Standing on a flatbed trailer, the sprawling grasslands of the Sonoita-Elgin area all around him, the Rev. Steve Lindsey preaches his “Resurrection Day” sermon.
Canelo Cowboy Church’s band plays bluegrass hymns as the sun rises, and the smell of breakfast cooking — biscuits, gravy, eggs and bacon — drifts toward churchgoers.
In the coming year, the congregation hopes to relocate here permanently, leaving behind the one-room schoolhouse where the church has met since its first service in 2006.
This is a day of new beginnings.
“Our first-ever service was a sunrise service on Easter,” says the pastor’s wife, Naomi Lindsey, 53. “We had 80 people in the middle of nowhere at 5:30 in the morning.”
After that first Easter service, attendance averaged around 30 to 35 people each week. These days, 75 to 80 churchgoers pack into the one-room schoolhouse, with some Sundays seeing as many as 100 worshippers. At the beginning of this year, the church added a second service each Sunday morning.
“Once you get to 80 percent capacity, folks just don’t want to rub shoulders,” Steve, 56, says. The church seats about 72, and until the two-service split, it wasn’t uncommon to find people standing in the back.
These cowboys are onto something.
“There is so much of a need out here, so many cowboys, ranchers and rural people who need a church where they can come as they are,” Naomi says. “They can chore and muck and come here with muck on their boots, and it’s OK.”
Many show up to church in boots and jeans. The early service is most popular, with people coming straight from their morning chores.
Before church starts, Steve hangs his cowboy hat on one of several horseshoe hooks by the door. Other hats soon join his after someone rings a hand bell to summon the congregation inside for service.
They will miss this place.
Joy Bergh’s 12-year-old daughter, Sophia, wants to be married at the schoolhouse someday, and Bergh’s newborn daughter Maryanna was in church for her first Sunday.
Sophia and her 9-year-old brother, Oskar, run beneath a large oak tree that shades the church, and Joy cradles their sister, chatting with church members who coo over the new baby.
“The kids go out there and play on the rope swing,” Bergh, 39, says. The family has been attending the church for four years after moving from Tucson to the Elgin area. “If you’re used to Tucson and the heat and the gravel backyards, you get out here and there is this gorgeous tree with shade and a rope swing, and the kids just loved it.”
The schoolhouse-turned-church was built around 1912. Steve Lindsey’s grandmother attended school there the first year it was open, as did his father and uncles in later years. Lindsey says the school closed in the 1940s and sat vacant and vandalized for years on the edge of the family’s property.
“The man that owned this homestead here had dedicated 2ƒ acres to the school board for the school, and then my dad and uncle bought the building in the mid 1990s,” he says. They fixed it up and started hosting community meetings there.
And then Lindsey heard the call of God.
“I was born and raised on a ranch, and my family have been cowboys forever, and I felt there was a need to reach this demographic of people,” he adds. “Jesus said to go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature, and I just didn’t feel there was enough being done for the working cowboy.”
CALLED TO PREACH
Before Canelo Cowboy Church, Lindsey started an energy management business in Tucson, following his previous career at Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc., in Benson.
Naomi Lindsey says her husband always felt called to preach. He was ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006 and has taken seminary classes. Canelo Cowboy Church is his first experience as a pastor.
Skyline Baptist Church in Benson backed the startup. The Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board vetted Lindsey and then provided funding for the church for the first five years.
“They subtract 20 percent of that funding every year,” Lindsey says. “It gives you the burn.”
Even before becoming completely self-sufficient, Canelo Cowboy Church started Rincon Valley Cowboy Church in Tucson. For four years, Lindsey pastored both churches, preaching at Rincon Valley on Saturday nights and at Canelo on Sunday mornings. The church has also helped to plant Sierra Vista Cowboy Church in Hereford, Mustang Mountain Cowboy Church in Whetstone and River of Faith Cowboy Church in Benson.
These days, Lindsey preaches only at Canelo and focuses on the looming building project. One of his sons now manages most of the work on the family’s ranch.
