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Oklahoma United Methodists respond to wildfires

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The Rev. David Wilson is superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, which is helping families recover from the wildfires.
Jan. 18, 2006

By Holly McCray*

OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS) — The readiness to help has hurdled faith lines in the response to the wildfires crisscrossing Oklahoma.

United Methodists are standing at high alert alongside other faith groups as a drought lengthens and the state’s infamous winds swirl. The response of Oklahoma Annual Conference churches at Davis and Seminole as well as by the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference provides insight into what it means to be good neighbors in a time of danger and extreme need.

The chain of fires has killed two people, destroyed 250 homes and consumed more than 400,000 acres since Dec. 26, and wildfires also have raged in Texas and New Mexico.

Seminole and its surrounding areas were devastated by major wildfires that have been sweeping across the state since Christmas. Interfaith Social Ministries is providing help to the victims. The alliance’s primary partners are Baptist, United Methodist and Catholic.

“Most of the work that’s done here is the community working together,” said Gary Wilburn, pastor of Seminole United Methodist Church. “I went to the pastor of First Baptist and said, ?Do you realize what it would do for the community to see you and me working together?’ We had already started doing that when the fires came.”

After the fires, Lions International donated $7,000 to be distributed as $150 vouchers for clothing, food, or medicine through three local Lions clubs, Wilburn said. Seminole United Methodist Church members also volunteer on the board of the local food bank.

“We have not had a home lost among our church members, but we have had several of our ranchers who lost their pastures and their hay, and one lost some vehicles. Some animals died in the fires or had to be put down,” Wilburn said.

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference’s disaster response program has been helping two families recover after wildfires devastated their lives the day after Christmas, said the Rev. David Wilson, conference superintendent.

The Rev. Kelly Tiger, 69, pastor of Hilltop Indian Presbyterian Church in Wewoka and a well-known personality in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, died after suffering burns sustained when fires broke out near his home in Holdenville. The blazes destroyed the home, and nothing was saved, Wilson said.

Betty Tiger — a cousin of Kelly Tiger’s — lost her home and belongings in the same fire. She is a member of Salt Creek Indian Methodist Church.

“Our conference has been impacted by the wildfires, especially by the loss of the Rev. Kelly Tiger and the loss of two homes by two of our Methodist Church families,” Wilson said. “While Tiger was a Presbyterian minister, he was well-known in the conference, and we are pleased that we can play a role in helping the families get back a sense of normalcy.”

Assistance to the families is also coming from the Muscogee Creek Nation and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. They are working together to rebuild the houses, and construction has already started on both homes, Wilson said. The conference will furnish the homes and help with other needs that the tribes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t cover. Norean Tiger, Kelly Tiger’s wife, is Creek, and Kelly was Creek and Seminole.

“The families lost everything and will be in need of all kinds of items to begin their lives in their new homes,” said Phillis McCarty, director of the conference’s disaster response program. “We want to help them in any way possible.” The disaster response program provided a limited amount of funding immediately after the fires to members to help with immediate needs.

“We are thankful for our disaster response program because it helps serve its purpose in times like these,” Wilson said.

The conference has also been assured assistance from the United Methodist Committee on Relief if needed. It “feel(s) good to see that United Methodist officials so far away respond to our needs before we ask,” Wilson said. “It is great to feel a part of this connection that is the United Methodist Church.”

More work lies ahead for the churches in both the Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Missionary conferences.

“In the sermon Sunday (Jan. 8), I talked about rain,” Wilburn said. “One of the church marquees in town says: Pray for rain. We did pray for rain, honoring the governor’s request, and we did get a little moisture the next day. We are being ever vigilant.”

Wilburn said the faith community expects to be called on to do even more. About 50 families were left destitute.

“The community realizes these 50 families are going to need help for some time, and we have committed to do that until they come up for air,” he said.

In southern Oklahoma, the Rev. Wayne Loftin leads Davis United Methodist Church. Traffic along nearby Interstate 35 has sparked numerous wildfires in the area, where rainfall is 12 inches below normal, he said.

“The community really depends on one another and uses the churches as a hinge point for relief efforts,” Loftin said. “Churches have the facilities and kitchens and all that kind of thing.”

The Davis church recently provided meals for volunteer firefighters. Don Oxford is the church mission coordinator.

“Two times, he smoked brisket and coordinated the food collection for the meal. All of it is taken to the fire department, and the auxiliary handles getting the food to the firefighters,” Loftin explained.

The pastor praised Oxford’s leadership: “One of our goals is to stay ahead of the game, and he’s very good at that. For example, we had 144 health kits ready ahead of Hurricane Katrina.

“We didn’t do anything heroic. We just do whatever we need to do.”

*McCray is director of communications for the Oklahoma Annual Conference. Linda Green of United Methodist News Service contributed to this article.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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