Cowboy friends start Cowboy Church
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Oct. 15, 2010 at 5:15 a.m.
It wasn't the lure of worshiping Jesus in a barn on Sunday mornings that convinced Pastor Steve Sutton to start Crossroads Country Cowboy Church in Inez. Rather, it was Sutton's former church's cold reception of a casually-dressed cowboy who wandered through the doors one Sunday morning, looking to find godly community.
"I don't know why, but no one would talk to him, and I thought, 'Well, that ain't the way it's supposed to be. We're in the house of God,'" Sutton said.
So, with the love of Jesus in his heart, Sutton approached the cowboy that morning seven years ago, and the pair soon began a lasting friendship that would eventually lead to the start of Cowboy Church.
"We were pretty much instant friends," Sutton said.
Ronnie Walling, 55, the cowboy Sutton befriended at church that morning, now hosts Cowboy Church on his 11 acres of property - in a barn, next to a herd of cattle, a private cattle roping arena and another larger barn with seven full-grown horses.
"It's fun to have it here," Walling said casually, as he stood near a practice dummy cow and lassoed a rope around his wife Norma Walling. "You never have to worry about being on time."
Sutton himself is a 57-year-old gentlemanly cowboy. He regularly wears cowboy boots, and blue jeans, a button-down dress shirt and cowboy hat, and properly addresses everyone with yes ma'am, and yes sir - even Walling, Sutton's best friend.
On Sunday mornings at 11 a.m., Walling and Sutton team up for church services. Walling leads the worship music on his guitar, and Sutton follows with a message from the pulpit.
"I'll come out early and set up, lay out the books and open the doors," Walling said. "I'll sing a few song on the guitar before Brother Steve preaches."
Staying true to their all-inclusive understanding of Christianity, Sutton and Walling said their desire for Cowboy Church is that everyone feels welcome , no matter where they're from, or what they're wearing.
"For me, Cowboy Church is about the fact that some people aren't going to feel comfortable in traditional church settings," Sutton said. "Here, out in the barn, it doesn't matter what you wear, we're going to preach about God's grace.
Even though the church has only been operating for two years, and is still very much in its infancy stage, Sutton is disappointed the church hasn't grown as much as they originally envisioned.
"It's not growing up as quickly as I'd like it to, but that's probably my fault because of my disease," Sutton said.
About the same time Walling and Sutton started Cowboy Church, Sutton was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare disease that gradually deteriorates selected areas of the brain.
In the past year, Sutton lost some movement ability on the left side of his body, and occasionally has problems with speech and swallowing.
He now walks with a cane and is forced to move somewhat slower than he once could. But his illness hasn't ended his passion for Cowboy Church, or preaching the word of God.
"I just take it one day at a time, and it's challenging some days, but part of this ministry to build up lay ministers, so they learn to preach when I can't be here," Sutton said.
Walling said it's been a difficult year watching his friend's health deteriorate, but Sutton's dedication to the church has been inspiring to watch.
"He's real dedicated to this church even though it's hard for him to be here some days," Walling said.
Sutton said Cowboy Church's congregation of about 25 people is content meeting in Walling's barn, but eventually they'd like to purchase a property on land specifically used for Cowboy Church functions.
"That's the goal," Walling said.
For now, the longtime friends and brothers in Christ are excited to share a church that allows them to hang out each week, rope a few cattle and talk about God.
"I wish there were more cowboys just like him," Sutton said.