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Saturday, August 29, 1998

Pastor serves cowboys and cowgirls at rodeos

By MICHAEL FISHER

Riverside Press-Enterprise

MURRIETA, Calif. -- The Rev. Bob Harris' sanctuary lies between the chutes.

His church smells of leather, sweat and animals. Dust stirs from the ground, raised by the feet of bulls, broncos and the spurred boots of riders.

The 50-year-old Menifee man is a cowboy pastor who gave up a variety of jobs for a Bible and a commitment to travel between rodeos to spread the Gospel to cowboys and cowgirls.

"I'm basically a missionary to the cowboy community," said Harris, who prays with riders before they climb onto a bucking bull or horse.

"Whoever wants to kneel and pray, I will give them a scripture and we'll pray for the safety of the rider athletes and the animal athletes and the safety of the rodeo clowns and the people working the gates," said Harris, founder of the non-profit Good Company Rodeo Ministries & Cowboy Church.

Harris has been traveling to rodeos to preach to cowboys and to pray with them for the past year. A former Las Vegas stunt man and stagehand, he was ordained by the Association of International Gospel Assemblies in 1988 in Orange County.

Harris worked as a staff minister at the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim and the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club. He left that position in 1992. He worked as a journalist and a teacher and administrator at vocational schools in Orange and San Bernardino until illness forced him to retire in 1997.

He then began to re-evaluate his life. During a nap in 1997, he dreamed of becoming a cowboy pastor and opening a Christian rodeo school in southwest Riverside County with a riding arena, a bunkhouse and a youth Bible camp.

The dream gave him new direction, and a chance to rediscover the cowboy roots he nurtured during summers at his grandfather's Texas ranch.

After discussing the dream with his wife and their pastor, he decided to begin preaching again. Harris said that while many of the riders reject his services, he is gratified when others pray with him.

"I don't go out there to convert people. I'm not banging on people saying 'You've got to become a Christian.' I'm out there because there are Christian cowboys," said Harris, who is affiliated with The Lamb's Fellowship Church in Temecula.

He described life as a rodeo cowboy as lonely. The typical rider is 21 to 35 years old and left friends and family behind to travel between rodeos for weeks at a time.

Sometimes they just need someone to talk to and Harris happily obliges.

"Once, a cowboy comes up to me, this big tough bull rider, and whispers to me his wife is dying of breast cancer and 'I can't keep my mind on riding the bull and would you pray with me?' " he said.

The two men knelt in prayer before the cowboy climbed onto a bull for his ride through the ring.

Harris conducted his first rodeo sermon in December at the Military Rodeo Cowboys Association Finals in Laughlin, Nev. Since then he has led prayers at rodeos in Ramona, Anaheim, Lakeside, Santa Barbara and Norco.

"I'm not really a dynamic preacher. I just kind of stand and talk, and I can't carry a note a lick," he admitted. He described his sermons as typical of any heard in a church, but with an added cowboy element.

"You still use scripture but you try to gear it toward things people in the Western culture understand, like horses, digging wells and putting horses out to pasture," Harris said.

He plans to attend rodeos in San Dimas and Camp Pendleton Marines Corps. Base in October. Eventually, he hopes to travel to rodeos across the country to spread the Gospel to other cowboys.

"My commitment has become really strong, especially since I began spending time talking to rodeo cowboys and listening to their needs," Harris said. "The satisfaction comes from when you can see the light bulb come on in someone's head."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

 

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