The excursus on mullets intrigues me, but I soon lose Jim and Sherri as I go looking for the Reverend Harris. At intermission, he comes out of the arena, and we meet underneath the announcer’s booth and the huge inflated Bud Light bottle that bobs in the breeze on top of it. When he goes to rodeos, Harris not only pursues his ministry but also works with support crews doing the logistics that allow the events to come off.
As I lean against the bleacher scaffolding, Harris asks: “Why do people live hard, drink hard, and chase women? What are they trying to prove? They’re trying to fill up the void.”
A young woman approaches and interrupts our conversation. She wants to thank Harris for helping her and her boyfriend to get back together. As a result, she says, they plan to marry in a few months. Harris is gracious in accepting her gratitude.
“People are trying to fill up what’s missing in their lives,” Harris goes on, “and, of course, what’s missing in most people’s lives is relationship. I’m not a religious person, but I’m a relationship person. I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and that’s what people are looking for, relationships. But they find them empty. The world doesn’t provide for us.”
Harris has only a few minutes before he must return to the arena to man the barrier gates. We meet again once the afternoon’s performance is done.
“One young fella told me last year,” says Harris, “ ‘I’ve been watching you for six years, and all you do is help people. What’s in it for you?’ I said, ‘Nothing. I’m not out here for me; I’m out here for you.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t even believe what you believe.’ I says, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe the same as I do. What I believe in is the truth, and it’ll all come to pass. I choose to be out here so that I can be an example in the spiritual upbringing. You don’t have to believe it, but it’s still true, and I’m still going to be here and I’m still going to help everybody that I can.’ ”
Harris has thought a lot about the “relevance” of the Christian gospel since the time, when he was working for Pat Robertson in the 1980s, that he went to a missions conference in Virginia Beach, Virginia. One of the workshops at that conference focused on “the fact that the American church had stopped being relevant to the community it was serving,” he says. Among churches, “The normal concept of becoming more relevant is, okay, we’re going to send a missionary to Africa or South America.” But a speaker at the conference claimed that African and Philippine Christians had started to send missionaries to the United States. Harris cites some statistics indicating that fewer and fewer Americans in recent years report believing in God.
“Of course, that has changed somewhat after 9/11,” he says. “But I’ve realized that you can take any avocation that you like — baseball, whatever — and you can bring Christ into it at any level and make a difference in people’s lives.” That’s what Harris and many other cowboy ministers are doing in the world of rodeo. Numerous rodeo ministries across America are listed on the Internet.
Says Harris, “If you read the Bible, what made Jesus so attractive to people was that He went out amongst them. He became part of them. People today find it hard to identify with the television evangelists. I’m not talking about Pat Robertson or Robert Schuller; those individuals have integrity beyond — a Billy Graham. But it’s hard for the everyday person to identify with the Sunday-morning preacher up there blowin’ and goin’ and preaching in the suits and all that, when we know that these guys drive around in limousines and the rest of us do other things.”
The world of rodeo seems, much of the time, to contrast with the dominant trends of our current culture. Rodeo promoters advertise their product as enhancing family values and a wholesome character. Harris agrees to my proposition that rodeo, to many people, is symbolic of a healthier lifestyle than what is available in most city and suburban life.
“Is that due to an association of rodeos with the farm and ranch?” I ask.
“The association is with a life gone by,” says Harris, who mentions a golden age that “lasted about 30 years, from 1855 to roughly 1885. That was the heyday of the cowboy. The cowboy is a derivative of the Spanish vaquero out of Texas, which had been Mexico. The cowboy is a traditional hero in America, made into one by people like Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and, in recent years, by Tom Selleck and some of these other people who are actors as well as cowboys.
“Now, everybody looks at the rodeo cowboy as the center of the business. But the center of the business is the stock contractor. Without the stock contractor, without the guy who has the heart to breed and raise and train and spend the money to travel and set these things up, you don’t have rodeo. The stock contractor is the heart. He provides the structure for rodeo, and the rodeo cowboy is only a part of the whole thing.
“But it is good family fun, one of the few places where a family of four can go for less than $50 and have a hoot and a holler and enjoy a good show. And a rodeo is a show. It is a performance from start to finish.”
Noticing that a hotdog and popcorn each cost a dollar at the Lakeside events, I compare rodeo to going to a Charger or Padre game at Qualcomm Stadium.
“To see the Padres, a family of four spends $100 at a Sunday game. Rodeo is a great bargain. And a lot of people enjoy it,” says Harris. The price of admission at Lakeside is $5, and $10 for the Sunday matinee.