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Native Americans celebrate new Phoenix fellowship

 


Native Americans celebrate new Phoenix fellowship

March 1, 2005

TEMPE, Ariz. (UMNS)—Seeing a growing need in the Phoenix area, a United Methodist initiative is nurturing a new Native American congregation.

The United Methodist Native American Gathering, one of the newest fellowships for Native Americans, has been meeting for three years. The United Methodist Church’s Native American Comprehensive Plan has played a major role, providing the fellowship with funding support.

The new fellowship in Phoenix is one of six urban ministries funded by the Native American Comprehensive Plan in the past five years, according to Ann Saunkeah, the plan’s executive director.

Created by the 1992 General Conference, the plan emphasizes Native American spirituality, congregational and leadership development, and involvement in the life of the United Methodist Church. The denomination has more than 18,000 known Native Americans among its 8.2 million U.S. members. Many are members within the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, but native United Methodist ministries can be found from the tip of Florida to Alaska.

The plan is guided by a 19-member task force that held its semiannual meeting Feb. 11-13 at the temporary site of the United Methodist Native American Gathering in Tempe. There, the task force witnessed the work the fellowship is doing.

"The main reason we met near the church was to come and support this ministry and to meet some of the people and offer our support," Saunkeah said.

The plan awarded the ministry a $25,000 grant two years ago to help it get started, she said. The funds came from the plan’s congregational development committee, which helps new church starts. In February 2004, the plan awarded $159,000 in grants to 11 programs for the year.

Many native ministries begin as cottage ministries and small groups, led by a layperson and sometimes taking the form of a ministry of presence or fellowship, Saunkeah said.

Phoenix and the surrounding area are home to several Native American tribes as well as a growing number of Native Americans who have moved there for employment. Native American laypeople organized the fellowship in response, said the Rev. David Wilson, plan chairperson and superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

The fellowship meets on the campus of Cook Theological School, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church USA. The Rev. Larry Norris, a United Methodist clergyman, is the interim pastor and also serves as vice president of Cook.

The congregation holds weekly church services and Bible studies, and it has an active youth and children’s group, said Betty Westin, a member of the Creek tribe, founding member of the fellowship and certified lay speaker. The fellowship averages about 25 people from the Phoenix area.

"Our goal is to become a church someday," Westin said. "That’s what we are working towards, but it will take more people to get it done."

Receiving funding from the plan has helped, she said. "It helped us to get started, and it also gave us encouragement and support. The plan has been very, very helpful by providing resources and training opportunities for the fellowship.

"The lay persons at the church continue to be very excited about their progress, and they were excited to have us come and have a meal with them and to enjoy their presentation," she said. "And our members were excited and pleased with what we saw."

"I appreciated the persistence and commitment of the current leaders in getting the word of God out to native people in the Phoenix area," said Carla Sineway of Grand Rapids, Mich., a Chippewa and member of the plan’s congregational development committee.

"The young people at the church ensure that the ministry will continue to grow," she said.

The 2004 General Conference continued the Native American Comprehensive Plan with $1.1 million in funding for 2005-2008. The money will support efforts to:

  1. strengthen existing native congregations, ministries and fellowships, and develop new ones;
  2. provide native leadership development training; and
  3. strengthen contributions of native leaders, congregations and fellowships to the denomination.

The plan also is focusing on increasing the involvement of youth and young adults in church life during 2005-2008.

The plan’s coordinating group comprises Native American representatives from the church’s five U.S. jurisdictions, Alaska Missionary Conference, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Native American International Caucus and National United Methodist Native American Center. It also includes a youth and a young adult.

In other business, plan members focused on projects for 2005-2008. Three events are planned for 2005 and 2006, aimed at preparing people for Native American ministry in the annual conference.

Regional events begin this fall to train committees on Native American ministries in the annual conferences. The first event will be Oct. 14-15, at a location to be announced.

Native American representatives to churchwide boards and agencies will meet July 8-10, to discuss their role in advocating for Native American ministries.

A Native American Lay Speaking School will be Feb. 17-19, 2006, at Scarritt-Bennett in Nashville, Tenn. The event is for Native American of all ages interested in becoming local or certified lay speakers, according to Saunkeah. The presenters are all Native Americans, and a special emphasis is placed on Native American culture.

Other events include a gathering of youth and elders and a gathering of clergy and lay Native American women.

The plan’s officers for 2005-2008 are the Rev. David Wilson, Oklahoma City, Choctaw, chairperson; Daphine Strickland, Jamestown, N.C., Lumbee/Tuscarora, vice chairperson; and Diana Fitzpatrick, Norman, Okla., Ponca/Chickasaw, secretary.

The Native American Comprehensive Plan receives donations as an Advance special (#982615) of the United Methodist Church.

This story was adapted from a press release by the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and chairperson of the Native American Comprehensive Plan.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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