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Vernon AME Church launches fundraising campaign to restore historic structure

From the pulpit inside the sanctuary of Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church each Sunday, the Rev. Robert Turner often can see and hear the building’s recognizable stained glass windows shake as vehicles travel along the stretch of Interstate 244 that cuts through the Greenwood District.

It’s a distinctive structure that is more than a century old, and age has revealed other issues with the building, including a need for infrastructure, window and piping work. The basement also requires extensive investment, said Turner

“Because of the age of our church, there are a lot of things that can’t be done,” said Turner about a church that will celebrate its 115th anniversary in 2020. “Any given day one of those window panes could fall out. On any given day something could just fall over. We are in dire straits.”

The church, which burned during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, was rebuilt and completed in 1928. Since then only routine patchwork has been done to mend various imperfections.

The need for significant renovations at the historic church has sparked a recent fundraising campaign effort.

When Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker visited Tulsa last week, he contributed $1,000 to the restoration campaign. A separate collection was also taken up at the church during Booker’s appearance.

“For someone of his stature, and for all the places he visits on a weekly basis as a United States senator and presidential candidate, it really was amazing for him to choose Vernon as a place to actually leave a donation,” said Turner of the gesture. “That says a lot about the history of Vernon and Greenwood and how Vernon has enriched the history of Greenwood.”

While there is no official tally of exactly how much money would be needed to complete the project, a contractor estimate suggested the potential cost totaled around $1 million, said Turner.

A GoFundMe page has been launched for the campaign, though only $110 in donations have been acquired towards the goal so far.

Securing the funding — along with completing renovations — is likely expected to take several years at this point.

That process, though, is made somewhat difficult as a result of its addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. Because of the designation, the church is unable to make many cost-effective improvements. Instead, any enhancements done must maintain the building’s historical integrity.

“It makes it a lot more expensive. We would have to go with the most historically similar designs,” Turner said. “We can’t replace the window panes with aluminium even though it might be more more efficient.”

Turner is hopeful that assistance will come in the form of grants, benefactors and by word-of-mouth. Local groups like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission have reached out to offer help, he said.

Restoring the church, said Turner, is paramount to preserving its rich history and symbolic meaning to the Greenwood District.

“We’ve been on Greenwood since 1908,” said Turner. “We are the only black landowners on the original Greenwood Avenue and we really need to keep it (the church) here. We want to raise the funds needed for the church to be around another 100 years.”

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US health officials report new vaping deaths, repeat warning

NEW YORK — U.S. health officials on Friday again urged people to stop vaping until they figure out why some are coming down with serious breathing illnesses.

Officials have identified about 450 possible cases, including as many as five deaths, in 33 states. The count includes newly reported deaths in California, Indiana and Minnesota.

No single vaping device, liquid or ingredient has been tied to all the illnesses, officials said. Many of the sickened — but not all — were people who said they had been vaping THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its high. Many are teens.

Health officials have only been counting certain lung illnesses in which the person had vaped within three months. Doctors say the illnesses resemble an inhalation injury, with the body apparently reacting to a caustic substance that someone breathed in. Symptoms have included shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain and vomiting.

The illnesses have all surfaced this year, and the number has been growing quickly in the last month as more states have begun investigations. A week ago, U.S. officials pegged the number at 215 possible cases in 25 states.

It’s unclear whether such illnesses were happening before this year.

“We’re all wondering if this is new or just newly recognized,” Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters Friday.

An Illinois health official, Dr. Jennifer Layden, said officials there don’t know when such illnesses first began, but she said there has been a marked increase since spring.

Deaths previously were reported in Illinois and Oregon.

Indiana officials said the person who died there was an adult, but they didn’t say when it happened or release other details. Health officials in Los Angeles said they were investigating a vaping death as well. And Minnesota health officials said that state’s first known vaping-related death was a person over 65 years with a history of lung problems who had vaped illicit THC products and died in August.

Recent attention has been focused on devices, liquids, refill pods and cartridges that are not sold in stores.

New York state has focused its investigation on an ingredient called Vitamin E acetate, which has been used to thicken marijuana vape juice but is considered dangerous if heated and inhaled. State investigators have found the substance in 13 cartridges collected from eight patients. In several cases, the ingredient made up more than half of the liquid in the cartridge.

CDC officials said they are looking at several ingredients, including Vitamin E acetate. But Meaney-Delman added that no single factor has been seen in every case.

Also Friday, the New England Journal of Medicine released a series of articles that give medical details about cases reported in Illinois, Wisconsin and Utah.

An article on 53 illnesses in Illinois and Wisconsin noted that nearly one-fifth of the cases were people who said they vaped nicotine and not anything that contained THC or CBD oil.

For that reason, doctors and health officials are continuing to suggest people stay away from all vaping products until the investigation establishes exactly what’s at the root of the illnesses.

