By Bill Sherman

CLAREMORE, Okla. - Age and arthritis have caught up with a group of Indiana volunteers who have been building American Indian churches and parsonages in northeast Oklahoma every summer for 40 years.

This summer was the volunteers' last.

"The group has gotten smaller and older, but we wanted to do one last project," said Mary Price, team leader who has been coming since 1992. "It's breaking my heart, because we want to keep doing it, but we just can't."

The group, members of a number of United Methodist churches in Indiana, recently installed sidewalks, a driveway and guttering and did other jobs at Christ United Methodist Church in Claremore, an Indian congregation.

Known as the Indiana Oklahoma Indian Missions Work Project, they always come for two weeks, from late July into August.

"We're basically on our own," Price said. "We're just an individual group that comes out here."

Built half of UM Indian churches

They have built about half of the United Methodist Indian churches, parsonages and fellowship halls in the Tulsa-Muskogee area, said David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church.

For most of the 40 years it has been coming to Oklahoma, the group averaged about 60 to 80 people.

That number of people enabled them to build an entire church, fellowship hall or parsonage in two weeks.

Among them were electricians, plumbers and other skilled workers.

"We never hired any help," Price said.

They raised money in Indiana to purchase the materials. In recent years, some of the Indian churches have helped with the cost of materials.

The group has dwindled because of age and health issues, Price said. This year 18 people came.

"I'm 65, and I feel like one of the younger ones," she said.

Through the years, group members have paid their own way and used their vacation time for the trip. Now, many are retired.

Sleep in campers, motels, churches

They sleep in campers or motels, or at the churches where they are working.

"It has been one experience after another," Price said. "We've met so many beautiful people. It just seems like God sent us here. You really can't explain it."

Wilbur Eiler, 75, climbed down from a ladder at Christ United Methodist Church, where he was repairing siding, to talk about the project coming to an end.

"I'm sad. I've got leaks behind my eyes," he said, as he dabbed at his eyes. "I can't explain it."

Sharon Dickman said people think they are crazy to use their vacation time to drive to Oklahoma to work.

"We're serving the Lord," she said. "We're just one big happy family. It's a lot of work, but we have a lot of fun. We feel that this is what the Lord's called us to do."

Betty Gordon, 77, who has been coming with her husband, Ike, since 1994, said she loves to do volunteer work.

"We meet a lot of nice people," she said.

Rod Lester, a member of Christ Methodist Church who coordinated with the group, said their work means thousands of dollars to the small congregation.

Two years ago, the group finished the interior of the new parsonage, which had been framed in next to the church before they arrived.

Honored at dinner

Two weeks ago, the volunteers were honored at a dinner and service at the Northeast District Center of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference in Preston.

Superintendent Wilson organized the event.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to the Indiana team," he said. "They have enabled us to be more effective in our ministry to reach Indian people for Christ.

"Many of our people were moved to tears during the service.

"And many of the Indiana people had a hard time talking without being moved to tears, reflecting on how this has gone on for so long, and has now come to an end," he said.

"They were overwhelmed that we were celebrating them."

The evening ended as the group formed a circle for the traditional Creek Indian farewell handshake.

Bill Sherman serves as a religion writer for the Tulsa World in Tulsa, Okla. This story was reprinted with permission from the Tulsa World c 2007. All rights reserved.