In 1948, the same year in which The Advance for Christ and His Church was set up as the Methodist-designated mission giving channel, two nurses, sent by the then-Woman's Society of Christian Service, established a health clinic in Cookson, Okla.
Sixty years later, The Advance is a major player in global mission, and the Cookson Hills Center is an Advance project (No. 582161) engaged in ministry with Native Americans, primarily Cherokee. The anniversaries are intertwined.
An Advance staff member made a visit to Cookson Hills on the way to Fort Worth to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, where the 60th birthday of the Advance is being celebrated. The Rev. Meridith Whitaker, director of Cookson Hills, is attending the Fort Worth gathering.
"Talk about the United Methodist connection — you can see the reality of our mission linkages in the interplay between Cookson Hills and the General Board of Global Ministries," said Shawn Bakker, director of the Advance, a mechanism for giving through the mission agency.
Whitaker is a missionary related to the board through the Church and Community Workers' program.
Cookson Hills today focuses on cottage industries that create economic development opportunities for the community. These include sewing, T-shirt printing, craft-making, and producing homemade jellies and preserves. In addition, Cookson Hills works with children and youth through daycare and after-school programs.
The center provides food packets for children, prom dresses for teenagers and baby products for new mothers. It ministers to seniors and provides community service opportunities for people sentenced in county drug court.
Most of the 21 staff members in the cottage industries at Cookson Hills are ex-offenders. One example is Jackie, a Cherokee man who just celebrated a year of sobriety. He makes outdoor mats out of used tires and recycled water bottles and sells them to earn money for the center. Yet, like most families in the Cookson community, Jackie makes less than $12,000 a year.
Product sales account for 27 percent of Cookson Hills' annual income for mission.
"My hope for the future of Cookson is that we would work ourselves out of a job, that the community would generate employment opportunities and take care of each other," Whitaker said.
"When we started our senior citizen nutrition program that gives seniors two meals a week, we saw a decrease in the amount of food leaving our food pantry," she explained. "The garden seed program helps them grow their own food. The things we do help people live within the means that they have."
Continuing the original emphasis on health care, Cookson Hills will soon open a health resource center that will be a place for community residents to go for referrals, as well as health and wellness information.
Organized by two volunteers, this program represents the important roles volunteers play at Cookson Hills. United Methodist Volunteers in Mission teams visit the center throughout the year. Volunteers from the surrounding Native American community also contribute to the mission.
A 60th anniversary celebration, held April 19 at Cookson Hills, was attended by many community members, donors, and church leaders from around the United Methodist Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Local Cherokee musicians played native music, and children entertained the crowd by singing in the Cherokee language.
The Rev. Joe Harris, assistant to the bishop of the Oklahoma Conference, and the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and a Global Ministries director, participated in the celebration.
Cookson Hills' mission work within the community continues to expand. Following the celebration, ground was broken for a new ministry center to replace many of the buildings originally built in the 1940s. The Rev. Bill Foote Sr., pastor of the Mary Lee Clark United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, officiated at the event.
"The new building will be a ministry center that will house programs, our offices, a thrift store and youth room," Whitaker said. "The building we are using now is 60 years old and about to fall down. It's had a lot of wear and tear."
Contributions to Cookson Hills Center can be made through the Advance: #582161 at Givetomission.org.
*Neal is a Mission Specialist for The Advance. Wheeler editor of Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, e-mail: [email protected].
Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405(817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470(615) 742-5470.