A lasting friendship among United Methodists in two states began with a phone call.
Three years ago, the Rev. Donna Pewo, director of the Clinton Indian United Methodist Church and Community Center in Oklahoma received a phone call from Becky Yates, outreach director at Providence United Methodist Church, Mount Juliet, Tennessee. Providence was looking for a U.S. mission project for children and youth to support.
Thanks to that phone call, in June 2012, more than 20 Providence youth and adults traveled 800 miles to Clinton.
“We knew it was going to be a great week,” Yates said. “What we didn’t realize is that we would fall completely in love with the children and with Donna and that, not only would we return, but we were profoundly moved by the people we met. We have now traveled to Clinton for three Christmases to bring gifts and attend their Christmas pageant.
“Every summer we take a team to conduct VBS and sports camp. The summer trip is a highlight for our church, and the interest is high in being a part of the team. Even more than the trips, our Clinton friends are a part of our church, and we are a part of Clinton. We stay in touch throughout the year through social media and continue to support Donna as covenant partners.”
The Rev. David Wilson, conference superintendent for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, also appreciates the partnership.
“Providence has been a blessing to the Clinton Indian Church and Community Center,” he said. “They provided a new playground, much-needed repairs within the church facility and, most of all, positive support and love to the children and youth of the Cheyenne and Arapaho community.”
The mission venture began shortly after the Rev. Jacob Armstrong, Providence’s pastor, participated in An Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People at the 2012 General Conference. Hearing the Rev. George Tinker tell of the atrocities Native Americans endured on the Trail of Tears, Armstrong wept.
A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
“Macy, who was in high school in 2012 for our first trip to Clinton, had just lost her grandmother to cancer. The first day we were there, she met Chris, a young man with Down syndrome, who had also recently lost his grandmother. They immediately connected, and we all grew closer to Chris because of their relationship. They stay in contact with each other and look forward to an annual reunion each summer. This relationship helped many of us come to a better understanding not just of Native Americans, but also those with special needs.”
Becky Yates, director of outreach, Providence United Methodist Church.
‘Less prejudice and more understanding’
“I felt so sorry for my heritage,” Armstrong wrote after the service. “Who could I apologize to? What would it mean if I could? What weight would it carry? I wanted to run to the Native Americans who had gathered in the gallery that night and beg them for forgiveness.
“Dr. Tinker said that we are far past the point of apology. And, he said, we are nowhere near reconciliation. His remarks were pointed, but full of compassion and grace as he said we must begin the work of repentance together.”
Providence members take that call seriously.
Since that first mission trip, children and youth from both congregations have formed friendships and developed a sense of trust, Wilson said. “The young people embrace Providence UMC because the church believes in the youth and children of Clinton. All the youth know that the Mount Juliet church is a positive influence and support system for them.”
One of the Clinton youth remarked, “Wow! It’s good to know there are still good people out there.”
More than 100 people have participated in at least one of the mission trips, and several have been multiple times. “We were led to start a college scholarship fund and continue to support Donna in encouraging the youth to dream big,” Yates said. “We hope the scholarship can provide a pathway out of the poverty so many are in. But more than that, these children continue to enrich our lives and help point us to a future that will have less prejudice and more understanding.”
The goal always is to provide a positive experience for everyone.
“Mission teams that connect with mission projects can work together and set a wonderful example of loving neighbor,” Wilson said. “By both churches striving to make a difference in the lives of children, it is a special way to experience and learn of other cultures and traditions, especially within the Native American communities.”
NATIVE AMERICAN Ministries Sunday
United Methodists celebrate Native American Ministries Sunday on April 19 this year. The special offering funds Native American ministries, urban initiatives and seminary scholarships. Get resources.
‘Where healing happens’
Learning as much as possible about the culture and traditions of Native American people is essential, Wilson continued. He stressed the importance of meeting both physical and spiritual needs.
“Young people are looking for someone to listen to them, to hear what they have to say and not to be judged by their looks or status,” Wilson noted. “Native American children and youth are very bright, loving, caring people. All they need is a chance — support and encouragement for a brighter future. The love of Christ and the good-hearted people they encounter makes an impression on their lives.”
Since the partnership began, Clinton youth had wanted to travel to Tennessee. This year, they finally made the 12-hour journey.
“God is so good,” Pewo told the Mount Juliet congregation. “In 2012, after your mission team had come to Clinton, one of my youth asked me, ‘When can we go there?’ And I said, ‘We’ll work on that.’ They worked hard to raise the funds to come here.”
The Oklahoma visitors met more of the congregation, shared their stories and songs in their tribal languages, and volunteered with Providence youth and church members at the Second Harvest Food Bank.
The group sorted more than 17,700 pounds of food. “Both youth groups and leaders were blessed to have the opportunity to help those in need,” Wilson said.
“It was great hearing the laughter between both youth groups as we traveled together, and Facebook helps keeping in touch with one another.”
“What a wonderful partnership God has formed!” Pewo exclaimed. Speaking at Providence United Methodist Church, she said, “You do not know how much you mean to us; how much your giving, your love, your support and your prayers have made a difference. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Yates said this kind of partnership “is where healing happens.”
“Acts of repentance are important and are a path to healing,” she said. “But it is in the relationship where it is sealed.”
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is general church content editor, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] or (615) 742-5470.