response: November 2013 Issue

Cookson Hills: Where God Changes People

Cookson Hills: Where God Changes People
Debbie Humphrey, a United Methodist deaconess and program director of Cookson Hills Center plays with a child.

“We believe in a redeeming God.... the church needs to be an example of that.” The Rev. Meridith Whitaker

When Laurie Rowell started abusing drugs, she knew it was time to quit her job as a nurse. She didn't want to go to work while high and put her patients' lives at risk, but quitting work just gave her more time to use drugs. Her life went downhill fast, and soon she was arrested on drug charges.

Ms. Rowell accepted a referral to drug court, which sent her to the Cookson Hills Center, a rural mission program in eastern Oklahoma. Cookson Hills gave her a job in a jewelry repair shop, one of several small cottage industries it sponsors.

"This job got me back into society. It's the longest I've held a single job. The pay is decent, and it's something I can do with a record. There aren't a lot of jobs out there for people with criminal records," said Ms. Rowell, who instead of serving a prison sentence is now serving as secretary of United Methodist Women at the Canterbury United Methodist Church in Vian, Okla.

Ms. Rowell is typical of the people whose missteps brought them to the Cookson Hills Center.

"We believe in a redeeming God," said the Rev. Meridith Whitaker, the center's director. "God doesn't throw anyone away, regardless of what they've done. The church needs to be an example of that. The people we have hired here, when given a chance, have turned out to be remarkable citizens. They're hardworking people who pour their hearts in their work. Sometimes the church says that God redeems people but doesn't act like it's possible. I believe that God does change people. I've seen it happen here over and over."

A history of service

The Cookson Hills Center began in the late 1940s as a mission project of the East Oklahoma Conference Woman's Society of Christian Service, a predecessor of today's United Methodist Women. The women's then national arm-the Woman's Division of Christian Service of the Board of Missions and Church Extension of The Methodist Church-sent two nurses to help address health concerns in the chronically poor area. One of the missionary nurses, Ruby Laeger, moved into a cabin in the area and learned to drive a Willys station wagon that doubled as an ambulance, using the vehicle to reach remote families.

Over the years since, the center has developed a comprehensive ministry to people wrestling with chronic poverty throughout the hardscrabble hills. Many local residents are Cherokee whose ancestors were forced in the 1830s to leave their homes in the southeastern United States and trek to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears. That brutal forced relocation continues to affect families and communities. Others have found the isolated hill country a convenient place to preach hatred.

"We serve three of the four poorest counties in Oklahoma," Ms. Whitaker said. "It's a remote and rocky area, without much infrastructure. So we win at everything, whether it's teen pregnancy or obesity. We're seventh in the nation in meth production. Rape and domestic abuse are high and education is extremely low. And it's a mean area. We have the second highest number of white supremacists in the nation. There are lots of hills and hollers and heavy forests where people can disappear, and because we're poor, law enforcement is almost nonexistent. People can come here and hide out. And because people are so isolated, a right-wing conservative viewpoint can be carried to the extreme. A lot of churches here preach hate. They think it's a godly thing."

Ms. Whitaker, a church and community worker of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, says the center reaches out to those who often have been forgotten by society-at least until they get arrested.

"There are a lot of people in the world who have been left behind," she said. "We can't solve all their problems, but we can certainly help them live within the means they have, by providing firewood, helping with nutrition programs, sponsoring a day care so mothers can go to work. We can't give everyone a job but we can make it easier for them to keep a job if they can get one. Our job is to meet people where they are and help them live within the means they have. We can't promise them they'll win the lottery, but we can certainly help them make ends meet, stay warm, eat and get to the doctor if they need that."

Recycling hope

Another cottage industry at the center is a mat shop where workers weave strips of recycled tires and beads made of recycled plastic bottles into doormats. Ms. Whitaker likes to say the project recycles people as well. People like Darrell Males who has been working in the mat shop for six years.

Mr. Males spent 16 years in the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, and when he got out couldn't find a job, so he went back to doing what he knew best: cooking and selling drugs. After he was caught and appeared in drug court, the judge called up Ms. Whitaker and asked if Cookson Hills could help. Mr. Males spent a few months doing community service on the center's grounds before a job opened up in the mat shop. At 66 years of age, it's the first steady job he's had.

"Working here keeps me away from people who do drugs. I always knew God had a place for me. I just didn't know where it was," said Mr. Males, who's now a member of the board of trustees at Canterbury United Metho-dist Church.

Cookson Hills' cottage industries also include silk-screening, embroidery and pottery. The center produces communion chalices with a Native American design, which it sells to churches throughout the region. "We took one to the annual conference and presented it to the bishop, and if the bishop has one then everyone has to have one," said Denise Rowell, coordinator of the center's cottage industries.

