See the words. They’re underlined in faded pencil, printed in black ink on thin, translucent paper that makes a brittle sound like crushed onion skins. The preacher put on his black-rimmed glasses to read:
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:7. The name of the verse was stitched on a black and white patch he wore on his blue pin-striped dress shirt. Above it were the words “Pray for Uvalde” framed in the outline of Texas.
“They need peace,” the preacher said. His name is Corey Ross. He sat on a bleacher. His black bible sat next to him.
He was talking about the young men and women who had come to Casper this week to compete in the College National Finals Rodeo. Some were far away from home. Some had endured tragedy, been in accidents, lost friends and loved ones. Others were looking for words of encouragement before they went out to compete in the arena.
It was Sunday morning, June 12, the first day of the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper. Ross was getting ready to hold the week’s first Cowboy Church service at the Casper fairgrounds arena. Ross has been the CNFR Cowboy Church preacher since it was first held here in 1999. Over the years Ross has lent an ear to many contestants looking for guidance and advice.
“Getting God in the middle of what they’re fixin’ to do this week is really important,” Ross said. “That’s why we bring church to ’em. We wanna try and bring a little hope to their life, and I believe that’s founded in God.”
The arena was cavernous and cool. On the far side away from the bleachers were high windows, the morning light falling through them onto the dark, dirt floor, undulated with tire tracks.
At the top of the stairs entering into the arena was a brown plastic folding table. Some CDs, a brown paperback book titled “God’s Word for Cowboys” and a tin bucket with a duct-taped paper sign that said “Offerings” in black marker sat on the table.
A kid wearing jeans, glasses, a short sleeve button-down shirt and a white cowboy hat walked past the folding table to adjust a speaker. His name is Carson Burkham. He’s the grandson of Ricky Boen, a world-championship fiddle player from Texas. Ross plays the guitar and sings during his services, and the two are complemented by Ricky’s father, Darrel, who also plays the guitar. They’ve been traveling around together, playing at services, for the past decade or so. Ricky’s mother Jane was there too.
Cowboys and cowgirls came up the staircase in jeans, boots and hats and sat, quiet and sedate, on the bleachers. Ross, Ricky and Darrel picked up their instruments for a little pre-service rehearsal. Ross took to the mic nearing 10 am with Ricky and Darrel flanking him. He asked everyone to stand.
“Give God a big round of applause!” he said, and a ruckus of claps filled the arena. They started playing music. The crowd clapped along.
There was a young man with his family. Grandmother, mother, father, brother — all around him. He stood rigid on the far edge of a bleacher next to his kid brother, thumbs hooked into jean pockets, one hand tapping out a timid rhythm to the music. His hair was blonde, cut short. He wore a gray, hooded sweatshirt.
His name is Ira Dickinson. He grew up on a ranch outside of Rock Springs and just graduated from Panhandle State University in Oklahoma. He’s here as a saddle bronc rider for his first CNFR competition.
Prayer is important to him, in life and when he’s competing.
“It’s similar to a form of meditation,” he said. “When you compete in a sport where it can go very wrong, it’s extremely important to put yourself in that mental frame of mind to be the best competitor that you can be.”
Ross directed the crowd in a dance, and with each repetition the trio played faster until the crowd’s movements escaped the rhythm of the music. Arms fliled in the air. Hundreds of feet ratted the metal bleachers. People laughed. They played “Amazing Grace” twice, one slow version, one fast version. Ricky went sailing off on a riff. Then coming down from the high they played a slow song. Afterward, Ross started his sermon.
The cowboys and cowgirls listened to him in earnest; One woman leaned forward, black hair hiding her face, an open bible on her lap. She traced sentences with a fingernail varnished in red polish. A man in a plaid shirt on the far edge of the crowd sat forward with elbows on knees, chin resting in the palms of his hands. There was a red-brown feather stuck into his white cowboy hat. He listened to Ross like a kid listening to a story. A young woman with sunglasses perched on her head closed her eyes, one hand combing through her long, brown hair.
“You’re seed people,” Ross said to the crowd. “You have practiced and practiced and practiced. What you sow this week is going to determine a lot of things.”
A woman sat in the second row. She had straight blond hair, wore jeans and a jean jacket and red lipstick. She fiddled with a handbag that sat next to her with one hand. She fixed her eyes on Ross.
Her name is Sugar Almand, wife of Joey Almand, a rodeo coach. They’re from Uvalde, Texas. Sugar designed the patch that Ross wore on his shirt. She also designed black bracelets printed in white with the words “Pray for Uvalde, Philippians 4:7.”
“We don’t always have answers when you want to know why,” Sugar said. “You can’t always make things make sense.”
People took the bracelets from a pile on the folding table after the service was over. They filled the tin bucket with crumpled bills.
During the week, the Cowboy Church moves to a tent outside of the Ford Wyoming Center. Services start around 9:30 pm after the rodeo performances are over. They’re scheduled Tuesday through Friday.
The service was canceled on Tuesday because it was too windy. The wind died down toward evening on Wednesday. The tent went up. People wandered over after the rodeo performance. They lined up along some folding tables in the back and piled pizza, frosted cookies, rice krispies and Doritos on their paper plates. Carson doled out soda in red plastic cups. It was dark outside, and the lights of Casper gleamed through the translucent tent walls. The air was still and warm. A generator whirred nearby. People took their seats in rows of plastic folding chairs.
Ross, Ricky and Darrel took up their instruments. Ross counted the group off and they started playing “I’ll Fly Away.” People sang along with it in low voices. A woman arrived with a baby in her arms and danced to the music in the back of the tent. The blue-eyed baby waved its arms and smiled crazily. A lone man came and leaned against the corner tent pole, hands in his jeans pockets, listening.
A young woman stood quietly and walked to the back of the tent during Ross’ sermon. She pulled out her phone and started recording him.
Her name is Taylor Pino. She had long, dark hair and dark eyes and gave a short laugh after almost every sentence she spoke. It’s her first time coming to Casper. She’s from Crownpoint, New Mexico, the “steer-wrestling capital of the Navajo Nation,” she said.
Her mom, Nicole, is a rodeo coach at the Navajo Technical University. Four of her students are competing in CNFR this year in steer wrestling and tie-down roping.
“When you’re going on a steer, there’s that part where you have no control, and it’s the Lord who’s in control right there,” Nicole said. “We always pray for safety.”
Just a few people came forward for testimony; a young man in a red sweatshirt who had lost a friend, another young man who had been in a major car accident, a woman who watched her daughter through the trials and tribulations of rodeo competitions.
The woman was Katie Rasmussen, the mom of Paige Rasmussen, who sat in the crowd. She’s from Bozeman, Montana and goes to Montana State University. She lived on a big ranch growing up, right on the Rocky Mountain front, in an area that was real flat. She and her sister took their horses out and rode for miles. She competes in goat tying.
“When all those nerves come crashing, I always pray for the Lord to help me compete to the best of my ability and to keep me safe,” she said.
“I come to the service every night, just to make sure my thoughts are in the right place.”