The trailer hitched to the Ford F-350 groans as the driver navigates a tricky backwards maneuver. The trailer carries three snorting bulls, each one weighing over 1,000 pounds, for today’s riding competition. The animals don’t like the trailer’s jerky motion. One of the bulls bellows and kicks against the trailer’s metal walls.
After two or three fretful attempts, the driver finally gets the trailer lined up. The bulls don’t need much coaxing to exit the cramped trailer when the ramp hits the hoof-scarred earth with a rattle. The animals leap from the trailer with surprising grace and alacrity. A group of teenagers in cowboy hats and Wranglers lean on the metal fence and yee-haw the animals onwards for good measure.
Scenes like this are played out every weekend across the Lone Star State, but the bull riding competition today isn’t taking place in your typical rodeo arena.
Located just across from Caney Creek Cowboy church in east Montgomery, Texas, hand-painted signs near the pens admonish any foul-mouthed bull rider or cowboy to watch their language and vices. In other words, no smokin’ and cussin’.
While the church was started in 2005, Mark Crimes came on as pastor in 2007. The church had about thirty people and $16 in the bank at the time. Caney Creek has grown in leaps and bounds since then. About 1,000 worshippers show up for Sunday service these days.
Since the early 2000s, Cowboy Churches have been sprouting along American highways and rural communities at a breakneck speed. While some Cowboy Churches are so in name only, Grimes and the Caney Creek congregation are the real deal. There is a meadow for bulls to graze and a rodeo arena just outside the church’s doors. Grimes is keen on pointing out that the church wants to use this arena for outreach rather than just sport.
“It’s a rough life to live,” say Grimes with surprising candor. He looks out to the dusty arena. Losing out on the purse isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Getting bucked by a bull can lead to some serious injuries or even death.
Several riders lay their gear on the grass near the bull pens: chaps, spurs and well-worn cowboy boots. Two competitors loop bull ropes through the fence. The brim of their cowboy hats pulled low against the punishing Texas sun, they clutch rock-like rosin in their gloved hands. Rosin gets sticky when it is rubbed on the rope. There’ll be less of a chance for a rider’s hand to slip off the rope once the bull shoots at of the chute. But there’s one other thing that sets this rodeo apart.
Racial tension still forms a fault line in American life. Here in the Caney Creek church regardless of race, faith and respect are mostly on display. Afro American riders help their Hispanic counterparts, who in turn help the Anglo riders.
Grimes climbs on a fence to call the riders and the people in the stands to order. He starts off with an introduction and then a call to prayer that sounds more like a sermon than supplication.
I look around as heads begin to bow and white, black and brown hands reach out together in a sacred moment, and I can’t help but thinking that this is how it should be everyday.