June 7, 2013

Local VBS brings kids together

Jessica Lane, Staff Writer,
The Express-Star

CHICKASHA — Children with painted faces, some holding animal balloons or a paper tray of snacks, file into pews in the chapel at the Fellowship of the American Indian Church. They have just finished gluing craft jewels onto flip flops.

A volunteer missionary leads them into song about a "big, big house with lots and lots of room," and a "big, big table with lots and lots of food." The kids pantomime the words along with the volunteers. Their smiles are optimistic.

Earlier in the day, they shot baskets, drew with chalk and ate sandwiches under a large pavilion behind the church.

The pavilion was built by a group of 15 missionaries, under the direction of Pastor James Collins, of Ely Baptist Church in Kennett, Missouri.

Collins brings anywhere from 13 to 34 volunteer missionaries to the vacation Bible school every summer.

"These volunteers," Collins said, "are people with real jobs who take time off from work every summer to volunteer."

The volunteers help by putting activities and bible studies together for the kids. This year, the kids did foam frame crafts, enjoyed balloon animals, face painting and decorated flip flops with craft jewels. Collin's wife, Charlotte, cooks and feeds all the missionaries, children and staff.

Elizabeth Weaver, from Holcomb, Missouri, is a junior in college studying early childhood education. This is not her first year to volunteer. She started as a freshman in high school.

Weaver said that she and the other volunteers feel rewarded by what they do and that she particularly likes coming back to the Fellowship of the American Indian Church.

"If you give them a smile, that's really all they want," she said.

The church serves as a kind of training grounds for the missionaries, Collins said. After getting their training at the Fellowship of the American Indian Church, missionaries have gone on to other states and as far as Romania.

"This gives them a feel of what it's like," he said. For most, sleeping on an air mattress in a building from the early 1900s is a different experience from what the volunteer missionaries may be used to, he said. Taking a shower involves a trip to the YMCA, who Collins said have been generous enough to let the volunteers use their showers.

Tewanna, who goes by Te, Edwards said that the volunteers are the reason the church can provide the service to so many children every summer.

"Otherwise we wouldn't have a vacation Bible school," she said.

Te and her husband John Edwards began their mission in1995, which has now grown to be the Fellowship of the American Indian Feeding Program. Currently, the feeding program feeds the hungry every Wednesday and Sunday. The church serves regular meals, sack lunches, snacks and food that the needy can take home.

Te said that her mother was her inspiration to feed the hungry. When she was growing up, impoverished train travelers knew to go to her mother's house from carvings on a pole by the train.

Tewanna recalls the disadvantaged visitors.

"They were always so polite and so thankful."

Tewanna's mother taught her daughter, "Whatever you do in life, you feed people."

John grew up in a Native American boarding school. He said that is where he developed his awareness for the needs of these children.

John said that he had a vision that God wanted him to preach, and while there would be opposition, this was his calling in life.

Their church was once a vacant Methodist Church. The church, having been vacant for some time, needed a little love. Even so, the Edwards were glad to have the building.

"We were happy and elated," Tewanna said.

However, the Edwards thought they might be in a little over their heads when they were cleaning out the flooded downstairs portion of the church.

The Edwards began their feeding program out of their own pockets. But while it was one thing to take 20 children out for pizza, as their congregation grew, it became more expensive.

The Edwards sought advice from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, who suggested that the couple write a proposal.

Tewanna said that she was nervous about writing a proposal because it wasn't something she'd ever done before. However, they say that they have since received continuous support.

The cost, however, isn't the only difficult aspect. The Edwards said that some of the children who receive help from them get very mixed messages between their homes and the church. This has caused some parents to yank their children out of the church. The Edwards said they have also heard some very heartbreaking stories, children who miss their fathers in prison or mothers who have to do anything to survive.

The Edwards say that they want better for these children, and try to give them things other children might take for granted.

Sometimes these gifts come to them. For example, Christmas comes all the way from Anniston, Alabama.

A man by the name of Buck Brown, of Leatherwood Baptist Church, a church in Alabama, called John one day and said that he had a vision that involved helping him. For the past 17 years, the mission from Leatherwood has sent Christmas gifts for the children in the feeding program.

"They send really nice, new toys," John said.

Both Tewanna and John Edwards have educational backgrounds that reflect their passion. Tewanna got her masters in Christian Counseling at American Biblical College and John earned his doctorate in Educational Administration at Arizona State University. John said that a lot of people have been surprised that he came from a Native American boarding school and went on to earn his doctorate.

It would seem that even down to their names, the Edwards have been destined to help others.

John's American Indian name is "Niknikpapa" which means "leader" in absentee Shawnee. Tewanna's American Indian name is "Gogohee" which means "moon/grandmother" The moon, John explained, is important in American Indian culture because it is the "fertilizer of all growth." He added that when he gardens, he always does so under the full moon.

"And it works," he said.

The Edwards have also planted a seed in their grandchildren. Tewanna said that once she and her family had gone to a fast food place for lunch. Tewanna saw a man who looked like he was in need.

"I just couldn't eat that sandwich after that," she said. Tewanna gave her sandwich to the man. Her granddaughter, Polly Ann Anderson Edwards, witnessed this.

It must have taken root, because some time later, Tewanna said that Polly and her friend Anaya started taking food and water to a dog that had been left tied up outside. The dog's owners did not appear to be home. The two did this every day until the owners came home and the dog was no longer outside.