By Robyn St. James
Not many people can bring their pets to church. Even fewer people can bring their horses and fit in with the people around them.
Cowboy-Up Ministry is not an average church. T-shirts, blue jeans and cowboy boots are practically a part of the dress code. At least a dozen attendants bring dogs in all shapes and sizes. On any given Sunday, anywhere between one and three horse trailers are parked alongside the 4-H pavilion at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds. Cowboys, outdoorsmen and everyday people sit together in the bleachers, enjoying an experience not many have.
The idea of Cowboy-Up Ministry was first conceived in 2003. James “Skipper” Calder has been the church’s pastor since its birth, pastoring full-time for the last six years. Lou Sterrit trained horses and taught about the Gospel and Jesus while doing it, but he didn’t often visit Florida. Calder decided to follow in Sterrit’s footsteps, making a difference in the Lithia-Valrico area. The goal of Cowboy-Up Ministry is to “Spread the Good News and the power to live it.” Many people at Cowboy-Up dislike the formal attire and air of ‘normal’ churches, preferring the relaxed atmosphere and casual dress enjoyed at the fairgrounds.
Calder started pastoring at Cowboy-Up because he wanted to use horses to teach people about Jesus and the Scripture. Simple and Bible-based, the church emphasizes understanding of horses, people and God, emphasizing the way to deal with people is through love, acceptance and forgiveness. Most parishioners follow a simple mantra: “It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, only that you’re here and willing to follow God.”
“People don’t want to be beat over the head with the Bible,” said Calder.
Before and after church at the fairgrounds, people stand at ease, talking about anything from hunting to saddles to the books of the Bible.
Cowboy-Up moved to the Hillsborough Country Fairgrounds in January after the church was forced to relocate when the property it had been meeting on faced repossession by the bank. Usually, the church would have to pay for the use of the facilities and grounds, but an offer was made that if parishioners work and volunteer at the fairgrounds for a set amount of hours or longer, they can use the facilities for free. On the last few work days, trees were trimmed, grass was cut, fences were put up, and signs were rebuilt, all for the county’s benefit. In preparation for last year’s Fall Festival, parishioners placed garbage cans and helped direct attendees to spaces in the parking lot.
Plans are in motion to let people come and listen to the sermon on horseback, or stream live from the ministry’s Website. Those who have an interest in horses, horse training and horsemanship are encouraged to attend. Each Sunday, the church starts at 11 a.m. and continues until about 12:30 p.m. Inquiries can be made through Facebook, or through www.cowboyupministry.com.