Oklahoma Tornado: Native American conference gears up to help

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference is no stranger to disaster relief.

The conference was among the first to send a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team to New York’s ground zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And when the initial emergency response to the Oklahoma tornadoes of May 19 and 20 is done, conference members expect once again to offer a helping hand — this time in their own backyard.

“What makes disaster response unique in the OIMC is that we not only deal with our own membership but (also) with (other) native families,” said the Rev. David Wilson, the conference superintendent. “Oftentimes, there are cultural needs in native families that other agencies aren’t aware of.”

For example, he said, when another tornado devastated Moore, Okla., in 1999, his conference was able to find interpreters for a storm-ravaged Kickapoo family who did not speak English.

The conference also understands the importance of intergenerational family connections within many Native American households, Wilson added. It’s not uncommon for grandparents, parents and children to live under one roof and want to continue to do so after they rebuild.

“So oftentimes, we have to help FEMA and other people understand, ‘Here’s the situation,’” Wilson said.

Perhaps most significantly, the conference’s disaster responders can help address the spiritual needs of native families who have undergone trauma — even if they are not United Methodist.

The Rev. David Wilson, Conference Superintendent, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference: “Oftentime there are cultural needs of (Native) families that other agencies may not be aware of.”

In tribes across North America, a family that loses a loved one or celebrates a new beginning will request a “cedaring” or “smudging” ceremony. During the rite, people burn cedar or sweetgrass and pray.

“The purpose is that it cleanses you physically and spiritually, and the smoke takes your prayers up to God,” Wilson said. “While many of our United Methodist churches may not do that, people who are outside of the church often do it.”

Early Methodist missionaries discouraged the practice of cedaring. But Wilson and many other Native Americans see no contradiction between the rite and Christian teaching. Wilson likened cedaring to the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition of burning incense during Mass.

“When you see a priest go through with incense, they are purifying the church,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing with cedaring.”

So, conference members will offer comfort to bereaved native families and, if requested, help them perform the blessing. “We don’t look down on them because we understand the significance,” Wilson said.

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference includes members from more than 30 tribes. While the majority of its congregations are in Oklahoma, the conference also includes churches in Texas and Kansas. Wilson has learned that at least one family in the conference lost their home in the May 20 devastation.

The conference plans to hold a prayer service at 7 p.m. tonight, May 22, at Leland Clegg United Methodist Church. During the service, Gene Sovo — a Comanche — plans to offer a cedaring for the storm’s victims.

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