By Lauren Cabral
Killeen Daily Herald
KEMPNER — Every Friday night, Jonathan Kelly and about 20 horse riders make their way to a local rodeo arena for steer roping practice, conversation and a bit of religion, an atypical blend if one were anywhere else but the Five Hills Cowboy Church in Kempner.
Kelly, the roping team leader, said the practice draws people of all ages and experience levels, and is a great place to learn — and not just about roping.
He typically stops the practice somewhere near the middle to read a devotion from the Bible, something done at every arena activity.
“Basically, we’re just trying to lead people to Christ through team roping,” he said.
Not all attendees of are members of the nondenominational church, Pastor Robin Traweek said, but that’s the point.
“Our main goal is to reach out to western heritage-type folks. We kind of draw them to come over here and then we tell them about Jesus,” he said.
Traweek and his wife, Cathy, know roping and riding are not traditional for churches to host. But the church itself bucks tradition, and therein lies its strength.
It organizes trail rides and hosts barrel racing and pole running practice each Wednesday night. It does have Bible study meetings on Tuesdays and church service on Sundays, but with a western flair. The church band, Unity, plays country gospel, and there is no dress code.
“I tell them as long as it’s legal, it’s OK,” Traweek said.
Cathy added dogs are allowed in church, and baptisms are done either in the river or in a horse trough. There is a method to the activities and laid-back atmosphere, she said.
“A cowboy might feel uncomfortable going into a regular church. It’s not up to us to judge their lifestyle, we want them to get a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The Five Hills Cowboy Church began about 2½ years ago in D&D Feed Store in Copperas Cove, Traweek said, until the church building was built at 1700 Farm-to-Market 2808. The arena was built a year later.
It is far from the only church of its kind. Traweek said his cowboy church is part of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, which started about 12 years ago, and there are now about 200 churches in Texas, including a few in Gatesville, Salado and Burnet.
The movement is growing, Traweek said, as is his congregation.
“We’ve baptized probably about 180 people in the past 2 years,” he said.
Lay Pastor Dale Oaks said Five Hills was the first cowboy church he’d attended.
“I’ve known quite a while I was called into ministry, and I kind of ran from it,” he said. “Once I came in here I could feel the Lord’s call on it and thought all right, I’m here.”
Oaks and a group of church members regularly attend the Friday night ropings at the arena they and other volunteers built with church funds.
“The only reason for having this arena is to get the word of God out. If we could find another way to do it, we would. This seems to work the best for us,” he said.
It also works for Mark and Dana Smith, who attend practice regularly with sons Caul and Smith, both 12.
Mark said a friend “told us it was a good deal, nice people, nice cows, nice atmosphere.” The Smiths enjoy the fellowship of Five Hills practices and are members of a nearby cowboy church.
“We went to two or three different churches and it just wasn’t us,” Dana said. “It’s just our kind of people.”
Cliff Tidwell attends the practices with wife Jennifer and son Ty, 11. He said he enjoys the friends he’s made.
“I’ve been team roping for 40 years,” he said. “If it was just the roping part, I’d have quit a long time ago.”
Kelly, who works on a ranch, said the practices are fun, but they’re not what made him join Five Hills.
“Honestly it doesn’t make me want to come to church more, but it’s nice to be able to come to a church every day and do something I love,” he said.
Oaks said he’d like for the arena to eventually be open every night of the week with a different activity to give people an alternative to drinking and drugs. He’d also like to see the church’s congregation grow.
“We really are the misfits of churches, but the Lord’s working through the cowboy church movement.”
Contact Lauren Cabral at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7476.
If you go
Sunday services: 10 a.m.
Tuesday Bible study: 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday barrel racing practice: 6:30 p.m.
Friday roping practice: 7 p.m.
More information: Call Robin Traweek at (254) 2990-6005.