Editor's Note: This is Part 4 of a series we call "Cropped Out." Steady population growth and conversion of rural farm and ranchland into residential, retail and commercial developments have created a clash of cultures on the road to urbanization in Denton County. Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism reported and wrote the stories. UNT professor George Getschow, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, edited the stories for exclusive publication in the Denton Record-Chronicle.
PONDER — It looks like any big-league rodeo competition. Cowboys on horseback kick up dust as they race across the dirt floor, lassos twirling over their heads, chasing a skittish calf. Within seconds, one of the cowboys ropes the calf's rear legs. Another throws his lasso around the calf's neck and pulls tight. Strung up from head to toe, the calf can't budge.
With a high-pitched Western twang, the announcer proclaims the winner. In the bleachers, friends and family cheer as if their favorites had just been crowned grand champions at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
But this is not Las Vegas. The three giant crosses hanging over the announcer's station distinguish it from other competitive rodeo arenas in the nation. This is a new $1 million, 61,000-square-foot indoor arena built, maintained and operated by the Denton County Cowboy Church in Ponder, a rural community of 1,600 people a few miles southwest of Denton.
The rough metal crosses are emblems of a long-lasting faith and of the conflicts and tragedies the Cowboy Church has endured in recent years.
Not everyone loves the church. Homeowners in nearby subdivisions aren't crazy about the lights, noise and livestock just outside their doors. Coexistence has not always been peaceful.
Sunday mornings, the 300-member congregation, clad mostly in cowboy hats and jeans, gathers inside the entrance of the church. It's a corrugated metal structure, a smaller version of the rodeo arena behind the church. Inside, the pinewood walls are adorned with miniature metal crosses, horseshoe-shaped hat racks and posters announcing upcoming rodeo events, roping workshops and fundraisers for sick cowboys.
In many ways, the Cowboy Church has the look and feel of a cowboy museum. An empty whiskey barrel and a bull rider's saddle take up one corner. Railings leading up to the altar are covered with braided rawhide and several Texas Lone Stars. Next to the altar, an antique gun-gray horse trough serves as the baptismal font.
Come in your dirty duds
Associate pastor Jamie McClain, wearing a tan cowboy hat and boots, says the casual atmosphere is no accident. His church welcomes ranchers, farmers and other hard-working folk who want to attend services in their dusty work duds without suffering condemnation from a well-groomed and scrubbed cleric or congregants.
"The Cowboy Church is really meant not to have any barriers," McClain says. "You don't have to put a suit on. You just come as you are. The atmosphere is very casual, but the worship is very serious."
Sunday sermons and old country hymns played by the Cowboy Church Band are laced with lyrics and anecdotes linking the cowboy way of life to God's word. On one typical Sunday, a visiting preacher likens staying persistent as people faith-walk through the struggles of life to getting back in the saddle when they fall off a horse. Another Sunday, a pastor illustrates the dangers of ignorance, pointing out that his horse might drop dead if it grazes on gorgeous-looking lilies containing deadly toxins.
In recent years, however, the Cowboy Church's way of life has come under attack from city folks settling into pricey housing developments sprouting just outside the church's fence. The church's new neighbors began complaining about the animal smells and shrill sounds from weekend rodeo events that spill over the fence into their backyards. They complained when a bunch of the church's cattle escaped from their pens and wandered around their neighborhood.
Hauling the church into court
When the neighbors heard about the church's plans to build a gigantic indoor rodeo arena that would tower over Madison Place, their sumptuous suburban enclave, they decided to haul the church into court. In October 2015, four homeowners filed a lawsuit in Denton County 431st District Court, complaining the Cowboy Church and the city of Ponder ignored zoning and plat requirements and allowed improvements to be made on the property without proper permits.
The four homeowners — Becky Laduke, Larry Laduke, Sean Pollock and Peter Schmitz — claimed the bright lights, animal stench and noises from the Cowboy Church's new rodeo arena would pose an intolerable nuisance to the neighborhood and decrease the value of their homes. They asked the court to permanently enjoin the church from constructing the rodeo arena.
