"Once you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance and take it over and settle down, you are to take some of all the first fruits of what you grow in the land that God, your God, is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place God, your God, sets apart for you to worship Him." (Deuteronomy 26:1-2, The Message)
By BISHOP ROBERT HAYES Jr.
Throughout the month of March, I have been visiting our United Methodist churches in far northwest Oklahoma, including those in the area commonly known as the Panhandle. I am surprised to learn many Oklahomans have never explored that part of our great state. You owe it to yourself to become better acquainted with this intriguing region.
History recounts the establishment of the Panhandle as part of Oklahoma Territory. In 1854, Kansas set its southern boundary at the 37th parallel; Texas found itself unable to advance northward because of the Missouri Compromise.
That left a narrow parcel of land — 167 miles long and only 34.5 miles wide — unclaimed by any state or territory.
Thus it was named No Man’s Land. It was crisscrossed by nomadic Plains Indians and cattle trail drives.
In the mid-1880s, drought caused people to leave their farmlands in western Kansas, and those settlers drifted south to this rugged sliver of the Plains. The area became part of Oklahoma Territory with the Organic Act of 1890.*
Methodists long have been part of this region’s history.
In February 1888, Mary Westmoreland Hitch and her sister petitioned the Methodist Mission Board in Kansas to send a preacher to Coldwater Creek, near what eventually became Guymon, Okla.
In her letter, Mary wrote, "We keenly feel the need of a spiritual shepherd and counselor, and even though we are 140 miles from the nearest railroad, our home will be the preacher’s home."
Such was the tenacity of the people called Methodists 125 years ago. Their persistence in ministry remains alive and well today.
What has impressed me most as I’ve traveled this month is an undeniable truth: Our brothers and sisters in northwest Oklahoma possess an unshakable faith, deeply rooted in their love of God. They are strong and spirit-filled, trustworthy and courageous.
They have renewed my faith and revitalized my spirit!
Even in that once-overlooked place called No Man’s Land, I have found people of God holding on to the faith and traditions given to them by their grandparents and parents. In tiny towns and rural whistlestops, surrounded by homesteads and farmlands, they praise God in beautiful houses of worship that were fashioned and built by their hands.
In my March visits to Woodward, Mooreland, Alva, Boise City, Kenton, Gate, Forgan, Beaver, and Fairview, I have discovered the harvest continues for Christ, sprouting from seeds of faith planted in 1889 by Rev. E.F. Reser — the first circuit-riding preacher who volunteered for this mission field, in response to Mary Hitch’s letter.
These trips echo my earlier visits to Catesby, Gage, Hardesty, Hooker, Laverne, Lenora, Seiling, Shattuck, Tyrone, and Vici.
I have experienced the blessing of tremendous hospitality. I saw genuine Christian love on faces, felt it in handshakes and hugs, heard the sincerity in the prayers and songs of the people called United Methodists!
And one spiritual practice I have witnessed in some rural congregations has moved me to tears.
Following the wheat harvest, church members bring bags of processed grain to the altar to be blessed.
It doesn’t matter if the harvest was plentiful or scarce. The farmers bring the firstfruits of their fields, and the pastor presents what is received as an offering to God.
Following the service, that wheat is used throughout the year to bake the bread for Holy Communion!
These United Methodists truly practice giving God the best of themselves and all they have. Now I know the secret to survival of the Christian witness in far northwest Oklahoma!
The unknown regions of the world in the late 1300s were represented on maps with mere words, such as "Demons be here!" and "Dragons and fiery scorpions dwell there!" But European mapmaker John Franklin systematically erased those words when he saw such maps, replacing those ominous statements with "Here be God!" and "There dwells God!"
God dwells in far northwest Oklahoma! Even in No Man’s Land, you will find God’s people, carrying forward the work of the ages, strong in the faith and true to the God who led them there.
(* Kenneth R. Turner, "No Man’s Land," Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org ).
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