Rodeo ministry helps develop good character in the arena of life
By Mike Haynes
Fourteen young people, half male and half female, stood in a semi-circle, their feet in the deep dirt of a rodeo arena. All their eyes were on a man in a black western hat, black vest and blue jeans.
Three other men wearing similar hats stood nearby under the bright lights of the indoor facility.
The young group, most of them members of the Clarendon College rodeo team or the ranch horse program, all were bareheaded, and they tended to have on shorts and T-shirts instead of their normal Levi’s and button-down shirts.
They were about to get wet in a small, metal stock tank.
A few had attended high school in the Texas Panhandle, and more had been recruited to Clarendon by Bret Franks, director of the rodeo and ranch horse programs, from as far away as Iowa and Alabama.
Their paths to these baptisms on April 30 had started with attraction to a quality rodeo program, from a years-long Christian ministry and from a tragedy involving one of their friends and teammates.
Two years ago, a potential student and his parents visited the college. “They said they wanted to come on a Tuesday night, because that’s when we have church,” said the Rev. Thacker Haynes, the guy in the black hat and vest who from the beginning has helped coordinate a ministry that now feeds about 75 people with a hot meal and the Good News of Jesus weekly during the school year.
Haynes (this writer’s cousin) is pastor of the Methodist churches in McLean and Heald. He said 85% of those congregations’ members participate in the rodeo ministry or a multi-church youth ministry, mostly on cooking teams. Also involved in the eight food teams are One Way Church in McLean and the Methodist church in Clarendon.
“It’s home-cooked food,” Haynes said. “Hamburgers and hotdogs but also sausage-potato casserole, enchiladas and banana pudding.” Bobbi Stalls keeps the meal ministry going, and her husband, Randy Stalls, helps with the evangelism.
Almost a decade ago, the rodeo coach at the time, Cody Heck, told Randy Stalls, a McLean cattleman, he needed help getting his students on the right track as some were tempted by drugs, alcohol and partying. Stalls and Haynes came up with the weekly meetings at the rodeo-ranch facilities.
Stalls and Haynes bring in people, primarily with ranching and rodeo backgrounds, to talk to the students about their lives and how faith in God can give them direction. They range from Cowboy Church pastors such as John Paul of Woodward, Oklahoma, to world champion roper Stran Smith of Childress and his wife, Jennifer Douglas Smith, an ESPN rodeo commentator.
Haynes said a central theme tends to emerge each year without the speakers consulting each other. “This year it was relationships, whether with each other or with God,” he said.
Franks said the ministry has played a major role in his programs’ success, which included Clarendon College placing third last month at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming.
“It was the first time we’d been able to send a full team,” Franks said.
Riggin Smith, who Franks had recruited from Iowa, won the saddle bronc competition, and his cousin, Teagan Smith, placed third in saddle bronc. Dylan Jones finished fourth in team roping.
That kind of success in the rodeo arena stems from developing good character in the arena of life, according to Franks, and he credits the rodeo ministry for building that foundation.
“My role is about trying to influence these kids’ lives, make them better citizens,” he said. “A lot of them come from broken homes; their parents weren’t there. We need to face those problems first and foremost.
“When I recruit kids and have their parents here, one of the first things I tell them is that we’re a family, just like a church. We’re together from 2 o’clock in the afternoon to dark every day, we meet together, we have fellowship on Tuesday nights. It’s more of everybody helping everybody than a lot of other places.”
That family came even close together on March 18, when 20-year-old Dalton O’Gorman of Shamrock, Dylan Jones’s roping partner, was killed in a skid loader accident.
“Not making light of the tragedy, but it turned into a huge blessing for most of the kids when they realized everybody was backing them,” Franks said. “When you’re a family living with each other for a couple of years, you have a lot more than most.”
Franks said Jones also was O’Gorman’s best friend. “When Dalton passed away, every time Dylan got on a horse or picked up a rope, it brought back all the memories. He never talked about quitting, but he dang sure wanted to step away from it for a while.”
Franks convinced Jones to compete at nationals. “That was a huge blessing in itself. It got him back on a horse, and he got to go up there and represent the school and Dalton’s legacy and memory.”
The night of O’Gorman’s accident, “within a couple of hours, we had Thacker and Randy and John Paul and people in the community and administration here consoling those kids and praying with them. We were pretty fortunate to have that ministry in place, because it held us together.”
The heartbreaking experience helped focus the students on life’s priorities, leading some, which included O’Gorman’s high school-age sister, to request baptism. Haynes said that before granting the request, he, Stalls and Paul asked each one, “Why?”
“Man, they gave some good answers,” Haynes said. “And we spent a lot of time crying with them.”
On June 6, Haynes and the Stalls couple received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award at the annual meeting in Lubbock of the Northwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. They had been nominated by the Rev. Kirk Watson, a former Clarendon pastor who assisted the rodeo ministry for three years.
Watson wrote in his nomination form, “They are building relationships with these students on a name by name, event by event basis. They invest in the lives of these students. …
“These students get a sense that they matter to the people involved in this ministry, and through that they start to believe that they matter to Jesus.”