“I started to talk about Western culture, not cowboy culture but Western [European] culture in general. And I find that people who are in the rodeo lifestyle, and who are around rodeo, understand life, death, and commitment. They deal with animals all the time. You know, most of your people who live in the city don’t deal much with loss, and then they don’t really deal with it. Most of your people who live in the country deal with loss quite often, a lost cow, a pig, a favorite pig that you’ve raised but you now have to slaughter for food. So they deal with the common things of life, and didn’t Christ tell us that it was the common things that were going to confound the wise?”
Ten years ago, Bob Harris officiated for the first time at his own cowboy-church service in Lake Elsinore, 70 miles northeast of San Diego. Coy Huffman, who together with another cowboy preacher held the first cowboy church ever at a national finals rodeo 25 years ago, had been doing the Sunday-morning service each year at the rodeo in Elsinore. But in 1992 he couldn’t make it. So he asked Harris, at the time a local minister and newspaper reporter in Elsinore, to substitute for him that Sunday morning.
The two ministers had met the year before when the Lake Elsinore Valley Sun-Tribune asked for volunteers from among its writers to cover the local rodeo. All the other reporters moaned and groaned at the thought of the assignment. “I was dealing with a lot of city reporters who were saying, ‘Why can’t I go to the wine festival? That way I can have some wine.’ ”
So Harris jumped at the opportunity himself. The result was an article about Coy Huffman and cowboy church that not only ran locally but also was picked up by the UPI wire service and that Harris sold, one more time, to a magazine.
Thus began a long friendship and occasional working relationship between Harris and Coy Huffman. When he did the cowboy-church service in 1992, says Harris, “I had three cowboys come up and give their lives to the Lord. And I found that rewarding. You don’t often get a chance to reap the seeds that somebody else has sown. And then I didn’t see these guys, but a year later they were still walking with the Lord, and I thought, This is powerful. So I called up Coy and said, ‘Do you think the world can handle another cowboy minister?’ And he said, ‘Sure, come along.’ ”
So Harris started attending rodeos part-time at first, then full-time, and finally set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1997. He says that the ministry “exploded” after that. “Mine is what is called a field ministry.
“Whenever Coy and I intersect at a rodeo, I give deference to Coy and let him do the preaching, but he always brings me in to do something, and I feel privileged to serve him, because he’s such an inspiration to all of us. He’s been a faithful individual in this ministry. There are no new apostles, but he is like an apostolic figure in the cowboy ministry.”
When Harris preaches, he tries to follow the example of Christ, who, as Harris reminds me, “always used parables or anecdotes about the life the people that He was preaching to lived every day. As a rodeo cowboy, I use stories about the life that rodeo cowboys live. Some of my sermons might start off with ‘Let’s spur out for God’ or ‘Let’s crack out for God.’ Or I might use the example of a saddle-bronc rider and what he has to do in relationship to the sermon.”
In May I go to Sunday cowboy church at the Ramona Roundup Rodeo. Bob Harris is preaching this morning. The congregation gathers behind the Fred Grand Arena in one of the animal-holding pens that has been converted into a hospitality center for rodeo performers and personnel. As the day wears on toward performance time, a guard will protect resting cowboys from the onslaught of fans. Inside, from a covered table, several women serve coffee and doughnuts before the service starts. I hear one of them explaining that refreshments are “for cowboys only.”
About 30 of us sit down in folding chairs on patchy grass and face the parking lot full of horse trailers behind the arena grounds. A rectangular table with an albatross of a sound system on it is the closest thing we have to an altar this morning. Though the day is overcast, the tree branches overhead allow heaven to shine on us. The walls of our sanctuary are chain-link fences, behind one of which, to our right, stands a young black-and-white goat peering into our midst.
Harris introduces Lefty More Than Allright, who identifies himself as a cowboy poet and says he is writing a book called Godly Wisdom and Cowboy Proverbs. A sample of the proverbs? “If it’s raining on your parade, go have a picnic. There won’t be any ants.” “A warm heart will help cold feet.” “If you walk in fear, you can’t run in faith.” “One man’s lamb is another man’s beef.” “City streets can’t take you away like country roads.” “Starting your day off with coffee won’t keep you going like starting your day with prayer.”
With a high-pitched twang, Lefty sings into a microphone about faith, the morning’s topic, which, he reminds us, Jesus compared to a mustard seed. “Those things are little,” he says. The song says that a little faith will take you a long way. “It ain’t a great big theological deal. We make it bigger than it is.”
Noting before his sermon that Lefty got up this morning at five to come down from Burbank, Harris says, “He’s not a movie star, but he’s one excellent poet.”
Harris preaches this morning on the story of Jesus’ feeding 5000 people with five loaves and five fishes. Calling God “the specialist in helping us with our impossible situations,” Harris exhorts us not to worry so much about things that “impossibility becomes our barrier gate.” He cites the time that he came to a rodeo without enough money to drive home and left having given money to cowboys who couldn’t get to their next destination. “God provides,” says Harris.