He squints into the crowd, his oversized silver belt buckle and worn spurs catching the glint of the morning sun. Skipper Calder, founder of Cowboy-up Ministry, has everyone's attention.
"Duck here has seriously hurt four people," he says, nodding at the sturdy red quarter horse standing next to him. "Not sure if he's going to hell or not, but I know several people have told him that."
Calder pauses, then vigorously rubs the horse's neck. Duck's eyes start to close. He looks perfectly content. The last thing he looks is dangerous.
"All Duck needed was to learn how to be obedient. And that's all God wants from us. I didn't give up on Duck, who surely was headed to Death Row, and I can tell you that God will not give up on you."
The people in the folding chairs nod their heads. They get the message. Somehow, it just makes sense hearing it this way, from a cowboy preacher and his once-doomed horse in an outdoor arena surrounded by hundred-year-old live oaks on a cattle ranch in Zolfo Springs.
As far as anyone knows, Calder, 57, is the only ordained minister in Florida who routinely uses horses to illustrate his sermons. That's what draws Jimmy Foster of Odessa to this little town in Hardee County, where they celebrate pioneers and fish in the Peace River. He belongs to Keystone United Methodist Church, just a quarter-mile from his house, but as many Sundays as possible, he makes the 105-mile trek here.
Because, he says, this is what church should look like and sound like.
"This is God's church," says Foster, who owns a tree service company. "It's not about the walls, the fancy building, the gold collection plates. It's about God's word. That's what's preached here, with a touch of horse training."
Cowboy churches got their start in the 1980s, but have really taken off in the last decade.
"It's that Western heritage we're tapping into," says Vicki Nolen of the Texas-based and Southern Baptist-backed American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches. "You involve people in that culture where they're comfortable and it opens a lot more doors."
Nolen's group launched with one congregation nearly 11 years ago. It now claims more than 162 cowboy churches in the Lone Star State with some 20,000 in weekly attendance. Five years ago, the fellowship expanded nationwide and has added about 50 congregations, including several "in the works" in Florida.
"The movement is booming," Nolen says. With a significant population working in the horse, livestock and agricultural fields, Florida is one of the best prospects for growth. That's why the AFCC brought its "Ranch House Cowboy Church School" to Ocala in April to teach nearly 200 participants how to "plant" a Western-themed ministry.
And there are plenty of themes: Chuck wagons, rodeos, stagecoaches, Wild West, trail riding. Ministers can preach from their own version of the New Testament, "The Way for Cowboys," and enroll in special "cowboy preaching" training at the Truett Seminary at Baylor University.
A real-life path
Calder's path to ministry was real-life and self-taught.
He grew up the next town over in Wauchula, where his father helped manage a 3,500-acre cattle ranch. By the time he was 6, he was "cow hunting" - that's what they called it because finding Herefords in Florida's lowlands took a hunter's skill - with the ranch hands.
That's not the only thing he did with the grownups. "I was drinking beer before I could walk," he says. And on the occasions when his parents took him to church, he was more interested in flirting with the girls.
He didn't get serious about his Christian faith until he was 22, when his best friend's pregnant wife got seriously ill. The baby didn't make it, and the mother died shortly afterward in the hospital. Her father told all the friends who had held vigil that she had only one prayer for all of them: to accept Jesus as their savior.
"I was the least likely one to be saved. But that's just what happened, and everything changed," Calder says.
For a while, he was on fire for the Lord, giving his testimony every chance he could get. He and his wife had two children. He worked in several professions, from driving cattle to growing citrus to training unruly horses. For 20 years, he rode the rodeo circuit, winning seven team roping saddles and numerous buckles. He broke about 37 bones along the way.
He wasn't always a perfect Christian. He sometimes slipped and slid. But when Mike Graham founded Our Lord's Church in Wauchula, he was on the ground floor working in leadership and discipleship roles. Every year, he took charge of the livestock and rode the white horse in the church's famed "The Story of Jesus" Easter production at the Cattlemen's Arena.
That was the high point. In 1993, Calder's marriage of 23 years broke up.
"When we go through the deepest valleys, that's when we learn the most. We don't learn it from the mountaintops," he says. "All the bad that happens, it happens for a reason. You just have to find a way to turn it around and use it for the Lord."
Calder says he got two second chances. One was marrying Kathy, a manager with the Department of Transportation, and the other was finding Reality Church in Zolfo Springs, led by quadriplegic rodeo chaplain Randy Johnson. The Calders felt right at home at the cowboy church, helping with Sunday school and preaching when their pastor was on the road.