Denise Rowell is one of the "recycled people" Ms. Whitaker talks about. With several trips to jail and a scar on her neck from a drug deal gone bad, Denise Rowell says the church played a key role in helping her change her life for the better.

"I started going to church every time they opened the doors," she said. "I went to Bible study, to worship, to United Methodist Women meetings. The church accepted me despite who I was. I wasn't too sure about this God thing at first, but it grew on me. I found where I was supposed to be, and I've been sober almost eight years now."

Denise Rowell says the center's ultimate goal isn't to provide a job to everyone needing one, but rather to make people more employable in the larger economy.

"We have a food pantry and give out food supplies, but if you can give a person a job you boost their self-esteem, and they become marketable and can eventually buy their own food," she said. "There are some people who come through here who've done nothing but drugs all their lives. Every employer does background checks these days. With the bad economy, someone with a criminal record is going to have a hard time competing in the job market. We try to level the playing field by giving them some experience here."

Cottage industries

Some of the center's workers are older adults who couldn't get a job elsewhere because of their age but need the income to supplement their meager retirement resources. Minnie Glenn is 78 years old and works in the jewelry repair program.

"There aren't many things I can still do, but I can do this," she said. "I quilt and sew, but now I have grandchildren in the house so I can't keep my machine out. I can come to the center and work, and I enjoy it."

The center's craft store sells local jams produced by seniors and Native American jewelry and other items produced at home by local native crafters. Cookson Hills Center buys the products for resale, which Denise Rowell says is a better deal than the tribal store, which only takes items on consignment. "When a crafter needs baby formula or diapers, they'd prefer to get paid now rather than later," she said.

Besides providing employment opportunities for those who need them, the cottage industries help support other programs of the Cookson Hills Center, which include a day care center, senior nutrition program, food pantry, thrift store, health resource center, seeds for family gardens and emergency firewood assistance.

For several years the center has also been providing prom dresses to girls who need them.

"Sometimes girls are required to have a prom dress, or they can't attend the graduation ceremony," Ms. Humphrey said. "When I first learned of this, I called a few United Methodist Women groups, and soon I couldn't get into my office because it was full of boxes of dresses."

The girls get to pick their own dress from several racks of possibilities. "We don't just hand them a dress," Ms. Humphrey said. "They go through them to find a color they like. In six years of doing this we haven't had to alter a dress. Every girl has found the dress she wanted.

"We also help them with makeup, shoes, getting their hair styled, and we have a special tea for them. At the graduation ceremony, they say you can tell who the Cookson girls are because they are just beaming."

United Methodist Women

United Methodist Women groups from the Oklahoma Annual Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Annual Conference are key supporters of Cookson Hills. Each November, women from both conferences come to the rural community to help Cookson Hills prepare for Christmas.

"We do everything from split, stack and deliver firewood for those area residents that still heat and cook with wood, to making jelly, skirting mobile homes, preparing food to freeze for their holiday dinners, to raking leaves," said Cynthia Hull, president of the Oklahoma Annual Conference United Methodist Women. "We also collect gift cards each October at our conference annual meeting to supplement their budget for things they can't afford out of regular funding, from computers to milk for the child care center."

Local United Methodist Women groups also have strong ties to the center. Glenda Gilpin, president of Woodward District United Methodist Women, lives in Hooker, Okla., a small town nine hours away from Cookson Hills. She says her local unit has developed a prayer partnership with the center's staff. The district women also sell Easter lilies to raise money for the center's everyday programming and host a monthly made-to-order salad fundraiser to purchase items for the center's Christmas Store, which allows low-income families to acquire quality gifts for their children.

"Cookson Hills is important because it serves an area and population of our state that struggles economically," Ms. Gilpin said. "Its ministry blends several cultures-Native American, Anglo and Hispanic. It started in 1948 and is still going strong.

"Once you have experienced Cookson Hills and its staff and volunteers, it gets from the head straight to the heart. And once in the heart it is just in the blood. I firmly believe we as United Methodist Women members must understand and experience our United Methodist missions and support them."

Each year some two dozen volunteer groups, some from as far away as Japan and the United Kingdom, come to Cookson Hills Center. They are mostly sent out to work in people's homes, rebuilding floors and ramps and bringing rundown homes back to decent standards.

While the groups add important energy to Cookson Hills' mission, Ms. Whitaker says the encounter of middle class folks with poverty doesn't always produce the learning experience she'd like to see.

"While here they learn about the plight of the poor and a little bit of Indian history. They would learn more if they could be a little more humble and willing to receive from people who don't have much to give," she said. "Some of them leave here frustrated because they came to make a big change here. They thought they had all the answers, and we didn't listen. Some people come and in 24 hours they have all the answers to problems we've been working on for 25 years. Not surprisingly, they leave frustrated. But the ones who come here willing to listen and learn, they leave excited about new opportunities for ministry both here and back home."

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 10/31/2013 11:00:00 PM