Amidst the bustling mid-morning at Journey to the Cross Rodeo Bible Camp, an annual Christian sleepaway camp the Finney County Fairgrounds, horses kicked up dirt, goats screamed and co-founder Randy Fisher was looking for a saddle.
Driving past the half-dozen-plus stations scattered about the fairgrounds, he saw pockets of the roughly 80 campers, ages 9 to 18, taking their shot at the camp’s rodeo clinics. Young kids heaved and crumpled under the weight of small goats at the goat-tying clinic, while older campers practiced bull riding or sat in a horseback semicircle, waiting for a chance to rope. They came from a myriad of west and east Kansas counties, as well as Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and Michigan.
And another, from Arkansas, held the bridle of a borrowed, bareback horse, waiting for him.
It wasn’t the first for Fisher. The Rodeo Bible Camp spun out 12 years ago from the now disbanded Journey to the Cross Cowboy Church, a weekly, weekday church meant to service ag workers and rodeo competitors that were often working or traveling on Sundays, after Fisher and his wife saw the camp happening in other states.
In the camp’s early years, Fisher and his wife, Rhonda, hosted a little over a dozen campers at their home, learning as they went, borrowing horses and saddles from friends. Today, as similar camps cover Colorado and Texas, the camp is only one of a handful in Kansas, Fisher said.
With the church meetings gone, the Journey to the Cross mission is now instead devoted and densely packaged into one weekend, Thursday through Sunday, where campers are without cellphones and with each other, focused on their like interests and their faith.
Christians come in all walks of life, and one of those is cowboy, Fisher said. The camp allows counselors to pass down that cowboy and rodeo heritage to the next generation showing interest in it, and then use that platform to discuss God.
“What can do as a longer lasting planting of a seed in our group here that could take kids to cowboys and take cowboys to Christ?” Fisher said.
Camp days start for campers at 6 a.m., counselor Dana Frazier said, when they feed and tend to their horses and meet in small groups before eating breakfast together. From there, campers spend the day in various rodeo clinics, practicing certain events in age groups with breaks for worship and small groups. By 10 p.m., kids tucked into bed rolls at the fairgrounds, and the next morning it begins again.
The rules of the camp — no cellphones, take care of your animals, among others — guide kids with an air of accountability, Frazier said. When older campers are asked to take care of or help younger ones, they do it with eagerness. When they’re given a responsibility, they take it seriously, she said.
“When we give them a task, they really step up to it and I think they’ve learned that here. Maybe they learned it at home, too, but it’s been reinforced here … I’ve seen them grow and mature as people and as servants of others,” Frazier said.
Friday’s campers were made up of more baseball caps than cowboy hats — several kids and teens were already rodeo veterans, but plenty were new to the sport, learning how to brush, saddle and bridle a horse before mounting it, Frazier said.
And most of them come back. Part of that is because of rodeo, but a lot of it has to do, as many counselors emphasized, with creating a safe space.
A lot of that safety is rooted in faith, volunteers said. Kids and counselors alike roam the fairgrounds with leather cross name tags at all times. The 4-H Building on the east side of the grounds has a new name: “the church.” And the lessons find themselves in the middle of clinics, as well.
Not long after Fisher strapped a saddle onto Arkansas’ horse, another camper, new to riding, was thrown off one. As an EMT spoke to the camper, shaken but not hurt, Frazier pulled nearby campers away and into a circle to pray for the bucked camper. Once EMT Will McPherson saw the boy was OK, he prayed too, this time for the camper’s heart.
When everything was calm, Fisher turned away, smiling.
“Hey! Rodeo Bible Camp!” he said.
Campers-turned-counselors Payton Welsh and Kayla Calkins remember who they were when they were young, running through the fairgrounds. Both were already involved in rodeo and both still navigating religion. And they both remember what it felt like to connect with God. For Welsh, a “warm and fuzzy” feeling that something bigger than her was working through her — for Calkins, a gratifying release of tension. Relief.
As counselors, they try to pass that on to the kids around them. Calkins said she was shocked by everything counselors did for campers and how much they care for them. As volunteers, she and her colleagues approach camper conversations and lessons with honesty and compassion — encouragement, not criticism, Frazier said. The goal is for campers to feel comfortable, at home.
To counselor Kristi Koch, rodeo is where that comfort is planted. Kids come to do something they love, and through that feel comfortable and vulnerable and willing to talk about scares them. After they share those stresses — other kids speaking poorly of them, peer pressure, trouble at home or struggles with self-worth — then the healing begins, Koch said. And then happiness. And it works, she said — campers share when they have revelations or when they want to make choices they think will make their lives fuller and happier.
“I’ve seen miracles and amazing moments happen all the time,” Koch said.
Rodeo Bible Camp is like a bubble, Calkins and Koch said, one that fuses over the fairgrounds on Thursday morning and bursts as camp ends Sunday.
And during that time, amidst and between roping and riding and caring for animals and each other, Koch said counselors are working to give kids the tools they need to feel better once that bubble breaks.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.