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Gazette Premium Content Cowboy church in Westcliffe bucks tradition

By Stephanie Earls Updated: July 27, 2014 at 9:20 am

WESTCLIFFE - If Jesus had a man cave, this might be it.

"Welcome to Cabella's," says the cowboy preacher as he sweeps you into his Wild West Cowboy Church, a church unlike any other in a town of many churches.

The cowboy church isn't a tourist ploy, though pastor Larry Smith happily welcomes passers-through. It's a real working church for real working ranchers and patriots, with a flock of 200, meeting house and functioning corral on 40 acres just north of town (turn at the "wagon of antlers").

The church strives to meet the needs of people who "embrace the western cowboy culture," as the motto goes. It does this, says Smith, by eliminating the barriers that keep Christian ranch and farm workers from attending traditional Sunday worship services.

The church is evangelical, but non-denominational. In fact, attendees think organized religion is "crap." Yes, that's a quote.

Baptisms are done in a horse trough and services are Sundays at 4 p.m., a time that caters to the schedules of those "pulling calves and bringing in the flocks" on the many ranches and farms in the Wet Mountain Valley.

There are no altar calls and the dress code is strict: Come as you are, spurs and all.

"You can come here on some Sundays and there will be horses tied up out here and people coming in with blood and manure on their boots, straight from the ranch. That's why we have a concrete floor, stained brown," says Smith, owner of a slow-loping Texas drawl, cowboy boots and a big hat that he doffs when he shakes hands with a lady.

He prefers the title Trail Boss over preacher and he when he says that the church has no members, it's with pride. "We tell people you come once, you're our guest," says Smith, "and if you come back, you're family. That's how we do it."

The offering plate is a worn-out cowboy boot placed near the entrance.

"We don't want people to feel that pressure to give or feel embarrassed to contribute if they can't," says Smith.

After moving from Texas to Colorado 17 years ago, Smith first founded a church in Pueblo, about an hour due east. Then, about six years ago, a well-to-do attendee who'd been hoofing the 60 or so miles from Westcliffe every Sunday presented an offer Smith couldn't refuse. He'd provide land and entirely underwrite the project if Smith would relocate his church to his rural hometown on the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristos. In Westcliffe, Smith was able to create his church along a grander vision, with all the bells and whistles.

Though it ranges like the seasonal headcount, popular estimates put the number of worship houses at a whopping 22 in Westcliffe and neighboring Silver Cliff, which together boast a population of about 1,100. Even given the wealth of options for the faithful, Smith's church struck a chord with local audiences soon after it opened.

"We started with 20 people and now we're at 200, and there are only 600 people in town," Smith says.

The first rule of Cowboy Church: No frouf.

"There's a reason men don't like to go to church. Most churches are 70 percent women and 30 percent men," says Smith. "When you walk into most church buildings it's all pink and lavender and flowers. What we do here is we reverse this code. This looks masculine."

Does it ever.

If not for the wagon of antlers out front - and, once you're close, the rustic wood sign above the front doors - you might mistake the Cowboy Church for just another big, red, aluminum-sided farm building. Inside, it's dim, dusty and roadhouse dark. Scramble the chairs and add a bar, some sawdust and a few quarter billiards tables and this could be the set of that selfsame Swayze flick. American flags and stuffed big game heads - big-horned sheep, deer, a moose - adorn the walls, which are made to look like those of a log cabin. Christmas lights drape the rafters. There's a chuckwagon, "Starbull's" (get it?), that dispenses coffee drinks and sodas and a stage crowded with musical equipment for the six-piece band that plays top 40 country hits, lyrics tweaked to reference the Savior.

"We make the building look like a cow camp or a bar, because that's where a lot of the cowboys hang out," says Smith. "We want people to come in here and feel real, real comfortable."

Services always include 25 minutes of music and 10 minutes of preaching.

"Larry's quite the musician," says Gail Rolland, a part-year resident of Silver Cliff, who runs a summer fiddle camp with her husband, Peter, a national fiddle champ and internationally renowned teacher. The Rollands aren't members, but they stopped by on a Thursday to discuss jamming with the church band - unknowingly underscoring one of Smith's more poignant points.

The church brings together those with common touchstones - God, music, work schedules, affections what Smith refers to as the "cowboy lifestyle."

According to the Colorado Springs-based Cowboy Christian Connection, in the U.S. fewer than 800 interdenominational ministries specifically serve this growing subset of the faithful, part of a culture not known, at least historically, for its Godly behavior.

For the kids, there's mutton busting and roping events, and Sunday servies always wrap with a potluck dinner, with "some of the best vittles you ever had."

In the past, the church met with some controversy because of its close affiliation with The Southern Colorado Patriot's Society, which invited gun enthusiasts from near and far to march, with their guns, in the town's Independence Day Parade. This year the church sponsored the annual event, including a Second Amendment Rally and March.

"That's the problem with church today. Everybody's got all these rules and regulations that they say you have to meet up to when that's not the way it is at all," says Smith. "We believe you have to have a relationship with God, but there's no membership or nuthin' here, no strings attached. We're all just messed up cowboys and cowgirls that need Jesus."

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Contact Stephanie Earls at 636-0364

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