GARDEN CITY, KS (BP) – Laughter and squeals abound as water balloons fly through the air. Boys run after girls, trying to drench them. Older teens slink off to the corner, feigning that they're too cool until a counselor is in range and they let the water fly.
The traditional water balloon fight of summer camp comes to an end with a not-so-traditional announcement:
"Time to muck out the stalls and feed the horses."
Everyone stoops over to grab cowboy hats strewn across the pavement and clomps their way to the barn, laughing and teasing along the way.
Journey to the Cross Rodeo Bible Camp in Garden City, Kan., does just what the title suggests, mixing two traditions -- church camp and rodeo -- into one experience.
The camp began 12 years ago on Randy Fisher's ranch with 12 campers and a few volunteers from the Journey to the Cross cowboy church/Christian fellowship. Now it meets on Garden City's rodeo grounds and uses the local college's practice facilities. It averages 80 students from five states per year and nearly 40 counselors.
"Our goal in the beginning was just to show Jesus in us," Fisher says. "We had three passions: Christ, kids and cowboying. So we put them together in this camp."
Campers, ranging in age from 9 to 18, sign up for teams to learn a rodeo event like bull riding, barrel racing, horseless horseman, pole bending, goat tying or cutting.
Each event team includes counselors who have often competed either in college or the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as well as a spiritual counselor to lead Bible studies and spiritual growth. Campers have a chance to practice their events or learn a new event in a safe environment with coaching. They also do the typical "church camp" things like Bible study, worship services and crazy games.
Lakin Getz, an eighth-grader from Quinter, Kan., had no idea there was such a thing as "rodeo Bible camp" until this year.
"It's great," he says. "We have fun with friends and practice our rodeo events. The best part is that we do it all with the love of Christ."
Getz, of Quinter, Kan., signed up to learn chute dogging. This is similar to steer wrestling but cowboys start out in the chute with the steer. When the gate opens, Getz already has it by the horns as the steer tries to make an escape. A counselor holds the tail taut to keep the animal from getting too wild. Getz sets his feet wide and yanks back, brings the steer down to the ground. He jumps up and lets out a "whoop."
While pulling down the steer was a rush, Getz quickly points out that's not the best thing he's learned at camp.
"I've learned how to talk to God and get closer to Him," he says as other chute doggers nod their agreement. "We are learning to be cowboys who serve Christ."
Across the rodeo grounds, a group of barrel racers learn about following God's lead via studying horse halters and bits. The counselor, Audra Campbell of Amarillo, Texas, shows different styles of bits and how each is used. She then asks what happens when the horse trusts the rider. Campers answer that it will follow the rider anywhere. Campbell smiles and expands the analogy to encompass Christians following Christ and being properly equipped.
This transition from "cowboying" to living a life for Jesus happens naturally throughout the camp and is what keeps Brekken Hoffman coming back. The recent Sublette High School graduate learned about Jesus' love seven years ago. She was having trouble with a barrel horse and a friend suggested the camp could help with its group of rodeo counselors.
"At that time, my family didn't go to church or talk about religion. I came because I just wanted to fix my horse," Hoffman remembers. "Something bigger happened that week, though. Every night I bawled and cried because my heart was opening to Christ. I was baptized at camp in Randy's horse tank."
Most of the repeat campers say they can't remember a time when someone wasn't baptized in the horse tank after the rodeo for parents and grandparents on the last day of camp. This year, 11 made decisions to follow Christ in believer's baptism after talking with counselors and their parents.
Many of the campers compete against each other during the year and keep up via social media. Hoffman says they become a "giant group of supporters," even helping one friend through the grief of losing a grandparent last year.
"The atmosphere at Rodeo Bible Camp is all about loving and caring for people," she says. "It doesn't matter who you are. If you are in trouble, we learn to stop and help, all while showing Christ. I love it here!"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Sprenkle is a writer based in Kansas.