Volume 5 Number 2
by Andrea Rodgers
“It was great to be a part of an Indian reservation for a year and to learn to live in a small town,” says Gavin Van Horn, 25, an M.Div. senior who lived among the Osage tribe as part of his internship last year at the Hominy Friends Meeting in Hominy, Oklahoma. The town is located in Osage County, which defines the reservation. Van Horn lived in a small cabin owned by a tribe member that was just across the street from the roundhouse once used for ceremonial dancing.
Having spent his first Princeton Seminary field education experience as a chaplain in Glacier National Park in Montana, Van Horn, who loves the outdoors, wanted to work with Native Americans. “I had this romanticized picture of the Osage—their intimate contact with the earth, naturally feeling the give and the take of nature,” says the Oklahoma native who grew up in the city of Edmond.
A friend put him in touch with a Quaker member of the tribe, a community college teacher committed to the youth of her tribe. Her church had had an intern once before. The small congregation of twenty-five composed solely of Osage Indians—and those either under twenty-one or over sixty—holds weekly meetings for worship complete with hymns and a sermon by their pastor, David Nagle.
As the intern with responsibility for youth development, Van Horn’s role was to nurture the faith and the future of the congregation’s youth. Not an easy task. The congregation had no post-high-school-age leaders to serve as mentors for the youth. So Van Horn worked primarily with ten teens and some younger children. “The reality is, the Osage kids are like all other teens,” he explains. “Pop music and contemporary American youth culture are a big part of their lives. Indian kids do not romanticize their own heritage and traditional lifestyle.”
According to Van Horn, who identifies himself as nondenominational, the challenges of serving as a youth pastor on a reservation are similar to those of serving an inner-city youth ministry. “Youth in both contexts evidence lack of respect for elders and low motivation in school. And high alcoholism and divorce rates and absent fathers contribute to the hopelessness and suppressed anger among young people. On the other hand, strong extended family ties provide a support system on the reservation.
“Among the Osage, believing in God is a given. God is called Wakonta, the Great Mystery. Faith is expressed very widely,” explains Van Horn, who majored in religion at Pepperdine University before coming to PTS.
His first challenge was finding ways to elicit response from the kids, who initially met his attempts with silence. It took a while to earn their trust. He tried writing and directing a Christmas play. “I wrote a play that I thought the kids would want to be involved in, instead of having to be goaded into a few miserable practices for their parents’ sake.”
Not all went as planned.
A highlight for Van Horn and for the kids was a trip to Quivering Arrow, a Quaker camp. “It was a powerful experience,” he says. “We worshipped with other Indian youth groups. We sang contemporary praise songs; the kids shared. It was emotional, tears of repentance flowed. Lots of hurt and pain was expressed as well as faith.”
One of Van Horn’s goals was to start a local chapter of United Native Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) at Hominy. UNITY is a national network that promotes personal development, citizenship, and leadership among Native American youth. Its goal is to combat wasted talent and negative peer pressure among Native American young people. “It connects Indian kids to their heritage and involves them in positive community activities,” Van Horn says. The church now sponsors the chapter in Hominy.
Van Horn also led a weekly Wednesday night “Bible reading” group for older adults. “Every reading was followed with prayer and song, as well as a potluck meal,” he says. “I appreciated the mistakes in pronunciation, the off-key songs, the concerns for health and for relatives that were expressed. The meal was always a mystery. It could be smoked ribs and corn soup; it could be bologna sandwiches and ginger ale. But no one ever went away hungry.”
Having lived with the Osage people, Van Horn is not so sure he wants to head for a Ph.D., his pre-internship goal, immediately. “I want to get dirty, do service for awhile, and consider other options. Religion applies the most outside of the classroom; that’s where it gets to the heart of who I am.”
Andrea Rodgers, PTS Class of 1997, is a member of Philadelphia Presbytery and serves as a parish associate at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
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