Two of his nine adult children attend the church. Young families make up a large part of the congregation, Lindsey says.
“We’ve got a whole lot of babies and a whole lot of old folks and not a lot of teens or singles,” he says.
RANCH FAMILY FUN DAYS
This month, Canelo Cowboy Church plans to host its first Ranch Family Fun Day in the arena built on the new property. Usually, the church invites the community to the fairgrounds in Sonoita for activities such as goat tying, barrel racing and roping.
One Sunday each month for 10 months out of the year, the church swaps Sunday service for the family fun day, which includes music, preaching and food for whoever shows up — usually around 200 people.
Roland Cowan, a deacon and worship leader, has been part of Canelo Cowboy Church since the beginning. “I have a granddaughter out of the deal,” Cowan, 63, jokes. His daughter married the Lindseys’ son.
The Ranch Family Fun Days make a cowboy church different from a country church, he says. The church does its primary community outreach this way, attracting families who live miles away.
Glen and Joan Riddels first discovered the congregation when cousins invited them to a fun day. They fell in love with the church.
“We had been in Arizona for quite a long time, and we hadn’t found a church yet and just knew we needed to be in one but never felt at home,” Joan, 53, says. “You need to feel loved, and then we found this church.”
The couple lives in Whetstone and commutes almost an hour each Sunday for church. Glen, 49, was raised on a farm, and the Riddels own several horses — but he says a cowboy church isn’t about livestock or land.
“You don’t have to have cows. You don’t have to have horses and all of those things,” says Glen, who is training to become a deacon. “The idea is to go there and learn about God and worship and fellowship and those types of things, and then you have to get back to your chores.”
Jim Ballard is a cowboy- church planting catalyst for the North American Mission Board’s western region and has worked with Lindsey. The Idaho-based missionary says he did a survey of cowboy churches several years ago and found that roughly 17 percent of attendees are ranchers or “real cowboys.”
“We have people coming who have never been on a horse or wouldn’t know what to do with cattle or livestock,” Ballard says. “They love the simplicity and the straight-up message.”
THE PEOPLE, NOT THE BUILDING
At Canelo, anyone is welcome — cowboy or not.
“We try to gear our services and everything we do to the working cowboy, but the wannabes and the John Wayne-like people who just want to dress the part can just come and feel comfortable, too,” Lindsey says.
Hitch Paprocki owns a landscaping business in Picture Rocks and says this is the most comfortable he has ever felt in church. Paprocki, 61, rides his motorcycle about 100 miles to get to church each Sunday. He loves the ride, the destination and the catching up that happens between friends after church. “You could hang around here forever,” he says.
Paprocki, like others, is sad to leave the charming schoolhouse.
But it is time.
The schoolhouse has no cell- phone reception and no running water. The church office functions out of the Lindseys’ home one-quarter of a mile away. The gravel surrounding the church and the steps to the door make accessibility difficult for elderly churchgoers. Several years ago, the church built a small building out back for the children’s ministry.
“It will be good to move, but I kind of like this one,” says Joan Riddels. She and Glen have attended for about six years. “But, it’s not the building, it’s the people. As long as everybody goes there, we’ll be good.”
The church is fundraising for its new 60-by-40 foot multipurpose building and is going through the permitting process. The 17.32-acre property is about 10 miles closer to Sonoita and has room for an arena. Money is tight, but Lindsey has faith in his God, in his church and in these people who have become his family.
“They took me as I was, praise the Lord, and they had faith in me, more than I had myself,” he says.
The church has owned its new property since about 2008 and has watched the Easter sunrise there for years. With a year of building construction ahead, this year, perhaps more than the others, brings new life for this church.
But then, Lindsey’s work at his church has long been about life change.
“Seeing people and friends come to the Lord and then knowing them B.C. and A.D. and seeing their lives changed and being part of that, that is something you just can’t explain away,” he says. “I would do what I’m doing come hell or high water.”