Choctaw Mission worker starts by listening


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor 

When Diane Wood first met with members of the Mississippi Conference Choctaw Mission, she did something that impressed them — she listened. 

That simple act has helped Wood get off to a good start as a new United Methodist church and community worker in the conference.  

“We held a Wednesday night program, and I was just asking the members to dream,” she said. “I am not saying this is what you need, but how can I empower you to get what you need. I want to teach them how to fish rather than be served fish. A lot of times they have been served fish, and it has been dictated to them that this is what you’re going to have.” 

Lou Ann Staggs, who chairs the conference Parish and Community Ministry committee, was impressed with Wood’s approach.  

“She looked into their eyes and listened to their hopes and dreams,” Staggs said. “She asked if she could help them.” 

Wood began her duties at the Choctaw Mission near Philadelphia in early October. She is the second church and community worker in the conference. Ernestine Varnado works at St. Andrew’s Mission in McComb. 

Wood’s arrival was about 2 years in the making. An application was sent to the General Board of Global Ministries to have a worker assigned to Choctaw Mission. The application process took about year, Staggs said. Then, the board took about a year to find the right person. 

Woods came to Mississippi from Midlothian, Va., near Richmond. She said she wants to serve the entire conference. 

“I think I have a wide variety of skills that can be used within the whole conference,” she said. “I’m very open to going and talking to any group that would want to know about mission work. I’m very open to being a visible person within the conference.”

Wood has trained with Volunteers in Mission and has a background in financial planning. She served her church, Bonair UMC, in a variety of ways. 

Wood’s primary responsibilities include working with the Rev. Charles Batiste and the Native American Ministries committee, chaired by the Rev. Mary Stewart. 

“I am director of projects and programs,” Wood said. “It entails working with the different programs that we will be setting up, including a food pantry and a program for those displaced due to emergencies. 

“I’m also responsible for scheduling mission teams to work at center or in the community. I will coordinate volunteers.”

Wood said the mission has some immediate needs, including renovation of the dorm where many volunteers stay when visiting the mission. The dorm currently has no heat.

Wood listed several programs she’d like to help start.  

“We need to get back on track with youth programs to get them back within the church,” she said. “Great Spirit UMC has a fairly good Wednesday children’s program. Most of their church is actually young people under the age of 12. They need some guidance and help making sure where they are can develop to a better program we can carry to the other churches. We want to be able to expand the program into the Bogue Chitto community, but they need some more adults in that program to be able to expand and keep going.” 

Wood said the folks she’s met have also expressed a desire for more Bible study. She said biblical knowledge among the Choctaws is low. 

“I think they’re at the point where they are going to question what is being said, which is wonderful,” she said. “As you question you learn. They need to know how to find the answers. That’s part of teaching them to fish. I don’t know all the answers, but let’s go look.” 

Wood said the transition from an urban to rural area and working with people of a different culture has gone well. 

“I love the area, the people and what they have to offer,” she said. “The Choctaw people have opened their hearts and homes to me. I feel accepted. To me that is a gift.  

“I have talked with other church and community workers who have been with Native American tribes, and they said it took three or four years before they were truly accepted. I’ve finding acceptance right now.” 

Staggs said the acceptance comes from Wood’s personality.  

“When Diane got there and first met Charles (Batiste), they had an instant rapport,” Staggs said. “She has a calm manner. She stepped onto the site and loved them immediately.”