“As long as there are Comanche children, Indian children, they need to hear the gospel of Jesus.” Ever since Tri-S team leader Ed Breeden heard Reverend Robert ‘Hovarithaka’ Coffey speak these words to the congregation of Brown Indian Church, near Walters, Oklahoma, in 1986, he has had a passion for the Native American people of Oklahoma. Since then, Breeden has traveled to Brown Indian Church at least once every year, leading groups to aid the small church in its efforts to reach their community.
Over the 2015-16 winter break, Breeden led a small group of AU students and staff to finish Brown Indian’s new Sunday school building, a project that impacted both the church and the volunteers who made the project possible.
The building that the TRI-S students finished has been in the works for six years, completed bit by bit by various Tri-S groups. The congregation neither had the funds nor the workforce to complete the project by itself. Many of the church’s leaders and members work multiple jobs to support their families (Reverend Coffey also owns a welding business and acts as the local sheriff), so while the church does its best to reach out to their neighbors, projects like a Sunday school building have been beyond their scope of time and money.
The building, standing since 1929, had previously been used for storage and was showing signs of age and heavy use. After contemplating whether to tear it down or repurpose it, the church decided to reach out and ask for help in turning the 24-by-24 foot building into what is now known as the “Anderson House of Higher Learning.”
The student volunteers painted, drilled, sawed and more to complete the transformation to a clean, simple multipurpose room the church can be proud of. Breeden is pleased not only with the room itself but also with the efforts of the church, university students and other volunteers to make it all possible.
Breeden stresses the importance of letting the church be autonomous and head up its own projects, even if they still need to reach out for help. “It was vital that this idea came from within the church family and not one put upon by myself or the university.” He does not want the relationship between the church and AU to be one of “white people telling them what they should do,” but rather one of support as the church makes decisions for itself.
A project requiring so much manual labor is not without its challenges, some of them stemming simply from inexperience. Senior Hannah Stanford admits that “a big challenge was learning how to use various power tools,” but ultimately what made the trip worthwhile was “meeting and getting to know the sweet people of the church we served and being welcomed into their community.”
When they weren’t working on the building, students spent time hiking the hills of Oklahoma and visiting church families. It was this last part of the trip that drew Stanford to the trip in the first place. “I wanted exposure to a culture different from my own. I think I have grown in my understanding of others.”
For several of the students, one of the biggest lessons they learned on the trip was the importance of looking beyond themselves, not simply in “stepping in someone else’s shoes,” but also in looking beyond their own limited visions and abilities.
Senior Hannah Vining remarked that the scope of the project, the fact that no single group did all the work, was especially moving. “I think the greatest piece of learning was that we do a lot of work for the Kingdom of God that we will never see the fruit of, but that doesn’t mean your work is not honored!”
Vining had never been to Oklahoma but was interested in being a part of ministry to Native Americans. She was profoundly affected by the dedication ceremony that took place once the remodeling was finished. “I have never seen people so thankful and joyous over something like this and it was extremely humbling. I don’t think I could ever forget how it felt to be with those people, our Comanche brothers and sisters.”
Breeden hopes that, though the building is finished, it will not be the end of the connection between AU and the Comanche church and that students will continue to be able to serve the church and empower it to reach out to the tribes around it. “Pray the Lord will plant seeds into these children and adults and that those words will be planted in good soil, giving them direction to follow the Jesus Road.”