This is the Panhandle
"This isn’t northwest Oklahoma; this is the Panhandle.”
David Player was appointed the pastor at Victory Guymon after serving in southwest Oklahoma for more than a decade. When he remarked to a member of the congregation that it was interesting to move from the southwest corner to the northwest corner, his terminology was quickly corrected. Player has not made the same mistake again.
The Oklahoma Panhandle is a thin 166-mile strip of land that gives the state its distinctive shape. The small rural towns are filled with big-hearted people who are just as likely to identify with Amarillo, Texas as they are with Oklahoma City.
Like many small-town residents, folks in the Panhandle have a fierce sense of interdependence that is made all the more evident by their geographic isolation. Locals refer to the rest of Oklahoma as downstate and call the Oklahomans who live there “downstaters.” They take life in stride, some joking that the Panhandle is where the meteorologist stands when giving the Oklahoma weather report.
For the most part, people in the Panhandle are confident and unflappable. Underneath the surface, however, concerns for the future of their churches and communities persist.
Ministry in the Panhandle
In many ways, doing ministry in the Panhandle is like doing ministry anywhere else. The pastors make and maintain relationships with church members, area families and community agencies. The United Methodist Women lead fundraisers and cook for special events. Church members build stairs or ramps for neighbors who need the help. Summer comes and goes, Vacation Bible School following in its wake.
If you ask Rex Strain, who serves as the treasurer at Goodwell UMC, the main thing that makes ministry in the Panhandle different is the low population.
“If you’re trying to do ministry in Oklahoma City or even in Guymon, you have more people to draw from, more people to go out and talk to, but here, we’re limited on the number of people that you can reach and draw into the church,” Strain said. “You just have to work harder.”
Diane Murphey, a member of Texhoma UMC, points to advancements in agricultural automation as one of the causes for her town’s declining population. Children who grow up on farms or ranches have no need to stay once they’re grown, so they move away.
“When we were in our 20s and 30s, we called our Sunday School group the young adults,” said Murphey, who has been a member of Texhoma for 57 years. “The problem is 50 years later, we’re still the young adults.”
There are many efforts to reach young people, especially children and youth. In Hooker, the church uses its proximity to the high school to invite teens to a weekly Lunch Bunch, providing pizza and a devotion to 140-160 youth each week. The church also used to host a kid’s program in Optima, a town of 356 southwest of Hooker, but Pastor Craig Denslow said financial concerns prevented the program from moving forward this year.
“Those kids, they’re from a poor area, and they’re excited when we show up,” Denslow said. “They’re amazing kids, and I was kind of ashamed we weren’t able to do it this last year. We would like to get that retooled and started again.”
Roughly 80 miles west in Boise City, youth minister Kim Mizer also leads a high school lunch ministry, feeding 85-100 youth once a month. She calls it “a break-even” effort as the $3 they charge covers only the cost of the home-cooked meals.
“Our goal is for kids to always know they’re welcome in the church and the doors are open,” Mizer said. “There’s no pressure to come here; we just want you to know the doors are open and everybody’s loved.”
Mizer, who also works as the church administrator, said she can see how the loss of family farms is affecting both the community and the church.
“People are passing away faster than we’re having people join the church, and I think that’s not necessarily just here, but with Kenton and Felt and all those churches,” Mizer said. “I think all the churches in our community are having the same issue.”
But not every young person is quick to leave the Panhandle.
Methodist Student Center
MaKenze Anderson transferred to Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell from Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva after her first semester in college. Her time at the NWOSU Wesley Foundation had planted the seeds for a calling in campus ministries.
She answered that call in April 2014 as an intern at the OPSU Methodist Student Center (MSC). Just two years later, she was named the new director. Today she leads the ministry with her husband Ramy, who was named the assistant director in July 2018.
“I not only know that that is a vital ministry for Panhandle State, the Goodwell community, the Conference and the Oklahoma Panhandle, but I have also been a fruit from the labors of the ministry,” MaKenze said. “it bridges the gap for many students. It becomes a safe space to share their faith. It becomes a home for students many miles from home or 10 miles down the road.”
Mizer remembers having both Makenze and Ramy in her youth group, and she feels a special kind of joy seeing them lead the MSC.
“That’s kind of neat to see, that the person you ministered to goes on to minister,” Mizer said.
If the MSC provides students a place to engage faith, it provides the local Panhandle churches a place to serve.
“Students often leave due to the harsh conditions and lack of available ‘fun things,’” Ramy said. “Through the MSC, we provide an inside look to the heart of the Panhandle: the people. It’s the people in the Panhandle that are unlike any other you’ve ever met. Many get to see a positive side to the Panhandle through us and the churches who serves here.”
Part of the MSC’s weekly ministry is a free lunch for students on campus. Food is provided by churches ranging from Goodwell to Boise City, and each church commits to providing a set number of meals per quarter or per year. For a pancake supper fundraiser in April, churches went beyond their standard commitments to support the ministry. Texhoma’s UMW provided a basket for the silent auction, and the Felt leadership team voted to make a financial contribution.
For agronomy freshman Dillon Roesch, the MSC is a life-changing community. The McClave, Colorado native is an intern at the MSC and calls the ministry one of the most rewarding and joyful things to happen in his life. Having so many Panhandle churches support the college ministry makes him feel like he’s part of a community of believers.
