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Trusting God in the Fire

Texas church members provide relief to fire victims—while also dealing with losses of their own

CANADIAN, Texas — Dead cattle. Burned homes. Scorched prairie.

The largest wildfire in state history made a mess of this small ranching town in the Texas Panhandle, forcing the Canadian Church of Christ to delay its planned Missions Giving Sunday.

“We’ve had to put it off because of our community,” said church member Ruth Ward, whose family lost their home in last week’s fire. “And it just breaks my heart.”

“These missionaries are relying on these funds,” added her husband, Kelley Ward, the elder over the church’s missions program.

The 300-member congregation had hoped to raise $115,000 for sharing the Gospel in places such as Brazil, Chile and South Africa — all mission fields the Wards have visited.

But the elders postponed the special contribution after the Smokehouse Creek Fire burned more than 1 million acres in Texas and Oklahoma — an area 25 times the size of Washington, D.C. The blaze has destroyed as many as 500 homes and other structures and caused two deaths, according to state officials.

The fire touched around 70% of Hemphill County, where Canadian is the county seat, and displaced 47 families, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a news conference. Abbott cited a need for hay to feed cattle, fencing materials and cattle cubes.

“Whenever there is some tragedy like this, you see Texans pulling together,” he said. “It is heartwarming to see the way that Texans respond. The tragedy of what has been lost is nothing short of catastrophic.”

The Wards are among three Canadian Church of Christ families whose homes burned to the ground. A fill-in preacher and his wife from Canadian lost their house, too.

Kelley and Ruth Ward stand in front of a bulletin board highlighting the Canadian Church of Christ’s mission efforts / Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Other Canadian members sustained smoke damage at their residences. The cattle death toll at one member’s ranch hit 600. (“These cows you see dead are worth between $2,500 and $3,000 apiece,” another rancher told The Associated Press.)

As the congregation and community, about 100 miles northeast of Amarillo, focus on disaster recovery, leaders postponed Missions Giving Sunday for three weeks.

“That’s maybe going to be a more difficult goal for us now,” preaching minister Jake Perkins said of the $115,000 target.

But with God’s help, the congregation can bless fire victims at home and sustain mission efforts around the world, he told fellow Christians.

“We’re going to be blown away by what God does,” Perkins said.

Smoke and then flames

Elkward Ranch — a moniker that combines the Wards’ former business raising elk with their last name — comprises about 320 acres northwest of Canadian.

The retired couple lived in a log house built in 1988.

A bear, a javelina, a white-tailed deer and other trophies from Kelley Ward’s bow hunting successes hung on the walls.

Kelley, 69, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema from working in the fuel business before becoming a rancher, his wife said.

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When smoke filled the area near their home Tuesday, she became concerned.

“I was scared to death,” said Ruth, 59. “I couldn’t get him to leave … and the smoke just kept coming and coming, and I was watching it. It was about noon, and I knew he was hungry, and I wasn’t in any shape to cook a meal. So I said, ‘Let’s go into town and eat.’”

They loaded their border collie Asher, their Maltese named Coconut and their cat Kenneth into the car with Ruth. Kelley grabbed two shotguns by the back door and put them in his pickup. They took both vehicles — and their Bibles — just in case the fire spread.

Caption: The scorched ground can be seen outside a burned-out home in Canadian, Texas / Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Kelley didn’t bring anything else with him, but Ruth packed a few changes of her clothes, some treasured pictures and her late father-in-law’s World War II medals.

“And that’s what I lie in bed thinking about — what did I forget that I shouldn’t have?” said Kelley, wearing a new western shirt and jeans. “Of course you second-guess everything.”

By the time the couple made it to Valentino’s Italian restaurant in Canadian, their security cameras showed flames in their yard.

“We hadn’t been gone 15 minutes,” Kelley said.

Help in time of need

Insurance will cover the Wards’ financial loss, and they joke that they needed to downsize anyway.

