CASPER, Wyo. — The sounds of cowboy gospel music and the faint smell of manure wafted down to the door of the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds’ indoor arena on Saturday.
Corey Ross, a preacher from Texas, stood before men in cowboy hats and women wearing large belt buckles. As he began to sing about God’s grace, his voice broke through the murmur of stock calves shuffling just a few rows below him in the large arena.
In the crowd, some dressed in their country best in preparation for the night’s championship go of the College National Finals Rodeo, while others wore simple T-shirts and sun-bleached baseball caps. They clapped along with Ross’ folksy tune before sitting down, their eyes trained on the singing preacher man.
As Ross spoke of Jesus in the way people tell tales of their best friends, it was clear that cowboy church — like the congregation it drew — was not bound by walls, denominations or any preconception of what organized religion should be. Ross’ stories encompassed rodeos, ranching and his journey to bring the Bible to a group of men and women who are constantly on the road.
That journey began in the 1980s, when Ross said he’d have to fight just to hold a church service anywhere near a rodeo arena. Now a short service is held after every CNFR rodeo, and the Saturday cowboy church is a pre-finals staple of the event.
While College of Southern Idaho athlete Orin Larsen didn’t attend Saturday’s service, he said it’s become part of a cowboy culture that’s changed over time.
“If you were religious, you were considered a sissy back in the old days. But not now,” he said. “You’ll hear those old guys talking about how much harder it was in their day. You get knocked out on a ride and they’d pour a bucket of water on you, drag you out of the arena and give you a shot of whiskey.”
Wyatt Gregg, a 21-year-old bull rider at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, said he was saved at a cowboy church service in sixth grade. Sitting in third place heading into Saturday’s finals, Gregg said cowboy church keeps him energetic and lets him acknowledge his blessings before a big ride.
“God will give you wisdom if you ask him,” Gregg said. “It’s better than relying on yourself.”
On Saturday, Ross’s message to the rodeo’s participants was one of perspective.
“Tonight you have a great opportunity to finish what you started this week,” he said. “It’s an opportunity not to let your joy be determined by that arena.”
Sonja Shelley traveled from New Mexico to watch her son compete in the CNFR. She said most of the people on the bleachers were on the road all year, and the services end up being the way they do church.
“It’s brought a sense of community, too,” she said. “Ranchers and farmers are very independent thinkers and this is what brings them together.”
Amy Huddleston may be reached at email@example.com or 735-3204.