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American Indians in South Dakota gather for mission meeting

By David Montgomery
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) August 2010

Sidney Byrd remembers traveling as a child with his missionary parents to camp meetings at American Indian churches.

“We didn’t have electricity, so in the old days we had a camp crier,” said Byrd, 91. “All our camp groups would have morning devotions. Our voices lifted up and mingled with the smoke from the campfires and the aroma of food being prepared. It was something.”

These days, worshippers stay in hotels instead of tents, use speakers instead of a crier and have catered meals instead of everyone cooking their own food.

But after 138 years, American Indians still gather every summer under the open sky to meet old friends, sing Dakota hymns and worship God.

“If a guy really looks at it, it’s the same – you put up a tent. We come. We sing. We pray,” said Hampton Andrews, 76, the pastor of a church near Bonesteel.

This year, those songs and prayers came to Pierre, to the old Oahe Chapel originally founded by Thomas Riggs.

 
It was the fifth time in the 138-year history of the annual Ptaya Owoglake, or annual mission meeting for United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Christians, that the Oahe Chapel has hosted the gathering – and the first since the chapel was moved from its old home in the Missouri bottomlands to the rising Lake Oahe.

Participants in the mission meeting said they revel in the outdoor setting for four days of worship.

“We can spread our wings and receive the full spirit of God’s blessing,” said Peter Emig, pastor of a church in Chambersburg, Penn., who has been coming to the Great Plains for mission meetings since 1979.

“We see it in the people who come here. They look forward to this moment, to this time – as do I. The outdoor setting contributes to that spirit.”

The mission meeting began with a song service and a sermon. It continued all day on the next two days with worship, songs, Bible study, workshops and business meetings filling the day. It concluded Sunday morning with church, baptism and Communion.

Rev. Norman Blue Coat, pastor at three reservation churches, said he enjoys the change of pace that comes with a larger group of worshippers than his regular congregation.

“It’s different than having services in our community,” Blue Coat said. “It’s more interesting hearing somebody else preaching and singing.”

Around 100 people attended this year’s mission meeting, a considerably smaller crowd than the 600 or more people who attended events in the distant past.

“Once in awhile, you hear the older people say that mission meeting is dying,” Andrews said. “No. It isn’t mission meeting, it’s us. I keep saying that we’ve got to work harder with our membership at home to get them here, so we’ll have a big crowd here.”

The declining numbers are a reflection of similar situations in tribal churches, Andrews said.

But he was heartened by notable numbers of children attending this year’s meeting, where they formed an impromptu children’s choir and practiced archery.

“If it’s going to be anybody that can carry this on, it’s going to be the youth,” Andrews said. “We’re really pushing to have the youth join in and start learning our ways.”




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