Today we drove to Oaks, Oklahoma to visit Ebenezer Lutheran Church and the Oaks Indian Mission. Two parishioners volunteered to ride with me as we delivered money designated for the refurbishing of Ebenezer's parsonage. Our synod has been encouraging gifts for this project in order to prepare the congregation to call and house a new pastor. I figured it would be great to "pay it forward" by taking a collection at my installation that would help another neighboring congregation call their pastor.
history. The short version: it was begun as a Moravian mission with the Cherokee nation in Georgia (1801), travelled to Arkansas on the trail of tears, deepened Moravian missions in Oaks, and then became a Lutheran ministry when Danish Lutherans picked it up in 1902. It has remained a Lutheran ministry with Moravian roots ever since.
Today, the mission and church are separate but interlinked. The congregation has about 40 members, plus the approximately 30-40 children from the mission who attend worship. Oaks Indian Mission houses these children in four houses with house parents. In addition to the house parent, the mission also employs an executive director, a development director, and some other kitchen and secretarial staff. Most of the children are homeless, orphaned, neglected, or need to be placed in a residential facility because they lack a secure environment. Not all children at the mission are Indian, although most are.
Travis, our tour guide, estimated that perhaps nine tribes are represented by the children currently at the mission. Our visit began with donuts and fruit and coffee with the Ebenezer welcome committee and Travis, one of the house parents. The welcome committee is proud of their church and the history, and our conversation reminded me how wonderful it is (even sacred) to carve out time in busy days to simply go out and visit one another. I was so glad I hand-delivered the check, and brought parishioners along, rather than simply mailing it.
One woman, a lifelong member of the congregation, said something I will never forget. "I love our history, but I don't come to church to worship our history. I come to church to learn to be a Christian. And I don't worship Indian culture. I come to Christian worship AS an Indian." I need to remember to translate this insight into my own historical and cultural identity.
Then we began our tour. We stopped in at a couple of the homes for the year-round residence, as well as the main development office. Visitors are coming and going all year, and I was pleased to learn about the strong connection between many Lutheran churches from Nebraska and this mission. It makes sense given that Oaks is a Danish Lutheran mission. Fun to see so many signatories in the guest book from Blair and Dana College.
We took some time to see the bunk houses, currently being used for Camp Oaks (a Lutheran bible camp that meets at Oaks, although separate from Oaks Indian Mission AND Ebenezer Lutheran--getting confused yet?). We also toured the dining hall, where some of the kids who have remained at the mission for the summer were sorting recent supplies from Walmart. Then finally we stopped at the parsonage. It really is in poor shape and needs a lot of work. Compared to all the other buildings, it was in considerable disrepair. I was glad to know the check from my installation would go some way towards rectifying the situation.
Finally, we thanked Travis for the pleasant and informative tour, piled in my car, and made the drive back across Cherokee reservation to Arkansas and Siloam Springs, and finally back home. Although Oaks is about a one hour drive from Good Shepherd and Fayetteville, I think we are the closest Lutheran church to them. We are, literally, their closest denominational neighbors. It blows me away that the ELCA doesn't have a church in Siloam Springs (I think we'll work on fixing that situation soon!) But it reminded me also that although they're in a different state and an hour away, we need to strengthen and encourage networking between our congregations, because we are neighbors, and are on the same mission together--the mission of God.