Riley Donica: Used by God for 59 Years
By Cynthia Perkins
Fifty-nine years in the ministry! May I tell you about it? I’m Cindy Perkins, the first child of Riley Donica, and I was there.
This is a true story of the sovereignty of God. Let us look at the way God worked through the choices my dad made, choices God took and orchestrated his plan for a moment in time.
The journey began in the Kiamichi Mountains. In the Choctaw language, Kiamichi means “go no further.” The “Kiamichis” is an area in southeastern Oklahoma where the Choctaws ended their move from Mississippi. The wintertime move of these Native Americans is one chapter in what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” History tells of a trip filled with agony, trouble, and many deaths. One of the soldiers who helped bring these Native Americans to the Kiamichis had the last name Donica.
Down the road of time ventured another man to these mountains. A.B. McReynolds came here for the same reason as the Choctaws—he was forced from his home by life’s circumstances. He believed he could start a new life in this area.
Again, by the sovereign hand of God, these two events somehow converged. On one side was the birth of Riley Donica, who grew up in the community of Nashoba. On the other side, A.B. McReynolds began the Kiamichi Mountain Christian Mission in Honobia, six miles east of Nashoba.
Dad was the son of William and Dema Donica. He was spiritually born through a missionary minister who came to the Kiamichis to preach the gospel. At 17, Dad chose to study for the ministry. He traveled to Dallas (Texas) Christian College, and was the first student to enroll in this new Bible college.
During his college days, he met and married Ethel Jane Moses. Nine and a half months later, I was born. Two years after that, my sister, Sherry, came along. Dad always dreamed of returning home to the Kiamichi Mountains. Mom was not too excited when, in the third month of her third pregnancy, Dad accepted the call to minister as a missionary of the Kiamichi Mountain Christian Mission to a small church, Zafra (Oklahoma) Church of Christ. One can imagine Mom’s fear as she moved to this rugged, dirt-road community where she had no friends, family, or telephone. In addition to that, the church had an outdoor toilet!
The rest is history. Dad stayed until his death July 16, 2010. Fifty-three and one-half years of ministry in one place.
In July of the year we moved, my sister, Robin, was born. And four years later, my brother, David, came along. We lived in a rock house on a high hill, just a stone’s throw from the church building. If one included the critters, Zafra’s population was probably about 75! Dad had to raise most of his own support, and this kept him on the road preaching revivals, speaking at seminars, and presenting the mission work wherever he could. Due to the constant travel, Dad began flying small planes.
In the beginning, Dad’s sermons were about the fact we all are sinners, but God’s grace covers our sins. As a little girl, it seemed to me if he preached “Christ died, once for all” one time, he proclaimed it 100 times. He felt the Spirit calling him to preach this message about salvation because, in these mountains, many people believed one must be perfect by doing, not by being, a Christian.
These mountains had been inundated with the gospel of “I must be perfect” to receive salvation; people had not been told the truth, that only the blood of Jesus covers our sins and makes us perfect in the eyes of God.
One of the most interesting details coming out of this false belief was that the men didn’t consider themselves good enough to become Christians. Or if they accepted Jesus, these men didn’t feel they were good enough to serve. Therefore, the men of the church refused to perform such major church duties as teaching, praying in public, giving Communion meditations, preaching, and bringing people to Christ.
How vividly I remember the women serving in these capacities. Bertha and Lucy sat at the Communion table for meditation and prayer. Lois, Mrs. Beatty, Mima Jean, and Thelma taught the Christian education classes. Mama played the piano.
God was present, and the church grew. Now as I look back, I realize we were on the cutting edge. We sang praise choruses before they were called praise choruses. We had church softball teams, youth outings, and a bus ministry. The bus was a pickup truck with wooden sideboards, and it was packed with young people hanging on to those sideboards for dear life as it plowed over the dirt roads to Zafra, Beachton, and Brushy Ridge. We ate dust all the way to and from these mountain church activities.
Our youth group went to church camp, youth rallies, and special youth events. Zafra Church had great revivals with famous preachers of the day. And great singing groups: The Gospel Lads, The Good Twins, The Vernon Brothers, and Lowell Mason, to name a few.
Over the years, God continued his plan, and the church grew in spirit and truth. Men began to take leadership roles, and there was lay preaching, and men became elders, deacons, teachers, and missionaries. Men began to pray publicly, baptize, and minister to those who were sick and hurting.
One outstanding event was when the Zafra Church started Panther Creek Christian Church in the Brushy Ridge community.
Our sovereign God works in his way and his will. Here are just a few of the joyful outcomes of a man, his wife, and his family used by God:
• Individuals who had been enemies of the church came to Jesus.
• The southeastern Oklahoma/southwestern Arkansas region was helped physically and spiritually by God’s power working through this ministry.
• The gospel was spread across the United States by revivals, sermons, speeches, and music.
• The hospitality of our home saw men, women, and families refreshed and renewed. Our home was a sanctuary for many in need.
• There was compassion for the less fortunate among us.
On Friday, July 16, 2010, Dad left on horseback to survey land he was cleaning up to sell. At 77, it was time to sell. He took his gun, and as always, his dog, and left early. But the day was extremely hot—about 105 degrees, and the heat index made it feel much worse. There, on his property, he went to see Jesus. His body was laid on the ground, his horse tied to a tree, and his dog rested in a shaded area, waiting.
No one knew he was gone for two days. That’s because no one ever really knew where Dad was, as he would always be changing course, stopping to visit, or traveling to someplace unexpected that he suddenly remembered he needed to go. And this week Mom was away taking some children to music camp.
Dad never liked listening to messages on the answering machine. Therefore, no one was surprised when he didn’t return their calls. He wasn’t missed until Sunday morning, July 18.
I will never forgot that day. Three hundred or more people came to the Zafra Church house to search. Area churches let out services to search and hunt. Many were on horseback and others took four-wheelers. There were search and rescue teams—including helicopters and planes—from two counties.
My brother, David, and I were the only immediate family members there. We prayed, searched, and cried. At about 7:30 PM, just before dark, Dad was found. No—excuse me—his BODY was found. But he had flown to the arms of Jesus Christ!
The outpouring of kindness and love was overwhelming. The search reminded me of our purpose: to search for the lost; to use every avenue to hunt and to not give up; the church should be a team, undivided by denominationalism or kind; to be one in spirit and truth, looking for the lost!
I knew Jesus Christ was my Savior from the time I came to him at age 5. But never had it dawned on me as I realize it now, that Jesus Christ is our salvation at the time of death. No fear, only life eternal.
More than 700 people gathered for Dad’s memorial celebration. All had been touched in some way by the hand of Jesus through the ministry of our family. We could not have stopped this outflow of Christ’s love.
The sovereignty of God works through our humanity. He is in control. And he definitely worked through this missionary family.
Kiamichi means “go no further.” And maybe Dad didn’t “go any further” physically than these mountains. But we know on that “120 degrees in the shade” day, Riley Donica went all the way to Heaven and was lifted up in the arms of Jesus. He mounted one of those white steeds and headed out to visit friends and family already there.
God’s goal always is to take whatever life you happen to be born into, or whatever life you happen to make for yourself, and transform it into something greater, grander, and more awesome. He did this for Dad and his family here on earth. Imagine what this becomes in Heaven!
So Dad, ride on!
Cynthia Perkins serves as Christian education and music minister with Clayton (Oklahoma) Christian Church and as an adjunct teacher at Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton.