During mid-April of last year, a large group of cowboys came into the Branded Oak restaurant on Maine Street in Lakeside. They had come from the rodeo grounds several blocks down the street, where tryouts for the 38th Annual Lakeside Rodeo were being held. Kelly Nashiyama, whose name belies her blond hair, was tending bar that day. She expected, when she saw the cowboys enter, if not the worst, then at least some rowdiness and a few orders of Jack Daniel’s with beer chasers. What she got, instead, was a polite group of young men who, before they began to eat, held hands in a circle and prayed aloud. True, some of them ordered cocktails before lunch, but their tastes ran in the direction of “froufrou drinks, like piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris,” says Nashiyama. From place names such as Kansas City and Oklahoma on their belt buckles, she concluded that the drinkers wanted to experience a little California exotic.
The cowboys left Nashiyama not only a healthy tip on their way back to the arena but a shattered image of rodeo cowboys. On her last pass among the tables of diners before their departure, however, one of them convinced her that she had not been dreaming. He grabbed her butt, she says, as she was clearing away their dishes and silverware.
Legend and song have pictured rodeo cowboys as hard-driving, hard-drinking, woman-chasing free spirits. “And that’s true,” says the Reverend Bob Harris, a handsome 52-year-old former cowboy himself. “But I’m not trying to persuade these people to quit what they’re doing. That’s not my goal. My goal is to be an example of the rodeo cowboy who can live the Christian life. Then, when people ask me why I’m joyful or why I help, I tell them it’s because I’ve got the joy of the Lord in me. They say, ‘What’s that?’ And that gives me an opportunity to open the Scriptures up and share with them what it means to have the joy of the Lord.”
Harris reaches into a satchel at his side and pulls out several three- by four-inch paperback volumes that have the title The Way for Cowboys. He calls it the cowboy Bible and presents me one as a gift. Then he starts paging through another to show me its contents. As part of his “behind-the-chutes ministry,” he hands it out free to cowboys and displays it with other literature on a table at the back of his cowboy-church services. The ministry also includes praying with the cowboys behind the arena minutes before the rodeo starts. “Those are called prayer power-ups,” says Harris, who looks younger than his 52 years, despite showing a little post-athletic girth.
The bulk of the cowboy Bible is the New Testament, but it has Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament as well. “This is a good book for cowboys,” says Harris. “It puts things in simple terms. It has some cowboy poetry in it. It has some testimonies from different phases of cowboy life, the ranching cowboy, the country-music cowboy and cowgirl. Here’s Paul and Susie Luchsinger, but Susie is Susie McEntire, related to Reba McEntire.” And she does look like Reba.
Harris also shows me pictures in the cowboy Bible of rodeo scenes and cowboys, including world-champion bull rider Cody Custer, whose brother Jim Bob is participating in the Lakeside events. “There’s Jenna Beaver, Joe Beaver’s wife, and Joe Beaver was here last night. He’s an eight-time world champion, 17-time qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo. He’s a Christian brother.”
Harris consulted with the group who put The Way for Cowboys together. “We said we needed a specific Bible designed for the cowboy community,” he tells me.
The Reverend Harris founded and runs Good Company Rodeo Ministries, a one-man mission spreading the Christian gospel to the cowboy community throughout California rodeos. From a home base in Menifee, in Riverside County, he is like the old circuit-rider preachers of the 19th-century American frontier. In San Diego County, his charge includes the Lakeside Rodeo, the Ramona Roundup Rodeo, and the Poway Rodeo.
My first experience of Harris is through sound only. I have braved a light rain to come to the Friday-night opening of the Lakeside Rodeo in search of him. To launch the events, Harris is giving the invocation. He prays for our country, for the safety of the contestants, and for the safety of the “animal athletes.” When Harris is finished, the evening’s announcer, seated on his horse in the arena, and microphone in hand, pumps the crowd. “Are you ready to rodeo?” he shouts.
At the following afternoon’s performance, I first lay eyes on Harris from a position high in the bleachers. Calves are bolting into the arena to the pleasure of throngs of people anxious to see them roped by cowboys on galloping horses in hot pursuit. The rain is gone, and a bright spring sun beats down on a number of middle-aged men who, in Stetsons and colorful shirts, are helping to orchestrate the spectacle. I have seen a picture of Harris on his webpage (www.good companyrodeoministry. com), so I pick him out in the chutes at my end of the arena, opening and closing the barrier gate that confines the calves until their turns come. He shuffles back and forth in thick damp dirt that has been churned by the sharp hooves of the livestock animals. A smell of cattle dung wafts up from below.
The man I am watching and waiting to see served formerly on the staffs of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Pat Robertson’s Hour of Power television show, and the Anaheim Vineyard. He has also been pastor of the Lake Elsinore Community Church.
Besides attending the rodeo, a couple sitting next to me in the grandstands is engaged in another sport, mullet-sighting. Mullets are an out-of-style haircut, often described as “business in front, party in the back.” Worn mostly by men, they take this description from their short front and top hair and long flowing curls down the neck. According to Jim and Sherri next to me, mullets are still common on country-and-western music videos and among fans at NASCAR races and rodeos in some parts of the country. They have been frustrated this afternoon (mullets are scarce in San Diego County), but they promise to point it out to me if they spot one.