Words by Cole Norum

I found Jesus north of I-80. He was in the Cowboy Church, across the street from a steakhouse, nestled snug between a budget motel and burger joint. I was late for the six o’clock buffet. The parking lot was full, so I stole a spot at the Inn. Forgive me, Father.

I’m only here because of Craigslist. I was seeking a deeper understanding of lifestyles of which I’ve never, ever been a part. I scrolled past listings for thrift shop volunteers and webcam models with shredded abdominal muscles, until I found a post for the Bar None Cowboy Church of Iowa, led by a man named Pastor Dave.

I texted the pastor my story. The tale about growing up atheist in Des Moines, Iowa. And how I never voluntarily set foot on a farm. The cowboy buzzed back, “I look forward to seeing you at cowboy church. Check out our website at www.barnonecowboychurchofiowa.com.”

The church began six years ago in an indoor equestrian center, having since spread its gospel and wings to a nondescript building in Newton, about 35 miles east of Des Moines. A modest town of 15,000, Newton is known for NASCAR and not much else. Every Thursday night at 7 p.m., around 240 people pack into a one-story building to hear Pastor Dave speak on the Cowboy Way. By my interpretation, the Cowboy Way is a no-frills celebration of religion and freedom to honor Thy Father and the troops.

When I told people I was going to the “Bar None” Cowboy Church, they assumed I found another way to justify drinking on a Thursday night. I did hold a modicum of hope that there’d be communion wine, and that maybe I’d find some way to sneak back in line for seconds and thirds. But let me get this straight: the only drinks at Bar None are diet sodas, and a stellar selection at that: A&W Root Beer, Sunkist, Coke and Pepsi. And coffee. There’s a lot of coffee.

Outside, Looking In

This place of faith and fellowship looks nothing like the churches in the movies. It’s no cavernous cathedral; the space is devoid of stone floors and stained windows. The light fixtures’ fluorescent hum matches that of the buffet-going congregation. It is more “Office Space” than Orthodox, as if crusading cowboys came in and razed any cubicles to accommodate the throng of Thursday-nighters.

Despite this, Bar None is still a spacious hall. Grey-beige walls flank a lukewarm carpet. Flags of our esteemed armed forces adorn the north side of the room. At the front is a mighty and powerful stage. Unvarnished wood rises from a carpeted sea, standing firm and receptive. Wide, wood beams the color of a splintered baseball bat. There’s some farm equipment, too. Relics of bygone moments, when factories were still relegated to Model Ts and textiles. Lanterns and old posters hang on the unstained wood.

I haven’t been to church in a decade. I like my belief system like my Sunday mornings: free, open and lazy if I so choose. I’ve prayed a few times. Once for baseball. It was the championship game of a July 4th tournament, and we were down a couple runs going into our last at-bat. I asked the umpire above to let us string a couple hits together. We won. That was a monumentally religious experience for me.

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A sign off Interstate 80 beckons churchgoers.
Photo by Cole Norum.

The population of Newton is 97 percent white and 19.3 percent 65 and older, but looking around the room, those numbers are a helluva lot closer to 100. I swear I’ve seen every single one of these people in my life before. They smile and I smile back, hoping they don’t see right through my unfamiliarity. I mean well, I want to tell them. I observe their every move; render their white auras in black ink.

I pick up a free Bible from the merchandise table. It’s the first time I’ve held a “good book” since I found one inside a Marriott end table. This one, “The Way for Cowboys,” is smaller, Wrangler-pocket sized, a rendition of the New International Version, replete with glossy-photo inserts of mustachioed men on horses. Some are in the countryside, others in the rodeo ring. The first pages echo of nostalgic calls to open air and bucking broncos, howling wind and pulled-tight boots. Then come the tiny, tiny words about people meaning well many years ago. I don’t plan on reading those.

Video by Cole Norum

There’s a staggering dearth of cowboy hats in the room, and I start to wonder if I’ve been duped. Two beats; music yawns then sputters through the speakers; a recording of a song written and sung by Brooke Turner, called “Saddle Up Everybody, It’s Time For Cowboy Church!” Everybody saddles but remains seated. Pastor Dave comes up and says a few kind words about kinder folks. His voice is deeper than our late-October sky, a wholesome rasp that settles in warmth.  

He welcomes to the stage a group of string-strummers who play for longer than his sermon. Their Southern gospel rocks my socks. This is what it’ll be like: talented folk challenging my godless childhood. My legs bounce and twitch with something greater than myself. For the first time tonight, I can feel it. At about 68 minutes in, Jesus starts tugging at my eyelids. I leave early, and feel good doing so. I couldn’t give it my all on the first night, in my first church since before I started middle school. I plan to come back next week with my camera.

Through The Looking Screen

I’ve been feeling iffy about hauling my camera equipment to this week’s gathering. I don’t want people to feel intruded upon. To a certain extent, I am using them. I’m using their decades-long displays of faith for my hours-long immersion. I’ve texted Dave several times to clear my intentions to film. He never responded.

I mean well, I want to tell them. I truly do. But now, I’m recording them through lenses and wires, not just pens.

