The first impression you receive when going to Barb’s Barn for Cowboy Church in Oxford, Florida is one of peace. Pasture lines the driveway where horses quietly graze, peacocks meander on the premises as well as a few chickens.
Today the sun shines brightly and there is a slight breeze.
I arrive early and Betty is wiping down tables located on the porch area of the barn; Florida humidity and dust are removed in a few defined swipes. A friend of Barb’s, Betty says she first started attending in order to help out but has continued to attend as she enjoys the fellowship.
We move inside where the band members come in one by one, setting up their instruments and music sheets. This particular Sunday I am told that those playing have never played together before nor have they practiced. Some know each other, others do not. This is Florida, after all – where a good deal of the residents are native to somewhere else, yet have chosen Florida to call home. Two of the volunteer band are discussing where they are headed for the rest of the summer.
This is truly an event where like-minded people come together to share their abilities, their passions, and worship as Christians.
Barb Hall, the owner of the ranch where this Cowboy Church is held, comes in and points to a coffee pot and to a table laid out with sweet rolls and cookies and tells me to help myself. Money is never requested but donations are welcomed.
As guests begin to arrive, the rows of chairs begin to fill. Some have brought their dogs who are just as welcome as their owners. Not quite as many seats are filled during the summer as, like some of the band members, a large number of regular attendees have gone elsewhere for the remainder of the summer…a chance to go “home” to visit with old friends and family and to escape the Florida summer heat.
When you look around the inside of this “church”, it is obvious that veterans are honored here. Flags from every branch of armed forces drape the walls as well as a few other flags. Of course, the barn is decorated with all things related to barns and horses. It is a way of life that created the Cowboy Church.
The time arrives when services begin with an opening prayer led by John Brown, who is the speaker for this particular Sunday. He also plays the guitar, sings and writes songs. The Pledge of Allegiance is then recited and the service begins with the gospel set to music; each member of the band sings a song and the audience is invited to participate. Steel guitar player Mike Pontrelli thanks everyone for coming and “laying it out for the Lord”; he thanks Barb for letting them “do this”. As the band warms up, harmony becomes more evident and you understand that these people are passionate about what they do as well as what they believe. John Brown sings one of his original songs, “The Ultimate Sacrifice”, the story of John Donahue. Donahue was a soldier in Vietnam who lost his life in 1968.
Barbs colt, Rojo is at the back of the barn looking through the paned window. He seems to be enjoying the music and paws the side of the barn. Eventually, he moves on and a peacock takes his place. He, too, seems drawn to the music and peers through the glass.
The music portion of the service is followed up with a break for refreshments. Guest meander over to where the sweet rolls and coffee reside, mingling and greeting friends. After the intermission, John Brown takes his place and delivers a well thought out and sometimes poetic message. At times emotional, the service is well received and ends of course, with prayer.
A testimony is given by one of the band volunteers, Brenda Ellis, of how a daughter was spared in what could have been a tragic accident. Pulling a horse trailer late at night after an event, and a curve. An episode where fate or guardian angels, perhaps even divine power intervened. A prayer of gratitude most certainly said.
A final prayer is said and people rise from their seats, the band members start packing the musical instruments. There are those who hang out for a while and conversation buzzes, some help with the closing up routine; coffee maker turned off, leftovers packaged.
Cowboy Church embraces a way of life that with certainty has changed over the decades, yet still holds core values and beliefs. Ranches and farms were mostly family-owned and operated and sometimes isolated. If not isolated they still shared a rural way of life that was removed from the hustle and bustle of large communities, cities. It was necessary to create their own environment for gatherings including worship.
And so it is at this particular place of worship. No denominations, no fancy dress, just the word of God and those who gather to celebrate it.
Cowboy or not, all are welcome.
Barb’s Barn Cowboy Church is open to all and located at 10191 CR 223 Oxford Fl.