It was here, Calder says, that God revealed to him that he could preach from a horse, using his training techniques to teach Scriptures. He could meld both his passions and minister to people who otherwise would not go to church.
His basic premise: It's not what a horse can do; it's what a horse can do through us. It's the same thing with God, Calder says. It's not what we can do; it's what God can do through us.
"When you train a horse, the first thing is to get him to surrender to you. I don't want him to try harder, I want him to surrender," he says. "And that applies to us, too. Don't try so hard to please God. Just surrender to him and see the grace that will flow from that."
Johnson saw Calder's potential as well. He ordained Calder, giving him a calling card that would guarantee access to prisons and hospitals.
Calder soaked in more knowledge while hauling livestock in an 18-wheel rig around the state. He would pop in CDs or cassettes by well-known Christian leaders such as Charles Stanley, James Dobson and Gary Chapman. When he got to his destination, he would chat it up with the buyers at the stockyards. He could speak their language.
"We call him '24/7' because he's always learning, always on the go," Johnson says. "He's just a great people person with a faithful heart and good organizational skills. That's just the kind of soldier Christ needs for his army."
A modest goal
Three years ago, Calder got Johnson's blessing to start his own ministry down the road at the 2,000-acre family ranch run by Mike and Becky Damboise. The couple, who host youth rodeo events and cattle rides, offered their Cracker Trail Arena for his Sunday services.
He set a modest goal: Get five people a week who don't typically go to church. The first Sunday, 60 showed up. There's no collection plate, just two boxes for donations. Sometimes, people bring their horses for a fellowship trail ride on the property or hang around for a barbecue potluck.
God laughs if you show up in a coat and tie when it's this hot outside, Calder tells them. Most wear their Stetsons and Wranglers, or shorts and T-shirts.
"I like the outdoors," says Lee Browning, 50, of Gardner. He runs an auto salvage yard and owns eight quarter horses. Getting dressed up for church services is the last thing he wants to do on weekends. When he heard about the come-as-you-are invitation to Cowboy-up Ministry, curiosity got the best of him.
Now he attends regularly.
"I'm learning about God and horses at the same time. Seems like every time I leave here, I go home with a good message that makes sense," Browning says. And, he says, "I don't have to take off my hat."
Not everyone who comes here is a cowboy. Kim Glarner, 47, a medical assistant from Sebring, doesn't own a horse. But she feels like she fits in.
"I like how he relates the Scriptures to real life. It's not going over my head and making me think, 'What is he talking about?" she says. "And he's not afraid to say what he's done wrong in his life. There's no judging."
In God's time
Calder's ministry also takes him and Duck on the road all over the state - to private demonstrations, special events and Vacation Bible Schools. Since he didn't take a salary the first few years, his and Kathy's plans to build a new home were put on hold. Even though he now takes in $200 a week, that won't be enough to move out of their double-wide with a leaky roof.
In God's time, Calder says.
Instead, he measures his success with a bridle rope that he carries with him. For every baptism, he makes a knot. He's up to 20 now.
Calder thinks he knows why there's such an intrigue about cowboys of the Old West. Their handshake meant something. They were men of their word. They believed in a hard day's work. Being around nature and the outdoors is the closest you can get to God on this earth.
Those values are still important, but modern cowboys have to live in their time.
He's on Facebook to keep in touch with congregants. He spends more time on his computer than in the saddle. That's OK; after years of getting kicked, thrown, bucked and bit, it hurts too much to ride anymore.
"My knee is bone on bone, my neck is bone on bone, and my back is bone on bone," he says. "I don't ride for fun. But I love to be on them if they give me an audience to talk to about Jesus. They've taught me so much, and now I'm using them to teach others."
WHAT: Horse training with a spiritual message. Pastor Skipper Calder demonstrates communication, confidence and control with your horse and God.
WHERE: Meets 10 a.m. Sundays at 6134 Cracker Trail Arena, State Road 66, Zolfo Springs (See temporary summer venue change below.)
TEMPORARY SUMMER VENUE: 10 a.m. Sundays July 25 through Aug. 22 meets at the Arcadia Turner Agri-Civic Center, 2250 Roan St., Arcadia
INFORMATION: Call (863) 781-2281 or www.cowboyup ministry.com
200 South Parker Street, Tampa, FL 33606
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