Disciples News Service

New church start honors history with baptism locale

pastors and women in river

Revs. John Malget and Michael Snell join in the joy of two newly baptized members of Refuge Fellowship.

Oklahoma City News story  Celebration of Formation story

Refuge Fellowship Church, a congregation in formation in Oklahoma City, has a frontier-style model of being. The congregation is specific in its ministry of, by and for homeless individuals and the newly housed, meets on Monday night wherever it can find a place and celebrated baptisms this week in the open air. First Christian-OKC’s senior pastor, Rev. John Malget, and Rev. Michael Snell of Midwest City assisted in this week’s baptisms along with Rev. Noel Gray, Refugee Fellowship Church’s pastor.

Rev. Noel Haley-Gray

Rev. Noel Haley-Gray

This week’s baptism was an intentional re-creation of how the Disciples came to central Oklahoma. According to Sean Shenold, president of the Christian Church Commission of Oklahoma which is the church planting branch of the region, most of Oklahoma was set aside for Native Americans until the US government decided to break up the reservations. The “unassigned lands”, were opened to settlement in a series of land runs beginning in1889.

Rev. Thomas Head

Rev. Thomas Head

Rev. Thomas J. Head took out an ad in the local paper on May 18 of that year and began to establish a Disciples congregation in the new community. Shenold quips, “He must have been a pretty effective evangelist, because he soon had 28 new believers needing to be baptized.”

Oklahoma City was rough-and-tumble with a number of ‘rowdy’ individuals. Rev. Head was concerned that these rowdies might try to disrupt the baptismal service so he approached the commanding officer of the local cavalry regiment. On June 2, 1889, 200 troopers on horseback, in full parade uniform, took up positions on both sides of the river so the service proceeded without disruption.

Rev. Head’s group of believers went on to found First Christian Church of Oklahoma City. The congregation has both directly and indirectly helped to start nearly every other Disciples congregation in the metropolitan area, including Refuge Fellowship Church. First Christian served the community after the Murrah building bombing in April 1995, opening the doors within hours of the attack as the place where family members of those killed and wounded could go to receive official news, assistance, counseling, and support.

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History by Sean Shenold

We have a recently-designated congregation in formation, Refuge Fellowship Church, that is a congregation of, by, and for the homeless (and newly housed) of downtown Oklahoma City.  Refuge has been around, in one location or another, for nearly 10 years, having to move from place to place, wherever they could find welcome, but now are meeting at First United Methodist Church, at 131 NW 4th St., directly east of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building Memorial.

This Sunday, Oct. 18th at 3 pm, Refuge hosted a baptism service in the Oklahoma River, which is a recently-renamed section of the North Canadian River, which runs just south of the downtown area.

But this is more than just a mass baptism . . . it’s a very intentional re-creation of how the Disciples came to central Oklahoma.

A quick review of Oklahoma history is in order.  Most of what is now Oklahoma was set aside for Native American reservations, until the US government decided to reduce the influence of tribal governments and, instead of allowing the tribes to own their land, broke up the reservations and gave individual Native American families their own parcels of land.  The left-over areas, the ‘Unassigned Lands’, were opened to settlement in a series of land runs, the first being on April 22, 1889.

That first land run encompassed most of what is now central Oklahoma.  The first Sunday after that land run, an interdenominational prayer service was held near the first (and at the time, the only) water well in the community.  After that, the various denominations began forming their own congregations, and the Disciples were no different.

Rev. Thomas J. Head was a Disciples minister and evangelist, and taking out an ad in the local paper on May 18th of that year, began to establish a Disciples congregation in the new community.  He must have been a pretty effective evangelist, because he soon had 28 new believers needing to be baptized.  The nearby North Canadian River was available, but there was a problem.

Oklahoma City in its earliest days was a very rough-and-tumble community, with a number of ‘rowdy’ individuals.  Having had a few encounters with these folks, Rev. Head was concerned that these rowdies might try to disrupt the solemn nature of the baptismal service he was planning.  So Rev. Head approached a Captain Sikes, commanding officer of C Company of the United States 5th Cavalry Regiment, which was stationed in Oklahoma City at that time.  Rev. Head impressed Captain Sikes with his earnestness and desire to spread the Gospel, and so he agreed to assist.

On June 2, 1889, Captain Sikes led 200 Cavalry troopers on horseback, in full parade uniform, down to the river, escorting Rev. Head’s nascent congregation.  His men took up positions on both sides of the river to provide site security, and so Rev. Head was able to conduct the services without a hitch.

Rev. Head’s group of believers went on to found First Christian Church of Oklahoma City, which still stands today; its big white domed sanctuary has graced Oklahoma City’s skyline for nearly 60 years now.  But throughout it’s 125+ year history, First of OKC has both directly and indirectly helped to start nearly every other Disciples congregation in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area (including Refuge Fellowship Church), which certainly qualifies it as a ‘mother church’.  But more than that, First has been of tremendous service to our community for all that time, though perhaps no more so than in the aftermath of the Murrah building bombing in April 1995.  First opened their doors within hours of the attack, volunteering their facility to serve as the official Family Resource Center, the place where family members of those killed and wounded could go to receive official news, assistance, counseling, and support.  First’s volunteers kept their church’s doors open and their kitchen in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for more than three weeks following that tragic day.

And it all was started from that first baptism in the river, organized by one new church planter so long ago.

And so Refuge Fellowship Church seeks to emulate that service that, down through the years, has made such a tremendous impact in so many lives in our community, by hosting, just as they did in 1889, a baptismal service in that same river.

The historical information comes from Oklahoma Christians by Rev. Dr. Stephen J. England, former dean of Phillips Theological Seminary, published in 1975. Other sources are First Christian Church of Oklahoma City’s 75th anniversary history, The Church of Tomorrow . . . Today and Yesterday, edited by L. C. Mersfelder, and published in 1964.