Meaney-Delman said avoiding vaping is “the primary means of preventing this severe lung disease.”

It’s not yet clear what impact the recent illnesses are having on vaping rates, but some health officials are hoping more Americans will become wary.

There’s been a split among public health experts about the value of vaping nicotine. Some argue e-cigarettes are not as lethal as conventional cigarettes and can be a valuable aide to smokers trying to kick the habit.

But others say studies have not established that adult smokers who try vaping end up quitting smoking long term. And they fear that kids who might never have picked up cigarettes are taking up vaping.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials “has long been cautious about endorsing e-cigarettes even before the recent spate of illnesses, because little scientific evidence exists to show that e-cigarettes and other nicotine delivery devices are effective cessation devices,” spokeswoman Adriane Casalotti said in a statement.

The states reporting vaping-related lung illnesses to the CDC are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

Candidate for Muscogee (Creek) Nation principal chief still awaiting resolution of tribal court gambling-related charges

A former Muscogee (Creek) Nation elected official is seeking to become the tribe’s next principal chief while facing criminal charges regarding his activities with another tribe.

Bim Stephen Bruner, 70, is still fighting felony gambling-related charges more than two years after tribal law enforcement officials arrested him and seized a building and gambling machines on his Broken Arrow property.

Creek Nation Lighthorse Police raided the yet-to-be-opened Embers Grille at 11500 S. 129th East Ave. on Aug. 16, 2017, after alleging that the federally recognized Kialegee Tribal Town was preparing to open a casino on the property that was not licensed by the Creeks.

Creek Nation officials charged Bruner, an enrolled member of the Kialegee tribe and once a member of the Creek Nation National Council, with one count of possessing unlicensed gaming devices and one count of maintaining an unlicensed gambling premise. Bruner has pleaded not guilty and denied the allegations through his attorney, Trevor Reynolds.

Progress on the case has stalled at times while the Creek Nation Supreme Court took up pretrial legal disputes.

However, action has really slowed since the Creek Nation Supreme Court ruled in May that the original trial judge must recuse himself from the case, Reynolds said.

“The last hearing we had, the judge basically said, ‘If you want something done, file a motion, and I’ll set it for hearing,’ ” Reynolds said. “We’re just basically sitting right now, waiting for the government to do something — anything.”

Members of the Wetumka-based Kialegee Tribal Town and Red Creek Holdings LLC, a Florida company backing the development, had been at work on what it claimed was a dance hall, bar and planned casino when it was raided by Creek Nation Lighthorse Police.

Kialegee and Red Creek officials claimed at the time that no gaming would be conducted until approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission.

The Kialegee tribe argued that as a member of the historic Creek Nation, it shared jurisdiction over all lands within the Creek reservation and had the right to operate its own casino.

However, two months before the raid, the NIGC issued an opinion indicating that the Bruner-owned property, was not eligible for gaming under the Kialegee tribe.

Creek Nation Attorney General Kevin Dellinger said in an interview this week that the case against Bruner was still “moving forward” although no trial date has been set and he wasn’t sure whether any pretrial hearing dates have been scheduled.

“There are steps that will need to be taken to get to trial — discovery and things like that,” Dellinger said, adding later: “I think we’ll be taking action to get a trial date set.”

Reynolds said he has filed numerous motions, including one to compel discovery and another asserting Bruner’s desire to bring the case to trial quickly.

“And here we are, two years later, having been denied our right to a speedy trial,” Reynolds said.

The case was sidelined twice while issues were appealed to the tribe’s Supreme Court, once to decide whether the charges were felonies and another time to decide the recusal issue.

In the first instance, the tribal Supreme Court ruled that the charges were indeed felonies. Bruner faces up to three years in jail if convicted on either count, Dellinger said.

Meanwhile, Bruner continues to be banned from his property, Reynolds said.

Dellinger said the Bruner property is still considered a “crime scene” that the tribe continues to “maintain and preserve.”

Dellinger would not rule out the possibility that the tribe would seek at some point to seize the property.

“As we move forward we’ll deal more with the issues of potential forfeiture at a later time,” he said.

Reynolds said Bruner was an “innocent landowner.”

“What I think has happened is his land has been taken from him by his tribe,” Reynolds said.

“The development doesn’t even belong to Mr. Bruner,” Reynolds said. “All that was licensed (through) Red Creek development. But they aren’t on the hook. Only Mr. Bruner is.”

Asked if he saw an end to the litigation, Reynolds said, “As of right now, no.”

“This is not our lawsuit,” Reynolds said. “The tribe is prosecuting Mr. Bruner. They are the ones who pulled the lever on this.

“We don’t have a duty to prove him innocent. They have a duty to prove him guilty, and thus far they have refused to do that.”

Bruner did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the case.

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