On the southern edge of Lee County the forests of pine and oak open into an expanse of inviting fields. Furrowed land is garnished here and there by a rough, wooden cross or a horse galloping through patches of tall grass.
On a warm, Sunday afternoon, inside a barn that doubles as a church, Jan Boone was saddling a buckskin quarter horse named Mama.
“God’s blessed us with good weather today,” said Boone, fitting on the bridle and bit and stroking Mama’s muzzle. The forecast indicated a 40 percent chance of rain and, to Boone, the sunshine was an unmistakable wink from above.
She helped her granddaughter, eight-year-old Annalee LaMontagne, mount the horse and watched as the girl galloped confidently out of the barn, past speakers whispering gospel music and into the breezy greenness of the field.
Boone’s sylvan nonchalance expressed the mood of the cowboy church, a kind of collective silent prayer, an outdoor liturgy of sunshine, clomping hooves and smiling children.
Ridin’ with Jesus
In the pasture, Pam Hollaway helped another child into a buggy pulled by a lumbering paint horse named Skunk.
“Jan and I used to ride trails together,” said Hollaway, recounting how she and Boone, her long-time friend, became immersed in the world of the Christian cowboy.
In 1995 they were riding with a group along the Buffalo River in Tennessee, one of several such rides they attended each year. Boone told Hollaway that, this trip, she wanted to hold a prayer service at the trail’s end on Sunday morning.
“I wasn’t just really religious,” said Hollaway. “I was kind of ‘I’m-OK-you’re-OK, live-and-let-live,'” she said. “You know, the cowboy way.”
The women casually extended invitations to their fellow riders, sitting around the nightly campfires and at a Saturday night dance. Sunday morning they set up a radio, kicked aside a few empty beer cans and held their service.
“Like me, people just never expect to hear God’s word in a setting like that,” said Hollaway. The women formed a small group of Christian horse enthusiasts and started holding devotionals on rides throughout the Southeast.
Boone, whose manner of speaking interweaves cowboy jargon and biblical imagery, put it this way: “We think of it like the harvest,” she said. “We have hope, but not hard expectations. You try to meet people where they’re at.”
Hollaway reached down to pet a Blue Healer named Gabby, a dog clearly eager for some real rustling. “The riding, the commitment, the travel, it’s really a lifestyle,” said Hollaway, scratching the dog’s ears. “People who love horses spend so much time with them they often miss church.”
Across the pasture a tall, stone-faced man in a black cowboy hat was leading another quarter horse with an excited little girl on its back.
Years ago the Rev. Ken Pollock was working as a long-haul trucker when he had the idea to minister to his colleagues on the road. “Sometimes my son and I would just go into truck stops and sit and listen,” said Pollock, a Southern Baptist minister with over 30 years’ experience. “We’d listen to the men’s stories. Listen to the way they treated the waitresses. We just tried to find opportunities to witness about faith,” he said.
Pollock described his approach to ministry, drawing clear similarities between truckers and cowboys. Both, he said, are “people on the road, people who value freedom and patriotism.” People to whom straight, honest talk is theological discourse, to whom the blazon orange and indigo of a sunset is more awe inspiring than the painted ceiling of a cathedral.
“And, maybe they’re a little skeptical of formal organizations,” said Pollock.
Pollock, who now teaches at Tupelo Christian Preparatory School, met Boone and Hollaway through a mutual acquaintance. An old farm boy, Pollock had begun noticing cowboy ministries popping up throughout the Southeast and started talking with association director Mark Howard about starting one.
“What’s true with international missions is true with local missions,” said Howard, describing the missional model that informs so much of what the association is doing these days. “We know that to communicate the gospel effectively you have to understand people’s culture and engage them in ways that make it relevant to their context.”
Pollock traveled to North Carolina, the base for the North American Southern Baptist Mission Board’s cowboy ministry, to learn the ropes. The ropes, it turned out, were not very different from what he’d learned in the truck stops, an unspoken creed that today is expressed in the casual but sincere atmosphere around Boone’s ranch.
On the first Sunday of each month, Pollock leads the group of about 30 cowboys and cowgirls. Their worship is familiar Christian fare, but it’s anything but dogmatic. Its clearest guidelines center on the sacredness of the outdoors and a non-denominational spirituality with Jesus at the center. Most of the members attend other churches, covering a number of denominations. It’s the lifestyle that brings them together.
A hand up
Around 6 p.m., an easterly wind picked up, bringing gunmetal-colored clouds that hastened the descent of dusk. The stabled horses pawed the dirt as the congregants arranged folding chairs in front of Boone’s barn.
Pollock’s sermon, taken from the parable of “The Good Samaritan” gave voice to a current of good will and traditional values flowing through those present like a collective energy. The message was simple, the essential ethos of the cowboy culture: A good Christian, like a good cowboy, doesn’t judge. A good cowboy offers a hand to those he meets along the trail.
Eleven-year-old Haley Grace Mathis, after belting out the gospel version of Martina McBride’s “Do It Anyway,” thanked Jesus for her victory over cancer. Rain began to fall and everyone moved into the barn.
Hollaway took the microphone and asked Lauren Hudson to join her. Earlier in the evening, Husdon, 19, a highly-decorated rodeo queen, had given the children lessons in calf roping.
“See how I roll my wrist,” Hudson explained, skillfully twirling the head rope in a wide circle. From 25 feet away she slung it perfectly over the plastic steer’s head mounted on front of a square hay bale. Hudson snatched the rope tight with a loud pop, a strong, violent action that belied her prettiness and sent the children back a step.
“Now, the other cowboy, the ‘healer,’ would tie the two back legs together,” Hudson told the children, grinning broadly.
This Sunday, cowboy church ended with Hollaway and Hudson singing a duet that evoked, fittingly, the image of Jesus riding a white horse.
Behind them, the U.S. Stars and Stripes and the Christian flag flapped in the undulating gusts and the horses, stabled on either side of the faithful, called to each other intermittently.
The women stood amidst the sawdust and hay bales, singing, “He’s calling out to you and me, ‘Will you ride with me?'”
Hollaway paused, speaking over the lyrics. “We’ll be behind the greatest trail boss in the world,” she said, before the chorus answered her, once again: “Yes, Lord, we will ride with you.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/Daily Journal