I’m here in the front row—Dave is nowhere to be seen. I approach the stage for B-roll footage of its cross-bearing lectern and rustic agriculture utensils. A man makes a comment about my camera. His name’s Bruce. Bruce Punch: tonight’s entertainment, along with the rest of his family, The Punches. They hail from somewhere far away in Missouri. I tell Bruce the story I texted Dave. Bruce mentions he was at a bus station in Pensacola, where I imagine is the setting of profound righteous epiphanies.

Bruce met a girl who, for a story, renounced her wealth to live among homeless people. Dumpster-diving for full immersion.

Bruce and Owen, his son, help me set up my audio recorder to pull sound directly from the soundboard. I go back to my seat feeling guilty. I don’t want people to think I’m using them. I mean well, I want to tell them. I truly do. But now, I’m recording them through lenses and wires, not just pens.

I’m aware of things my second time around. That bear pelt tacked to the speckled wall between unstained windows. The custom bibles on certain chairs—season-ticket holders who opt for $90 seat cushions. People shuffle to see me. I notice I’m worried that I’m not welcome.

Buoyed by decent intentions and better camera equipment, I waltzed in here. I’m immediately and inescapably aware of my ignorance to this all. Aware of how I thought I appeared. These bespectacled beings craning their necks for good looks at the boy in the front. My skin blushes. My mouth grinds.

I look down, and see a coffee puddle and empty cup. I glance around the compass, thanking the barista above that nobody saw me spill. I stash my backpack on the puddle and begin the walk to replenish caffeine. The only path is down the middle of the room. I make it, but barely. Then, I spot Dave. He eyes my camera as he continues talking to someone, and I want to shrink into a corner, but the closest is occupied by a pair of cowboy boots that have plants growing out of them.

To escape the awkwardness, I take a sip of the coffee, burning six months off my mouth’s lifespan. I try again, because I’m nothing if not determined. Damn. Six more months. Dave gets up, making moves toward me. I can’t move and I can’t speak. My mouth is numb from the coffee’s scornful heat. If I open my lips now, there’s a very real, very serious chance I’ll begin speaking in tongues.

Dave is six-feet-forever tall, excluding his brown cowboy hat. I approach him because, again, I’m nothing if not determined. I re-introduce myself, referencing my texts; he apologizes for not replying, and assures me I am allowed to film. It’s a moment of serenity; apprehensions allayed momentarily, I return to my spot the same way from which I came: down the center of the room, parting the red seats. I feel like a tourist, with all the ignorance and none of the fanny pack.

There is a man, who isn’t Dave, walking around. He’s most certainly in a position of authority. He makes his way up and down the aisles, shaking hands with everyone. I wait my turn eagerly. He nears me and I ready my introduction and my story, “Hey, buddy,” he says. His face is my father’s baseball glove, and from his leathered neck hangs a cross so gold it puts my favorite rappers to shame. Blinded by the light, I can only mutter, “I… uh…Well, I’m Cole.” He looks at me for a couple of seconds and nods, as if to mutter to my burning ears, “You’re damn right you are.”

I have no time to dwell on this. The Punches land on the straw-strewn stage, throwing haymakers and left hooks of banjo plucks and bass grooves. I swivel my camera’s LCD screen and I like to think the elderly women behind me can see better because of it. But I’m watching this all through three high-resolution inches, and I feel that I shouldn’t. I need to be closer to this experience, right? Removed from frills and fanciness; just flags of armed forces and free cowboy bibles. That’s the Cowboy Way, right?

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The Punches, a family band, perform before the Thursday night crowd.
Photo by Cole Norum.

The Punches wind down and Dave starts up with a sermon more energetic than last week’s—Psalm 23, or, as he calls it: “Relief from the Rat Race.” The towering pastor discusses a filmmaker in Los Angeles who befriended him on Facebook. Dave didn’t know him, but the filmmaker told Dave he wished he had his life: this “simpler way of living,” of escaping the daily grind. Of freedom. Of living to live. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know if it’s narcissistic to wonder if Dave picked the sermon about the filmmaker because he actually knew I was going to be here with my camera. I don’t know if I’m shaking from the coffee or the Holy Spirit or an unhealthy combination of both. I don’t know a lot of things. But I got a free bible out of it.

I sneak a peek at the last pages of the bible as I walk out the door. The ending is more postscript than epilogue, penned by a guy named Grant Adkisson. He asks me if there’s something missing in my life. I read on, yearning for more nostalgia about places and moments I’ve never known, like horses and haystacks and the pockets of peace scattered between.

No. Grant talks about Jesus. About finding the same kind of “way” I imagine most folks do. And that’s fine with me. It’s beautiful, actually. Open-armed embraces under open skies. At this time though, the Cowboy Bible and its “Way”? Of weekly reminders about the virtues of a belief system to which I’m not ready to subscribe and the way to a life that is simpler than the complexity I’ve chosen thus far? Just ain’t for me. Not now.

But this is the best part of Cowboy Church— my favorite part of Cowboy Church: it’s not grounded in absoluteness. And I’m not more or less certain about anything, just appreciative of the ticks and tocks between the two. And I know this now while my boots press seventy on the odometer, the wind howling against my windows, as I head west to taller buildings and colder coffee.