When the whip cracks, they know they’re in the presence of the Lord.
A group of boys spitting chew around a fence post glances over.
In a nearby field, 9-year-old Hunter Holmes and 6-year-old Emory Weins, both in matching plaid shirts and cowboy hats, break from herding fellow elementary schoolers and perk up their ears.
Older folks, still finishing their dinner of pulled pork and baked beans, put down their forks and make their way to the pavilion.
Hats fly off heads as the Rev. Billy Keith begins the prayer offerings.
Instead of pews, the congregation sits on picnic benches. For an offering basket, they use a 10-gallon hat. Rather than a choir, Christian country singer Hunter Erwin sings “I Found Jesus at a Walmart.”
This is cowboy church.
In a rodeo arena just off S.R. 41 in Williston, the rugged and the denim-decked have met every Thursday at 7 p.m. for five years to hear sermons from Keith.
He’s a burly man with a thick goatee and an even thicker Southern accent. His work-hardened hands wrap all the way around yours as he greets you with, “How y’all doin’?”
In 2006, Keith left Otter Creek Baptist Church in Williston to start his own church. Originally, he didn’t figure himself to be the pastor type. But a few months into organizing the church, he said, the Lord put the burden on him to preach. Since then, he’s gained 120 to 160 followers. He gets more every year at church-sponsored rodeos.
The church is part of the Cross Brand Cowboy Church network of similar churches scattered around the continent. The church is informal and nondenominational. Keith says that’s how he likes it.
“Everything that should be happening in a church atmosphere is happening,” he said.
Since starting the church, Keith has performed two baptisms, both in a cow trough out back. He’s also led two weddings with the brides wearing little white dresses. The grooms put on their best tuxedo tops and blue jeans.
Keith said informal events like those draw his target audience: day-working cowboys. Usually, they are the most reluctant ones to attend.
“They don’t like to be around people,” he said. “They just like to be around their horses and cows.”
Now, cowboys make up three-fourths of the congregation. Mickey Thornton is one of them.
He’s about 5 feet 7 inches tall and built like a grizzly bear. He’s usually seen wearing clay-caked Wranglers, dusty work boots and a camouflage ball cap. The only clean thing on his body is a tiny pewter cross that hangs between the top two buttons of his flannel work shirt.
On an average day’s worth of work at Whitehurst Cattle Company, he drives 500 head of cattle, tagging ears and castrating bulls. He sees the sun rise and set while he’s in the saddle. But he still makes time for church.
Thornton started coming two years ago when he saw the sign on S.R. 41 and “came in to see what’s goin’ on.”
He kept making time every week and works now as the arena team leader for the rodeos. That, he says, is what got him out of the North Georgia bars and into barrel races, roundups and prayers.
He leads a five-minute prayer before every rodeo event.
“That may be the only word of God a cowboy ever gets,” he said. “Whether you need to put Christ in a cowboy or cowboy in a Christian.”
John Young joined the church after coming to one of Thornton’s rodeos. Young has been riding his whole life.
“Well, not all of it,” he said. “It ain’t over yet.”
He’s the son of a Baptist preacher and chose here over any of the area’s churches.
“Sometimes you just don’t fit in other places,” he said.
The rodeo also brought in Glenn Bush. He brought his 12-year-old grandson for mutton bustin’ (a rodeo event for children riding sheep) and got to talking with Keith. Bush comes every week now in blue jeans, a white cowboy hat and white boots — his Thursday best.
When prayers have been offered, announcements have been read and the 10-gallon hat has been passed around as an offering basket, Keith and the rest of the members join in for prayer.
He thanks God for the weather, his family, a good crop season, “and how we can be cowboys, country boys, Southern boys and rednecks and still have a good time. In Jesus’ name we pray.”