In January 2016, the court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the church's rodeo activities posed a nuisance to their neighborhood, and the church immediately began construction of the indoor rodeo arena. The neighbors have appealed the ruling to the Texas 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth. The four plaintiffs didn't respond to a reporter knocking on the front door of their homes seeking comment. Their attorney, Gregory Sawko, didn't respond to numerous phone calls.
While the case is pending in the appeals court, McClain prefers not to discuss the case publicly. The church's attorney, Lance Vanzant, said the indoor arena is used for rodeo and worship events and is as irreplaceable to the cowboys' faith as the church itself.
"We're just hopeful that the appeals court will allow the church to continue to utilize their property to the best of their abilities for their worship services," he says.
A brand of faith tied to 'Learning the Ropes'
Whether the cowboys are competing in the arena, working the concession stand, showing a young wrangler how to lasso a stationary metal horse or raising funds to rescue someone in financial straits, those who attend the Cowboy Church say they think of themselves more as members of a close-knit family than as members of a church.
During a recent rodeo benefit for a cowboy suffering kidney failure, church members donated longhorn skulls, handmade quilts, necklaces, power tools and other items for the silent auction. Another church member donated three dozen fresh-farm eggs for sale at the concession and offered to gather up her entire production of eggs from her henhouse for the benefit.
"I consider these people family on a deeper level," McClain says. "This group will help me out in anything."
Their cowboy customs and way of life are emblazoned on the front covers of the Bibles they use during their worship services each Sunday, bearing the title "Learning the Ropes." Below the title are images of worn-out cowboy boots and a lariat. The connection between their lariats and their faith walk is showcased on the back cover of their Bibles.
A lariat rope is a useful and necessary tool in a cowboy's life. A cowboy who learns to use it with precision and skill can accomplish much both on the ranch and in the arena. God's Word is also a necessary and useful tool for building a relationship with God. By learning to use it and apply it to your life, you can receive the full and abundant life God has promised.
Born in a barn
The Cowboy Church was born in a small barn a decade ago. About a dozen farmers and ranchers from the Ponder area gathered to pray the way the cowboys did on Sundays in the Old West — inside a barn, under a mesquite tree or anyplace on the prairie where they could share the word of God.
The growing congregation quickly outgrew the small barn. So the founders decided to build a church large enough to accommodate all the farm and ranching families in the area. Tithes poured in and by 2009, the new Denton County Cowboy Church rose out of what was once remote ranch land.
But on May 5, 2012, tragedy struck their new church. Ken Hunt, 76, won't forget seeing the black smoke billowing out of the church. Watching the church destroyed by fire "was devastating," he recalls. He could hardly bring himself to watch the church turn to ruins. "This is my home," he thought. "My church home."
But Hunt and the other members of the Cowboy Church refused to let the fire destroy their community. The next day, Sunday, the congregation worshipped in a big tent assembled overnight by the indefatigable farmers and ranchers in the community.
Atop the ruins of the old structure, the ranchers and farmers gathered each evening after work to rebuild their church from scratch. Members pitched in, using their own tools, free labor and generous tithes to overcome the disaster.
"If you have a tragedy in your own family, they all come together to help you," says Hunt. "It was the same here. The church family gathered to support the church."
Drawing inspiration from their 'Old Rugged Cross'
Today, the Denton County Cowboy Church is thriving, with a growing membership, a new church and a new million-dollar indoor rodeo arena financed entirely by tithes. Members of the congregation acknowledge new housing developments filling up with city people who don't share their values and customs remain a threat to the community and their way of life.
But the faithful say when they walk through the entrance to their new church each Sunday and stare at the blackened and charred remains of what they call their "Old Rugged Cross," salvaged from the church fire, it reaffirms their belief that nothing — no lawyer, no lawsuit, no housing development — can destroy a community forged from a cowboy heritage and a brand of faith, they believe, will endure forever.
FEATURED PHOTO: Two men chat before Sunday service begins at the Denton County Cowboy Church in Ponder. Sunday sermons and old country hymns played by the Cowboy Church Band are laced with lyrics and anecdotes linking the cowboy way of life to God's word.
Sarah Sarder/For the DRC