Welcoming worshipers to a recent cowboy church service are ushers Gene Kappers, at left, and Marlo Mensink. They are part of a ministry team from United Methodist Church in Cherry Grove.  PHOTO BY MARY WHALEN/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Welcoming worshipers to a recent cowboy church service are ushers Gene Kappers, at left, and Marlo Mensink. They are part of a ministry team from United Methodist Church in Cherry Grove. PHOTO BY MARY WHALEN/BLUFF COUNTRY READER

The world of horses offers a natural rhythm, which exists between horse and rider as well as the world through which they travel. Images of the flaming light of campfires dancing off the faces of guitar-strumming cowboys and unsaddled horses grazing, bring a peaceful acknowledgment of the balance of a life where hard work and a time for rest and relaxation blend.

The Horse Expo held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds offers an opportunity for those who share a love for horses to gather for a weekend every year. On April 28, musicians who gather for a monthly cowboy church service at United Methodist Church in Cherry Grove, led the Sunday morning worship once again, as they have in previous years.

The Rev. Mark Rader of Cherry Grove explained, the Horse Expo draws 50,000 or more attendees every year.

"It is the largest single equine event in the state," he added. "It includes breed demonstrations, performances by mounted drill teams, nationally known trainers, rodeos, venders selling everything from saddles to clothing, and much, much more."

Cowboy church musicians who were available to lead this Sunday morning worship service at the Horse Expo felt it was a privilege to be able to serve by sharing their music.

"The Sunday morning cowboy church service generally draws somewhere around 200 to 300 people," Rader added. "Some of them are Expo visitors who come out early just to be able to experience cowboy church, but many are venders who have to cover their booths and so cannot attend worship elsewhere that morning."

Rader, who usually preaches, helped lead the singing this year because of his uncertainty about whether he would be able to attend.

He said, "One of the clinicians, Ken McNabb, a cowboy from Douglas, Wyo., brought the message and our group provided the music and otherwise led the service. It's a lot of fun, and we've had folks make their way out to our regular monthly cowboy church service in Cherry Grove after they saw us at the Expo. We've even had folks drive down to Cherry Grove from north of the Twin Cities because they first experienced us at the Expo."

Barb Mosher of Spring Valley, who is a regular musician at the Cherry Grove service and is known throughout southern Minnesota as a fine musician, entertainer and instructor, said, "As a teenager and most of my adult life, up until these later years, I played the steel guitar but not the pedal steel guitar which is much harder. It has ten strings - three foot pedals - five knee levers, which all change the strings and is my very favorite instrument. I have played with different groups and on TV but none have been as much fun or rewarding as cowboy church."

Attending the Horse Expo allows Mosher a new venue. She is grateful for the staff at the Horse Expo, which treats them well with nice rooms in a motel, helps them set up on Sunday morning and gives the musicians tickets to the rodeo.

"The horses are beautiful and the riders all look like professionals to me," she added.

Watching family members share the stage at cowboy church is not unusual. Rich Jones and his son, Michael, are a father and son team who play several instruments and regularly sing for cowboy church. Rich plays the mandolin, violin, dobro, resonator guitar, acoustic guitar and banjo and Michael plays stand-up bass, drums and mandolin and does harmony vocals with his father.

This was the first time Rich and Michael have attended the Horse Expo, however they have been entertaining for many years.

Rich said, "I've played music since I was a child and although Mike is only 14 years old, he has a natural aptitude for music. He's picked up a lot playing with me at bluegrass festivals and gigging with a few bands where he plays guitar, bass, mandolin and drums."

Another "regular" at cowboy church, who began playing guitar when he was 6 years old, is Leonard Leutink of Spring Valley.

"I remember Barb Mosher asking me once if I was ever going to get to be 7. That was a while back," mused Leutink. "I have always liked country music (including some bluegrass). I sang and played my guitar in a band for about a year while I was stationed on Okinawa. I was the lead singer, we did country music, and we played to a full house every night. That was during Vietnam so there were a lot of homesick soldiers. I came home with a pregnant wife to support and a steady job in Rochester. That effectively took care of my musical career for the next 25 years and probably forever. Now I am retired, the music can only be called a hobby and I sing with my friends."

With a voice of depth and emotion, Leutink's entertaining days seem to be in full swing and he said he has been singing and playing his guitar at the Horse Expo for the past four years.

Leutink and Cindy Seabright, also from Spring Valley, are frequently asked to share their music entertaining at various functions in southern Minnesota. Seabright regularly helps lead worship at cowboy church services and has been playing guitar for around 19 years.

"Cowboy church is more relaxed and you get to hear those gospel songs or do the gospel songs that maybe you haven't heard for a long time," Seabright said. "I think also that the musicians, regular musicians and the guests, seem to be like a family; we all enjoy sharing our music with people and bringing the message."

The 2013 Horse Expo in St. Paul was the fourth one Seabright has attended. "It's like a holiday where you anticipate the weekend and hope that you will be able to attend. This year my husband, Craig Seabright, helped with passing out bulletins and took photos," she added. "What I always like is when someone is doing a song and looking out and seeing someone singing along, or the smile on their face because you know they recognize the song or it brings back a memory for them. It is well worth the time and effort to go and to know that maybe we have touched the heart of someone."

