Balancing faith and culture is at the heart of youth ministry for Jason and Lynnetta Eyachabbe. The married couple, life-long United Methodists, grew up attending youth events in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC). Today they work to provide a safe community for Native youth in the regional conference that spans Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
"We want to celebrate what God gave us as Native people," said Jason, OIMC youth leader from the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes. "We try to incorporate traditional games, stickball, social dances and arts such as basket weaving to help kids connect with each other and their traditions."
"I am fortunate that my parents allowed me to participate in both church and traditional ways," said Lynnetta, OIMC Central Region coordinator for the Muscogee (Creek) and Yuchi tribes. "Whether we are at church or participating in traditional ceremonies, we don't feel like we're worshiping anything other than Jesus."
The goal of the couple, married 18 years, is to help Native young people have a strong sense of identity and camaraderie. Nearly a dozen tribes are represented among the 30 or more youth who participate in conference events. Regionally, the youth meet the second Saturday of each month.
"We want our youth to be themselves, to share things that they may not feel comfortable sharing anywhere else," said Lynnetta.
"Often, our Native kids are having to grow up way too fast," said Jason. "Many of the young people are being raised by their grandparents. Across our Native communities, we face issues of addiction, domestic violence and extreme suicide rates."
Between 2004 and 2008, Native American youth age 10-24 committed suicide at a 78 percent higher rate than their non-Native American peers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. In 2016, a series of suicides in the small southwest Oklahoma town of Anadarko deeply impacted youth in OIMC's Central region. "None of them were our kids, but our kids knew them or their families. We were able to provide a place for them to come and talk," said Lynnetta.
The Eyachabbes enlist pastors to attend youth events, assist with counseling and help identify young people interested in ordained ministry.
"Jason and Lynnetta do a great job of mentoring and providing guidance and support for youth," said the Rev. David Wilson, OIMC conference superintendent. "We need more young persons like them to help lead and guide our youth."
Monthly gatherings start with games to help the youth meet each other. After a devotion, the youth often compete to navigate the Bible and look up scriptures. In the winter they collect donations for a local charity. Conference-wide events include a day at Oklahoma City University, a summer camp and winter/spring retreats.
"We have been excited to see our numbers increase for the summer camp," said Lynnetta. "We want them to act like kids, so we have a lot of goofy fun stuff that they end up loving."
For young people in OIMC, the adage "It Takes a Village" could not be more relevant, said Jason. He and Lynnetta hope their leadership and contributions will make a difference. "If we come together as a community, as a people in Christ, we can accomplish more for our youth and young adults and help them be a part of something greater than themselves."
The Eyachabbes encourage the broader United Methodist Church to hold Native pastors and adult leaders in prayer as they continue to work with the young people. They also encourage United Methodists to support efforts dealing with mental health issues within and beyond Native communities.
Ginny Underwood is a freelance writer and owner of Underwood Communications, Yukon, Oklahoma.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, July –August, 2017 .