Tracy Hernandez, 22, a recent graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University, kicked off her first job out of college Sept. 17 by helping Pastor Salaw Hummingbird launch a new hands-on and fully loaded church youth program.
“We’ve added Tracy to strengthen the church. The goal is to have community members and kids even from off the rez come here not only for church but for activities that bring them to a better way of living,” Hummingbird said.
Hernandez, of the Cherokee Nation, arrived in Big Cypress in early September with a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science. She minored in child ministry and was a member of Fairfield Baptist Church in tiny Stilwell, Oklahoma where the population of about 4,000 is 47 percent Native American.
The town, known as the Strawberry Capital of the World, is 23 miles east of Tahlequah.
Hummingbird said Hernandez’s full-time, paid position fills a role historically held by devoted church members who gave their own time. Josh and Andrea Jumper and Alfonso and Shelli Tigertail were the most recent volunteer youth program leaders.
Hernandez’s mission includes daily availability to adults and children. She hopes to become involved in the community beyond the church walls, at school and recreation events, wherever she is needed and welcomed.
“That’s the dream,” she said.
For now, Hernandez leads the new 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday happening that is fashioned like a 12-week vacation Bible school (VBS) program. Kids get plenty of prayer and praise sprinkled with hearty helpings of fellowship and dinner.
“Everyone likes VBS so why not do it that way,” Hummingbird said.
About 50 children and adults turned out on a recent Wednesday for the second week of activities that focused on 2 Timothy 4:2 – “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
The Jumpers, Tigertails and Brenda Hummingbird led individual children’s groups, while Jonah Cypress led a class of adults and seniors.
A different biblical verse is featured weekly. Children are divided into four groups that revolve around stations where the verse is reinforced through arts and crafts, sports activities, Bible study and charitable giving. Cypress leads the adults in Bible study in Mikasuki. Hummingbird sounds the church bell to keep everyone on schedule.
Joey Puente, a sixth-grader at Ahfachkee School, said he likes arts and crafts best.
“It’s like going to church and learning about God, but not like I ever did before,” Joey said. “I like it better this way.”
Alfonso Tigertail called the Wednesday night youth program a “good time to hear God’s word.” He hopes more children will join in the fun and learning.
Hernandez, who had served on three mission trips and taught Sunday school for college students before moving to Big Cypress, said her young age coupled with being Native American is a benefit to the church.
“It’s not long ago that I was a member of a youth group. I’ve experienced programs firsthand and can relate to being young, Christian and Native American. That helps kids open up to me,” she said.
For now, she is simply walking where her faith leads.
“I am taking God’s plan day by day,” Hernandez said.