Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference celebrates 40 years of voting rights
The 2016 General Conference marks the 40th anniversary of members of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference being granted voting rights in the top legislative assembly of The United Methodist Church.
Although recognized as a conference by the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) delegates received voice but no vote. Additonally, elders and deacons ordained in the conference could only serve within that conference.
In a June 11, 1972 letter to Bishop O. Eugene Slater, president of the Council of Bishops, Herbert Murdaugh of Tennessee strongly criticized the General Conference’s action.
“The question I want to ask is why you did not give these poor down-trodden people a vote?” wrote Murdaugh. “Even the ground General Conference was held on was on their ground – taken from them by slaughter and conquest.”
During the 1976 General Conference, which also met in Portland, Oregon, the OIMC delegates were granted voting rights and the limited ordination for OIMC clergy was also lifted.
The OIMC shares a bishop with the Oklahoma Annual Conference. Bishop Robert Hayes, who has overseen the two conferences for 12 years, says it has been challenging to educate people of the need for repentance towards Native Americans.
“One of the first challenges that I faced is the lack of knowledge that people have about Native Americans, even in Oklahoma,” Hayes said. “The challenge was getting people aware of the fact that (Native Americans) were there, that they are United Methodists.”
Hayes attributes the creation of the Oklahoma Conference to Native Americans who were forced into Oklahoma territory from tribal lands. “Every year when I stand up in front of the Oklahoma Conference,” he said, “I make sure they know that Methodism was brought by Native Americans to Oklahoma.”
Transitioning from being a mission to a missionary conference was not a simple process. Native people had first to be accepted as members of The United Methodist Church and not as objects of mission work.
The Rev. Thomas Roughface, inaugural OIMC superintendent, wrote in a November 1973 article for the Indian Mission Advocate that Native Americans “no longer (want) to be a target of the missionary program, but part of the program.”
The Rev. David Wilson, current superintendent, is proud the conference overcame the obstacles.
“It was a struggle.” Wilson said. “There were some in the general church who only saw Native persons as not capable of leading ourselves and caring for our own people. Even the leadership at the ’72 General Conference did not want this to happen. Several good friends and supporters helped OIMC leadership make this happen and it passed at the last session of the conference. “
The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference will be celebrated during a dinner for Native American conference participants at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 18. The dinner will be hosted at the Hotel Eastlund, 1021 NE Grand Ave., Portland, Oregon.
Watson is staffing the Native American desk for United Methodist News Service at General Conference 2016. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.