Annual OIMC Mission Trip

Group shot of youth

Twenty-eight members of First UMC Jacksboro, Button UMC and First UMC Decatur traveled to Henryetta, Okla. for a cultural immersion mission trip. 

Summer service trip offers a window into Oklahoma’s Native American communities and cultures

Three years ago, Rev. Dr. Chad Johnson, a member of the Chickasaw nation and senior pastor at First UMC Jacksboro, and Rev. Donna Pewo, a full-blood member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and the director of connectional ministries for The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, met at the OIMC Immersion Experience. Coming out of that multi-day event, Johnson and Pewo asked two simple questions: What can United Methodists in North Texas do for churches in the OIMC, and how can we teach non-Natives about our rich Native cultures?

Those two questions would spark the development of a summer service and cultural immersion trip and a multi-year partnership between churches, conferences and communities.

“I remember Pastor Chad’s hope was to offer the young people of his church an opportunity to learn and grow culturally, while at the same time helping OIMC churches with repairs, painting and re-organizing," Pewo said. “Pastor Chad is full of positive energy, and I was eager to help him give his young people a look at Native American culture through a new lens.”

In 2022, a group of youth from First UMC Bridgeport, First UMC Jacksboro and The Parish in Oklahoma City participated in the first mission trip to the OIMC, serving Billy Hooton Memorial UMC in Oklahoma City. Johnson recalls that feedback from the first trip was overwhelmingly, “We love this, and we have to do this again.”

“It’s such a joy to be able to share aspects of my own Native American culture and spirituality, to show how those can integrate into and deepen our United Methodist faith,” Johnson said. “Sharing Native languages and foods and hymns and community, it all serves to illustrate in a tangible way for these youth just how wide and diverse the family of believers really is.”

NTC youth working during OIMC mission trip

Rev. Melissa Hatch, senior pastor at Button UMC in Little Elm, followed along online as Johnson shared updates from the 2022 trip.

“I stalked his Facebook page,” Hatch said with a laugh. “But I knew I wanted to be a part of what I saw, and that for a church like ours, with a smaller youth group, doing something together – something connectional – would make that kind of experience possible for our youth. We’re better together.”

Hatch and the Button UMC youth would join Johnson for the group’s second trip, providing needed repairs and updates at El Reno Indian Fellowship UMC and experiencing powerful moments of cultural learning.

“More than just a mission trip, these trips are about immersing ourselves in other cultures,” Hatch said. “Of course we go to serve, but we also really want our kids to learn. I think what we take away from these trips and the relationships that we're building are so important.”

Last month, First UMC Decatur joined First UMC Jacksboro and Button UMC, as the churches put together a team of 28 for the group’s third trip. Youth, college students and families worked onsite at Little Cussetah UMC, a primarily Muscogee (Creek) church in Henryetta, Oklahoma, making updates and repairs to spaces including the church’s Fellowship Hall and outdoor decks.

Youth also experienced meaningful moments of learning and connection, as they toured Native American housing displays at the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City, enjoyed Native art and music at the Muscogee Nation Festival, talked with OIMC Northern District Superintendent and Kiowa Mike Svitak about the history of Christianity and Native Americans and worshipped at Little Cussetah, where they heard Creek and Choctaw hymns along with their own familiar liturgies.

Rev. Donna Pewo, Rev. Melissa Hatch, Magan Davis and Rev. Dr. Chad Johnson

(Left to right) Rev. Donna Pewo, Rev. Melissa Hatch, Magan Davis and Rev. Dr. Chad Johnson.

Bishop David Wilson, episcopal leader of the Great Plains Annual Conference and the first Native American elected to the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church, joined the team at the First Americans Museum’s Summer Solstice event. The evening included a showcase of young Native American composers, as well as dancing, drumming, cultural demonstrations and reflections as the sun set on the longest day of the year.

As it has grown and evolved over the last three years, the annual trip is one that members of both conferences look forward to and plan their summers around.

“Each trip gives the team the chance to meet different tribal members and see a different community setting throughout Native country,” Pewo said. “We have 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, so there is always something new to learn, see and hear. Each tribe is unique in our traditions, customs, language and ceremonies, but there are three things we all have in common: our people live in a sense of community setting, we know how to persevere because that trait was passed down from generation to generation, and we knew spirituality before Christianity was ever introduced to our ancestors.”

All three pastors look forward to continuing this summer tradition, with dreams for future winter trips and age-level trips to tackle deeper conversations around Native American history and modern experiences.

“In Native culture, there's no concept of 'goodbye,’ ” Johnson said. “So, we end our trips with ‘Anowa Chipisala’cho’ instead — ‘until we meet again.’ ” 

Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2024