ALTUS — Wheat farmer Jim Pryor looked up on a recent December's night into an open sky dotted with stars.
On this night, Pryor was among 10 members of the “Grace Street Praise Team” from First Baptist Church in Olustee, gathered to sing at the weekly “Pray for Rain” gathering organized by the Jackson County Ministerial Alliance.
Farming full time since the mid-1960s, this 70-year-old has never been through a drought that has choked his land this hard for this long.
Much of this southwest part of Oklahoma remains in exceptional drought, the worst of the U.S. Drought Monitor report's categories.
Rainfall in Altus, the Jackson County seat, is 47.51 inches below normal through the last 39 months, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. So, Pryor and 26 others gathered on this night sang, “Let it rain, let rain open the floodgates of heaven.”
They continued, “We feel the rains of Your love, We feel the winds of Your spirit, And now the heartbeat of heaven let us hear.”
Minutes later Pryor looked up and said of the drought, “It will end.”
He knows the day will come when his boots are caked in mud. Until then, the Sunday night prayer meetings will continue, said Kevin Baker, pastor of Martha Road Baptist Church and a member of the ministerial alliance.
“At one of our ministerial alliance meetings in the spring we were talking about the seriousness of the drought and how it's affecting our economy and we decided that the only real solution to this is ask God to send the rain,” Baker said. “He makes the rain, he sends the rain. So we just made a commitment that we would pray every week, every Sunday night, until the drought breaks, until the lakes are filled and things are back to normal.”
The initial prayer meeting was on Mother's Day. With Christmas near, they continue.
During the summer, an average of about a dozen people gathered outside the courthouse in Altus. Then it grew to 75 people. The gatherings were moved inside to the Altus Community Center as cooler weather set in.
On a recent night, another activity was being held in the center, so the more than two dozen people who came to pray for rain gathered outside.
Through the years, the established normal for rainfall changes, said Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. Keeping that in mind, Altus has had below the established normal annual precipitation total — at that time — for 15 of the last 20 years, McManus said. That includes Jan. 1 through Dec. 12 this year, and Altus was 14.02 inches below the normal in that span alone.
But the Grace Street Praise Team led off the prayer meeting by singing, “How Great is our God.” A statement, not a question.
“One of the things that we've talked about is that we could worry about the situation, we could wring our hands and fret,” Baker said, “but that doesn't get us anywhere.”
Pryor was joined at the meeting by several family members including sons Brad, 36, and Scott, 48. They farm with their father.
The drought has led to some changes, including reducing input costs. And with little or no wheat crop, Scott Pryor said, they haven't been able to put cattle on wheat pasture for a few years.
Dust Bowl was worse
“You know though, something that keeps coming to my mind through this drought,” Jim Pryor said, “is that I heard my grandparents and my parents talk about going through a similar drought in the Dust Bowl and they faced so many more hardships than we are facing now. They depended on what they grew to eat.”
Brad Pryor added, “We've got insurance to kind of cover our bases somewhat. It's not like making a crop, but we can survive.”
Circumstances vary by family and types of agricultural operations. What's tough for one may be even tougher for another right now.
Brad Pryor said he chooses to focus on what he can do. He said without cattle to check on wheat pasture, it's given them more time to do things such as paint the church. The family said the prayer meetings are a blessing.
“It has brought people from the county from different denominations, different churches, together just to pray for rain, and for one another,” Scott Pryor said. “I've met a lot of people that I didn't know before this started.”
After three songs led by the praise team, Baker offered a brief message.
Then they broke into prayer groups. Holding hands and with heads bowed, each person prayed aloud.
Craig McDole prayed, “We thank You for so many blessings that You give to us Lord, the opportunity not only to go to church today but Lord to come and proclaim You loudly and to sing Your praises in an open place like this. We pray for rain and we praise You for the moisture that's coming.”
Jim's wife Barbara Pryor prayed, “We love You God in all circumstances, in the good times and the bad times. Heavenly Father you provide for us in ways we will never understand.”
Baker prayed for rains before “the big rains of spring.” The pastor asked God that the spring rains would create runoff to refill the lakes and reservoirs for drinking water and irrigation.
“Father we just praise You in advance for what You are going to do,” he said.
After the meeting, Jim Pryor said that while they will continue to adjust on the farm during the drought, they will live in faith, not fear.
“When our family gets together on Christmas and celebrates Christmas together, I don't think about whether it's dry or wet,” Jim said. “I just feel blessed to have my family there. It is all about family and faith.”