The white sign seems to glow in the gray of the rainy afternoon. It
stands at the edge of a Texas byway, alone, the weeds clinging to the
two wooden posts. COWBOY CHURCH it says in simple red letters. Below
the words a red arrow pointed off to the right into the gloom.
My wet brakes don't grab at first, but once they boil off the water I
slow and turn off the blacktop and look down a long, straight dirt
road. No doubt about which way to go. Gently I pull forward, even that
little nudge making my wheels spin for a moment before taking hold. The
ground is saturated; water stands in a sheet over the mud of the road.
I creep along for a mile or two, glimpsing the road ahead for a
fraction of a second with each pass of the wipers before the downpour
obliterates my view again. Finally I make out a structure ahead, gray
like the rest of the world. In front is a large area clear of weeds; I
pull into that. The building is a large steel structure, a barn with a
modest steeple at the crown of the roof over the door. I park next to
the only other car in the lot, a faded blue Oldsmobile from sometime in
the '70's. One of its windows is down and water is collecting in the
footwell. A Bible lies sodden in the front seat. I push it farther
over, out of the direct rain. I open the car's door to roll up the
window, but there is no crank handle.
Already wet, I dash from my car up the steps to the front door. In the
inadequate protection of the front porch I try to scrape the mud off my
shoes. The wind is tossing the rain around and I am getting
progressively wetter. This is a cowboy church, I decide; they should be
used to a little mud. I slip through the door and close it quickly
behind me, the sound overwhelmed by the drumming of the rain on the
I am in a vestibule partitioned off from the sanctuary by walls that
don't reach the ceiling. Carved wood doors in front of me lead into the
main chamber. To one side is a folding table with mimeographed sheets
in various pastels. One stack is of light blue sheets neatly folded in
two, with a line drawing of the church on the front. Beneath are the
simple words "Cowboy Church" and a date, past or future I do not know.
Finally, in fancier script it says, "It's never too late."
I set the paper back down and square the pile. There's nothing left but
to go inside. The door is heavy but moves easily on its hinges. I close
it with a gentle click and turn to inspect the room. I am standing at
the back of the sanctuary. Folding metal chairs are lined up neatly in
rows across the concrete floor. At the far end of the space is a modest
altar. On one side of the room is a cast-iron stove glowing invitingly,
flanked on one side by a generous woodpile and on the other by a
folding table with a pair of large coffee urns. On each side of the
room near the front hang long banners of red cloth depicting Jesus
doing a variety of good things. The lights are off; the only light comes
from a row of small windows down each side of the building and a pair
of large skylights. The place lacks the soaring majesty of the great
cathedrals and the simple joy of a modern house of worship. This is the
Cowboy Church, all right.
I step forward into the Cowboy Church, not sure why I came, not sure
what to do.
In the Cowboy Church, pray to the Cowboy God.
"Hello?" The voice comes from the back, behind the altar. There are two
doors there, one on each side, leading through another partition to
spaces unknown in back. The voice is small, and female. A church mouse.
"Hello," I say. Suddenly I feel like I'm intruding. I should have
knocked. "The door was open."
The door to the right of the altar opens and a figure emerges, small
and gray and lost in the gloom. "Of course," she says. She steps
forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and
very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. "Preacher's not here,"
she says with a soft Texas accent.
"That's all right," I say. "I'm looking for the Cowboy God."
She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can
feel her watching me. After a moment she says, "We got the same God as
I nod slowly, but then shake my head. "No," I say.
What kind of God would a cowboy create? To whom does a cowboy pray
while the rain pours off his hat brim in a steady stream and all he has
to look at are the filthy asses of the cows plodding in front of him?
It wouldn't be some great being promising a life of comfort and joy.
The Cowboy God wouldn't hold out the promise of Heaven. A true cowboy
sees Heaven out in the open spaces every day; if he didn't he would
have packed up and gone to the city long since. The Cowboy God doesn't
bring promises and doesn't offer hope. The Cowboy God is the kind of
God that sits at the next barstool, listening to Willie and sipping Bud
from a long-neck bottle. He's a little run down himself -- his back is
bothering him from all the heavy lifting and his knee goes out from
time to time. Maybe the cowboy's foot is broke and his shoulder takes
longer to get going each morning. It's not worth mentioning because
there's nothing to be done about it and there's work that's got to be
done tomorrow. They'll both be getting up before the sun and tending to
their business. It's the hardship as much as anything else that makes
the cowboy who he is; take that away and you take away his soul.
They don't say much, the cowboy and his God; not much really needs
saying. Each is a comfort to the other, a source of strength. After a
couple more beers they shake hands, maybe clap a shoulder, and leave.
The cowboy climbs in his truck, the manufacturer more a source of
religious fervor than the God he prays to, and he wishes his God a safe
journey home and feels in his heart the blessing returned. The cowboy
might in a real pinch ask his God for a favor, but he'll give the Lord
his best wishes every day. The cowboy knows what it's like to carry a
The church mouse has taken another step forward, into the light of the
next window. One eye is as gray as the day outside, the other is lost
in shadow. She is trying to look into my soul. "What is it you want?"
She sounds suspicious, protective, as if I might be a threat to her
Lord. Have I come into his lair to call him out, like some gunslinger
in the old west? She stands shyly, her straight hair pushed back behind
her ears, her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a brown
skirt, her legs two pale stakes like the signposts. Over her white
shirt is a brown coat that matches the skirt. She stands, afraid, ready
to defend her God.
"I just want to ask him a question," I say.
She relaxes a little but suspects a trap. "Preacher will be back soon."
"All right," I say, but I'm not interested in him.
"Can I get you some coffee? I just made some in the back."
While she scuttles off to fetch the coffee I drift over to the comfort
of the stove. I hold my hands out to it, feeling the warmth penetrate
my tired joints. But it's the window next to the stove that has the
stronger draw. I move from the warmth to look out into the gray world,
to where the Cowboy God really lives. "What's it all about?" I ask
softly. My breath fogs the glass.
"Did you say something?" she asks, bringing me a styrofoam cup filled
with steaming black coffee.
I accept the cup. By the window I see that her hair is lighter than I
first thought, but her eyes are still gray, and open a little wider
than seems natural. Her lips are pale, almost indistinct, and pressed
together. Shadows under her eyes give her a weariness that speaks of
experience and gives her otherwise youthful face a gravity that makes
her age impossible to guess. I sip the coffee. It's good and strong.
Cowboy Coffee, I suppose. "Thank you," I say. "I was just asking my
"Oh," she says. Perhaps she is distressed that I could be on speaking
terms with her God, that I didn't talk to the preacher first. More than
that she is curious.
The sound of rain had faded so slowly I hadn't noticed its absence, but
now it resumes with more furor than ever. The day grows even darker
outside. A clatter begins above, and hailstones thrash the land.
"Guess you got your answer," she says, the corner of her mouth
twitching upward even as she turns away, embarassed for joking at my
expense. I look at her pale profile, glowing white like the sign by the
highway had. She is watching me from the corner of her round eye.
"Guess so," I say, and I think she must be right.
Originally appeared 2004-12-25
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-10-13
Image(s) are public domain.