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Acceptance & redemption offered at cowboy church

PECOS, N.M. (BP)–Larry Parks backs a trailer up to the double doors of a tiny white cinderblock building that sometimes serves as a sheriff’s outpost. He begins unloading everything Pecos Valley Cowboy Church needs to set up for the morning’s service. One item placed on the counter near the entrance collects tithes and prayer requests. It is a memorial and a reminder.

It’s made of rough-cut lumber, an aged, mature wood much like you’d find on an old barn that might be leaning to one side in some pasture. It is about the size of a book box and looks like an old country church, complete with a pitched roof and a cross for a steeple. There is a slit in the top through which tithes and prayer requests are dropped. Four horseshoes are nailed around its sides.

Lynn Bitner built the church, including the addition of the horseshoes.

“I built this as a reminder for our church and as a memorial to my son, Ricky,” Bitner said. “The horseshoes are from the last horse he rode. He was a cowboy and the only church he felt accepted by was a cowboy church. He was a homosexual and he was welcomed into that church unconditionally. But that is what is so special about a cowboy church; there is acceptance, not judgment.”

“Ricky was saved and baptized before he died,” Bitner added. “It was a cowboy church that loved him and showed him the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. I know my boy is in heaven today.”

Roark Griffin feels accepted. Griffin, a soft-spoken and slightly barrel-chested man, is a rancher, artist and musician. He knows every Marty Robbins song ever produced. An assortment of bailing wire, a shovel, rocks, a trailer hitch and gloves — tools indicating a life of hard work — rattle around noisily in his truck bed as he whips off the highway and into the parking lot. Johnny Cash’s “Railway to Heaven” is blaring in the cab.

“I’ve been practicing that song all week,” he said. “I really like its message and am singing it this morning.”

Griffin grew up in church but never experienced much joy from it. He was different. He was a cowboy and the others were not. A few years ago he accepted Christ and was baptized in the Pecos River, in January. They had to break the ice to dunk him. He recently baptized his daughter in the Pecos, in January. They broke the ice again.

“I know that if it weren’t for Jesus Christ I wouldn’t have a thing in this world,” he said. “I know He’s accepted me, and I know this cowboy church does as well. I can be who I am. I also know others feel the same. They come here looking for fellowship and I see them leave with a sense of connection and acceptance.”

Parks does everything he can to foster a church climate where sun-dried, calloused-handed cowboys and cowgirls can experience the acceptance of Christ — a placed where, as he says, “dressing up on Sunday means beating the dust out of your hat and knocking the manure off your boots.”

Parks looks like he stepped from the pages of a Louis L’Amour novel, right down to his bushy gray mustache and black cowboy hat pulled low on his forehead. Parks grew up in Louisiana and has a picture of himself at age 2 sitting on a horse with his father. He’s been in a saddle ever since.

In 1964, Parks — then a Baptist Student Union minister — came to LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center to lead Student Week. He rode a horse to the summit of Glorieta Baldy, a 10,000-foot peak, and as he scanned the horizon he told God he wouldn’t mind if God moved him to the Glorieta area. The next day he was in the small town of Pecos, near the conference center, and was overwhelmed by the desperate spiritual needs of the people.

“I said, ‘God, if you’ll let me add a P.S. to that prayer yesterday, I’d love to move here and start a church,’” he said. Several decades passed before Parks’ prayer was answered. “Here I am 42 years later. God is faithful.” Parks said the spiritual condition in the Pecos area hasn’t changed in the decades since he made that first visit.

“There is more than 400 years of an institutionalized Catholicism entrenched in the Pecos Valley,” he said. “This entire area is a spiritually dark place with all manner of New Age spirituality. So many of these people are in bondage to alcohol, drugs and other addictions. They desperately need the acceptance and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.”

Parks and his wife, Jennifer, moved to the area about five years ago and made a connection with Bud and Linda McCrady. Linda and Jennifer both work at LifeWay Glorieta and the McCradys live on campus, having retired there with the intention of starting a cowboy church in the area. Bud had been a part of planting 43 cowboy churches in Texas. As the core group began to meet and pray, the couples were certain God was at work.

“There are 50 to 70 ranches in the Pecos Valley ranging in size from 200 to 7,000 acres,” Parks said. “Most of the people who work those ranches are surrounded by the beauty of God all day but don’t know Him. Paul says in Romans that God has revealed Himself in nature, but too often these folks worship the creation and not the Creator. We want to introduce them to Jesus so that they can know the Creator personally.

“The way we do that is not make them deny their Western heritage when they come to church,” he added. “They come in here, sometimes straight from working their ranches, and they fit in. We don’t turn anyone away. We don’t care what type of baggage you’re carrying; we know that Jesus accepts us unconditionally since there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more acceptable to Him. We don’t judge. It is not based on our righteousness but His.”

And lest anyone passing through the door of Pecos Valley Cowboy Church should forget what the church should be, a little church made of rough-cut lumber sits near the entrance to serve as a memorial to a son and reminder to all that Christ unconditionally accepts sinful people.