On a more serious note, they voice appreciation for their community and fellow Christians who have stepped up to help.

“Just everywhere I’ve gone in the past five days, I see people from our church — my brothers and sisters in Christ — and they give me a hug,” Ruth said. “And that’s so comforting to have.”

She went to the Red Cross to get a shovel and found Natalie Zenor, a youth group member, volunteering.

The Canadian Church of Christ prays Sunday after a wildfire made a mess of the Texas Panhandle town / Photo by Bobby Ross.

At the Hemphill County Exhibition Center — where houses of worship, including the Canadian church, are distributing food, emergency supplies and animal feed — she ran into her prayer partner Ryahn Whitson sweating along with other helpers.

“Going down to the exhibition center, I just needed king-size sheets — and I saw half the people in my (church) life group there,” Ruth said.

Church member Heather Sawyer teaches at Canadian High School. With classes canceled because of the fire, she called and asked how she could help.

She took charge of organizing donations delivered to the exhibition center, including a tractor-trailer rig full of boxes from Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort. 

“And then when the families started coming,” Sawyer said, “we had to make sure they understood, ‘Please take this. It’s for you. Don’t feel bad. Please come back for more.’”

Boxes of food and emergency supplies from Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort are stacked high at Canadian’s distribution site / Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

A dozen people offered the Wards places to stay. They chose a vacant house owned by Kelley’s 95-year-old aunt.

Stephanie Oatman, a Canadian member, lives across the street.

“She’s one of my really good friends here in the church,” Ruth said. “She said, ‘You can use my washer and dryer anytime. Come over for a cup of coffee.’ I mean, it’s just nice knowing the proximity of people.”

Kelley said the couple probably won’t build a new home. They’re more likely to buy a fifth-wheel trailer and park it on their property.

“Then when we do want to travel, we can just hook it up and go,” he said. “But it won’t be that expensive, and it won’t be just something there to burn down again.”

Overwhelming love

Little boys in cowboy boots and girls in dresses prayed and read Scriptures as the Canadian church gathered for Sunday worship after the fire.

“Jesus, thank you for protecting us, and we just pray that you will help those people that lost their homes,” one child said.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for this day,” another prayed. “Please help all the people that lost cattle and grass.”

Member Ronnie Porter’s belongings mostly escaped the fire intact, except for his tractor, which burned. Members Jason and Mallori Wilhelm, Porter’s son-in-law and daughter who have five children, lost their home.

Porter shared with the church how he and his wife, Libby, stopped on the way to worship to talk with a neighbor whose house burned.

She showed them a sign she pulled from the debris: “Love.”

“The paint was burned off, and it was warped,” Porter said.

But it survived the blaze.

“So Libby and I got to talking about it on our way into town, and through all of this, through everything, is God’s love,” Porter said. “And man, that was really overwhelming.”

The Canadian Church of Christ prays Sunday after a wildfire hit the Texas Panhandle town / Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Perkins tweaked his originally planned sermon on “The Hour of Darkness” to ask, “Where is God in a fire?”

The minister said he doesn’t believe God caused the fire.

“But I do believe the good news that God is in the fire,” he said. “He is redeeming it. He didn’t send it. God didn’t create death. But you know what God does with death? He resurrects it. He turns it around. He rolls stones away.”

God can be seen, Perkins suggested, in the hearts and souls of Canadian members volunteering in the relief effort.

And he can be seen, the minister said, in the hundreds of calls and texts from Christians across the U.S. asking how they can help.

“So here’s what we do, what we hold to,” Perkins told the church. “In the hour of darkness, God is revealed in Jesus saying, ‘Come unto me, you who are weary and heavy laden.’”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle, where this article was originally published. He traveled to Canadian to report this story. 

Main photo: The sign at the Canadian Church of Christ after the fire / Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

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Bobby Ross Jr.

A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, he blogs about the intersection of faith and the media for GetReligion.