“It’s a really special thing to see churches bring free lunch and feed like 250 people here every Tuesday, because I truly believe that God is kind of built in to the MSC,” Roesch said. “It’s built into the building, and even if someone can just come in here and have a meal, the sheer fact that they’re in this building can change their life.”
Abby Ely, an elementary education major from Sunry, Texas, said she felt like she was practicing her parents’ faith until she came to the MSC. She doesn’t think there’s another faith community like it in the Panhandle.
“My first time here, I bawled my eyes out, and now it’s just part of my every week,” Ely said. “We see each other all the time, and so even the other churches that I’ve been to, there’s just something about this community; we really are a community.”
Ramy said many students share a similar experience. He believes part of the MSC’s work is to help build up students as they work to make their faith their own.
“(Students) attend because they want to, not because they are told to,” Ramy said. “This sounds like a simple thing, but for them this is a major building block of the future. As the students show dedication to the ministry, we provide them with different ways to serve.”
Biology sophomore Kyle Babb grew up in Goodwell, but it wasn’t until Ramy invited him to play basketball and friends introduced him to the MSC that he felt his life turn around.
“Ever since I came in here, it’s just been all love. It’s just done a 180 on my life, and actually, I was baptized here,” Babb said. “When it happened, I definitely just felt like a whole new person. Ever since, I’ve just been completely different.”
MaKenze said it brings tears to her eyes when she thinks of how many people drive miles and miles to support the work of the MSC. She said sustainability efforts like the pancake supper fundraiser wouldn’t be possible without the support of the churches in the Panhandle.
“The pancake supper was a great beginning to a long road,” MaKenze said. “We feel so blessed that many individuals from around the panhandle came with generous hearts. We also praise God for so many people who constantly support the ministry financially and prayerfully.”
“The people here are one of kind,” she added. “They are hardworking and faithful, and we stick together. For this, I am grateful.”
Long live the laity
Laity are the lifeblood of United Methodist churches in the Panhandle. Though many members freely admit involvement in with the MSC or other church activities, few are forthcoming when it comes to their leadership titles.
“I didn’t feel like a member of this church until I started serving,” said Norma Strain, the financial secretary at Goodwell. “That grounds you in your faith and it helps you see really good things happening. It’s a lot different than just going and listening to the pastor for an hour every Sunday.”
Like Strain, Vikki Schumacher loves and serves her faith community. Though Schumacker runs the feed store in Boise City, her home church is Kenton UMC, the westernmost church in the Oklahoma Conference. She said the Kenton church wouldn’t exist without the involvement of the laity.
“We’re on every committee,” Schumacher said of the church’s laity. “If (Pastor) Randy wants to hold a meeting for Pastor-Parish, we’re there. Janitorial? We’re there. It’s so small, we’re all just there.”
Kenton and Boise City are part of a three-point charge with Felt. The congregations are led by Pastor Randy Little, who was appointed to the communities in February.
“What you see is what you get,” he said of his churches. “People don’t put on airs. They like you for who you are, they like themselves for who they are, they could be a millionaire and you’d never know it. They’re just regular folks.”
Denslow said many of the ministries at Hooker and Tyrone happen because of the willingness of laity to be involved.
“They take the initiative. They are the initiative in almost every ministry we have here,” Denslow said. “For the most part, I’m amazed, because it runs like clockwork.”
Player believes Ephesians 4, which describes the Church as the Body of Christ, means it’s biblical for laity to take on the bulk of a church’s ministry work. He said he sees that principle in action at Guymon Victory Memorial UMC.
One such lay-led ministry is the weekly men’s breakfast at Guymon Victory Memorial. Dean Kear, who grew up in Guymon, remembers when the ministry started in the 1950s. A few men met regularly at a local restaurant until a retired man suggested they cook for themselves at the church. Today, the men’s breakfast averages 20-25 people weekly and includes both church members and non-members from the community.
“You can tell that association is the biggest thing in the group,” Kear said. “We don’t have membership; if you come, you’re here.”
“Our lay people are hands on, whether it’s the clothing ministry or the feeding ministry,” Player said of his congregation. “This is a lay community that has been mobilized. You can always lift the level a little higher, but right now we have a church full of people that love this faith community, that have deep ownership, and that get out there and make it happen.”
To downstaters, with love
Some people in the Panhandle have a sense that folks downstate might have preconceived notions about their communities.
“People downstate have a different opinion of us,” said Wilma Lee Williamson of Felt UMC. “Lots of folks don’t want to come here, but when they do, they love it.”
Schaeffer, who plays the organ in Goodwell, said she would like those outside the Panhandle to know how well-educated people are in the Panhandle.
"I worked for a national organization for many years, and many people thought of us as ignorant country people,” Schaeffer said. “Almost everybody in this town has a degree or advanced degrees. We are educated, knowledgeable people.”
Schumacher said she hopes people who visit can see the strong relationship the ranching and farming have with God.
“I hope that they could look without us having to tell that we love God by the way we live,” Schumacher said. “I don’t want people to think we’re fake, but I like people to know by the way we live that they would want to be part of our community.”
For Player, the Panhandle has become a warm community full of friends.
“They’ve got a saying here: if you’ll stay long enough to wear out a pair of shoes, you’ll learn to love the Panhandle.” Player said.
For him and many others, the saying rings true.