Oklahoma churches have plenty of experience ministering to survivors of tornadoes - and now they are responding to fires.
Since Nov. 1, wildfires sweeping across Oklahoma have charred more than 360,000 acres - that's about 500 square miles. They have destroyed at least 220 homes and businesses and heavily damaged 600 other structures, according to the state's Emergency Management Department. Up to now, fires have contributed to the deaths of at least two Oklahomans.
With unseasonably high temperatures, gusting winds, low humidity, and no rain expected until mid-January, fire danger is still extremely high in Oklahoma.
In the 28 counties heavily stricken by fires, churches are working closely with the American Red Cross and other private and public, community and national response caregivers.
How are churches responding? A good example is in Seminole, a town of 7,000 that's about 60 miles east of Oklahoma City.
Fires started leaping through Seminole County on Tuesday, Dec. 27, and kept flaring up three straight days, destroying at least 50 homes, six businesses, one church and numerous barns. Along U.S. Highway 270, there's a trail of blackened fields from the edge of Seminole to the edge of Wewoka, ten miles away.
It was nearly 5 o'clock that Tuesday afternoon when an older model sedan pulled in to Interfaith Social Ministries, an emergency services agency sponsored by Seminole churches.
"In a few minutes, a man got out of the car and came in," recalled Joanne Baxter, who was volunteering at the ministry that afternoon. "He stood there a couple of minutes with this far away look in his eyes, like he was in a daze. Then he said, 'My house just burned down, and I don't know what to do.' "
Baxter said she had known wildfires were flaring up in the area, but she had not realized how serious they were. "The man said it again. 'My house just burned. It happened so fast.' Then he said, 'I have four little children out in the car. My mother is out there with them and she's on oxygen. I don't know what to do. I don't have money to feed my children, and I don't have a place for us to spend the night.' "
Baxter told the man how sorry she was and assured him that he did not have to face this disaster alone. She encouraged him to have a seat while she and another volunteer filled a box with food that didn't have to be cooked. Then she called her pastor, the Rev. Gary Wilburn of First United Methodist Church, who works closely with the interfaith ministry. Rev. Wilburn quickly made arrangements for the man and his family to stay in a local hotel.
Since that afternoon, Interfaith Social Ministries has provided food and other assistance to 23 other families whose homes were destroyed. People are still coming in every day for help, says Don Gill, one of the four men who organized the interfaith ministry back in the 1980s.
The Seminole ministerial alliance, led by the Rev. Tommy Clark, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, began coordinating response efforts.
The alliance first focused on what people affected by the fire needed, then checked to see what help was already available for them.
"Our local churches already had some ministries in place," said Clark. The Interfaith Social Ministries was providing groceries, the Church of Christ was offering clothes through its closet, and First Baptist was giving parents essentials for infants and toddlers. The Southern Baptist disaster team was on the way from Oklahoma City to provide hot meals for people who were homeless and for firefighters.
Clark says after the ministerial alliance determined what help was already available, the alliance focused on unmet needs and started exploring ways to meet them. One way the alliance is helping is by giving gift cards for items that are not available through other sources.
Clark says Father Basil Keenan, priest of the Immaculate Conception Church and treasurer of the ministerial alliance, has helped lead the ecumenical alliance's response to the disaster.
Churches in Seminole are working closely with other community, state, and national aid agencies, Wilburn pointed out.
"Even though our church financial resources are limited, we are a vital part of the disaster response team," he said.
"When fires or other disasters strike, nobody has to wait for assistance until the churches get to town because we are already here and have a support system in place for everyone, not just our members. While the fires were still raging, our churches were already giving food, clothing, and housing. And after the relief agencies have helped all they can and have gone to help with other disasters, our churches will still be here - demonstrating God's love with generous acts of kindness."
He pointed out that churches are also providing what they are uniquely gifted to provide.
"Our people have not only suffered devastating financial losses, they have been hurt emotionally and spiritually. No quick fix can give them closure. They need the comfort and hope that God gives."
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