The group composed the North Alabama United Methodist Native American Task Force Mission Trip to spend a week working on the 35,000-acre Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi in 2011.

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PHILADELPHIA, Mississippi — “When she got off the school bus and saw the light bulb burning in the living room she started to dance around in happiness,” said April Martinez, the mother of six said.

That story of electrified joy is only one of the gifts brought back to North Alabama by 40 United Methodist volunteers from several North Alabama congregations. The group composed the North Alabama United Methodist Native American Task Force Mission Trip to spend a week working on the 35,000-acre Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi last month.

More than a year ago in Martinez’ home, an outlet had blown out, sending sparks and a black trail up the wall. Martinez had tried to reset the breaker, to no avail. Then other electrical shorts put the house in darkness. Since then, this family made do by carrying a lamp from room to room for light. Volunteers from Huntsville were able to fix it.

Logistics: The reservation’s extent includes eight communities interlaced with privately owned land. Most of the mission team stayed in the dorms of the Choctaw Methodist Mission Center, which is near the heart of the Choctaw Reservation Administrative Center just north of Philadelphia, Miss.

Lessons: The Methodist volunteers learned many things during their trip, including: “Halito,” Choctaw for “hello,” the difficulty of playing stickball, and the prejudice against the Indians that led to their isolation for so many years.

The Rev. John Walter, the Mission’s director, asked us to make the Choctaw people the subject of team members’ private study, including of their history and culture. We toured the reservation, the tribe’s museum, and the ancient ceremonial mounds. Several of the tribal elders shared Choctaw stories and their hopes for the future.

Choctaw: The Choctaw tribe includes 9,600 Indians. It is the only Federally recognized tribe in Mississippi. It consists of the Indians who refused to walk the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. The tribe has made great progress in the past 40 years to lower unemployment and infant mortality rates.

Since 1995, the tribe has gone into the hospitality recreation business by building a large lake, hotels, casino, and water park. These businesses have provided employment, health care, college scholarships, new schools, fire department, justice and law enforcement, and a nursing home to improve the lives of the Choctaw people.

The United Methodist church has three Native American congregations on the reservation. One of the most enjoyable things about the trip was making friends from the different churches and working together.

Team members from: Holmes Street, Saks, Gurley, Goshen, Decatur First, Avondale, Centerpoint, Crosswinds, Cullman First, Monte Sano United Methodist Churches.

Jake Reep.jpgJake Reep, a member of Monte Sano United Methodist Church’s team on a recent North Alabama Methodist mission to the Choctaw Nation, replaces a broken window in one of the homes they helped repair during a weeklong trip in March. (Courtesy of Dale Clem)

Work: Electrical, plumbing, window, sheet rock repairs of homes, including completely painting and remodeling a vacant home for a family with five children. Volunteers also repaired and remodeled the Mission Center to create a Community Meeting Room.

The Decatur First United Methodist team led the effort to cook, not only for the Mission Team but also for the Choctaw families who came each night for games, crafts, singing and a Bible lesson.

Next Trip: North Alabama Methodist congregations are organizing a trip July 10-15, when the Holmes Street and Monte Sano UMC will take adults and youth. The cost is $150 per person and interested persons may contact the Monte Sano UMC at:

Related information: Gina Williamson, chief of the United Cherokee Tribe, is featured speaker Tuesday, at One Huntsville, a monthly supper gathering of people interested in interfaith and intercultural understanding. Members of Monte Sano will also give a report of this trip at that meeting. Conversation begins at 5 p.m. Meeting begins at 5:45 p.m. at Tin Tin Restaurant on University just east of Memorial Parkway. Visitors welcome.