Having the exposure of leading the worship at the Horse Expo is an honor for the musicians from cowboy church, however, Rader and his congregation at Cherry Grove United Methodist started their cowboy church service as a way to reach out to the growing numbers of people in the area who enjoyed both horses and country and bluegrass music.

Rader added, "We did our first cowboy church service in Cherry Grove in the fall of 2007, and have offered at least a regular monthly service since the spring of 2008. Cowboy church is pretty popular out West, and they come in many different forms. Some will have their own house bands and structure things more like a traditional church service, and others are much more informal, inviting anyone who would like to do so to drop in and provide music. We shoot for a middle ground out in Cherry Grove, welcoming anyone who can to participate but putting some structure into the service at the same time. We've been blessed with some incredibly talented musicians and they really make the service."

When attending cowboy church, greeters at the church door are ushers Gene Kappers and Marlo Mensink. These two men have faithfully welcomed those who gather to share an evening worship and praise with a western twist. Kappers and Mensink and their wives are a vital part of the entire cowboy church experience helping with many details, like assisting musicians with moving and setting up instruments, answering questions newcomers have as well as passing the "horse bucket" during the offertory.

Cowboy church means different things to different people.

Janice Mensink of Cherry Grove sees cowboy church as a dream of ministry that Rader has brought to reality. "It is a time of worship with inspirational sermons that brings a message to us through everyday life situations," she said. "It is a meaningful service of worship, music and fellowship which we enjoy very much. We are members of the Cherry Grove United Methodist Church and it is a joy to see our church filled at times with folks coming from various denominations of faith and surrounding towns."

Marjorie (Lassell) Dickie of Rochester grew up in the Cherry Grove church during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. "I remember going on hayrides through York Woods and what a wonderful time we had. It is so good to be able to come back and be here," she said.

Sharon Sloan comes up from Saratoga, Iowa, to attend cowboy church. "I come to see family and friends," she said. "These people are a core group that cares about people. We have felt their support and Pastor Mark is serving just like how Christ would serve."

A couple that work behind the scenes and are the video team taping most services are John and Bernie Finke of Cherry Grove.

"I remember preparing for the first service. Posters were made and placed on display in the area towns," recalled Bernie. "Mark wrote a short article for the paper and we were on our way. His hopes were high for the first service and he was hoping for about 100 people to come. We had about 60 and I was pleased with that many."

Their next service was in the spring and they had a reasonably good turn out and had to hurriedly print more programs. "We had to do that for a few times and then got into the swing of things and there were not so many frazzled nerves involved," she added.

The service was a novelty in the area and attendance kept increasing. Word spread and people from area towns came to see what it was all about.

"Attendance was about a 40-mile radius from Cherry Grove. We have had visitors from Austin, Rochester, Lanesboro, Chatfield, Preston, Spring Valley, LeRoy, Rushford, some Iowa visitors and Minneapolis and St. Paul and many other places," Bernie said. "Our largest service was about 220 and it is wonderful to see the church so full and hear the singing."

Bernie shared she was thrilled when Rader was contacted to see if it would be possible to do a service at the Horse Expo. "This was the first time anything like this had been held at the Horse Expo. Pastor Mark and four or five musicians went up to do the service and several from the Cherry Grove church attended for moral support," she said. "There wasn't a huge crowd that attended, but the Horse Expo group must have thought it was a good program and the Cherry Grove cowboy church service has been held at the Hippodrome and attendance has grown."

In describing her view of cowboy church and what it means in her life, Bernie stated, "One of the words used was 'joyful.' It is such an enjoyable service and we have so many great musicians and five or six vocalists in the area and they are so faithful to come and entertain us at each service."

Gaye Stockdale of LeRoy is one of the musicians whose presence radiates joy at the worship services both at the Horse Expo and the monthly cowboy church. "I started attending cowboy church several years ago after seeing an ad in the paper and since Cherry Grove is only a few miles from where we live I decided to check it out," she explained. "After the service, I filled out a card indicating an interest in playing with the other musicians. I knew Barb Mosher since she and my mother had played together in groups, and I had taken guitar lessons from her in high school."

In a sermon that can be viewed on Faith United Methodist's website, from a cowboy church a couple years ago, Rader mentioned, "God meets us right now....right here.... This moment.....is God's gift to us....This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it." Cowboy church is the place where many people feel the presence of God.

With the announcement that Rader will be leaving the area this summer, the Rev. Beth Perez of Cherry Grove United Methodist wants to assure the faithful followers that cowboy church worship services will continue.

"Cowboy church is, of course, the creation of and gift to us from Pastor Mark Rader and our hope is to continue to share and grow this ministry until all cowboys have ridden off into the sunset," she said. "We look forward to seeing you at cowboy church on June 2 at 6 p.m. Join us as we bid farewell to Pastor Mark."

Mosher added, "I don't know if there is a cowboy church in Heaven, but there will be when Pastor Mark gets there!"

Rader ends all his cowboy church services with the Cowboy Blessing, "May your belly never grumble, May your heart never ache. May your horse never stumble, May your cinch never break."