HUNTSVILLE, Texas—A definitive East Texas twang rounds out the corners of each and every word sung in this church.
The Houston Chronicle reports it's as if someone handed a cowboy a guitar and requested a hymn.
Which, to be fair, is about what happened.
It was a little past 5 p.m. on a Sunday in late February, and most of the people sitting in the blue stackable chairs facing the church choir were kicking up dirt with their cowboy boots out back just a few minutes ago. That's the whole crux of Branded For Christ Church: Raise Cain in the rodeo ring for two hours, then head inside for an hour of drawling amens.
This time of year, with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo through March 18, cowboy culture becomes pseudo mainstream throughout the city. But here in this church, where young riders pray for the chance to one day make the cut for the Houston rodeo, the Christian cowboy lifestyle is as authentic as the dirt finish on the bull riders' Wranglers.
In the eyes of Bubba Miller—Pastor Bubba as he's known around here—there's God in that dirt.
"The Bible says, 'What greater love does a man have than to lay his life down for his brother,'" Bubba says, looking over at a bullfighter named Daniel. "And just a while ago, you saw a kid get bucked off a bull, and Daniel steps in, and lays down on top of that kid to take the hooking for the bull rider."
That's something holy, he says. And it's an indication that the congregation is doing just what Bubba hoped it would when he and his wife Tammy founded the nondenominational church 14 years ago. They'd seen a cowboy church in another corner of the state and wanted to create a similar place in East Texas.
The Millers began with six leased steers and big dreams to share their love of bull-riding and Jesus with a new generation. It worked.
The congregation now includes about 150 people—a roughly 70-30 split of cowboys and those who come solely to worship—and it's helped raise some of the area's top rodeo contenders. Richie Champion, the first cowboy in the world to win $1 million in a day, used to be a regular here. So was Trey Benton, a perennial contender in the national competition for bull riding; and bareback rider Bill Tudor has been seen kicking his spurs in the dirt here. They're all mainstays at the Houston rodeo these days.
"In 2000, my wife and I bought this place with the intention of building a church, training kids up on how to ride bucking horses and rope. But most of all to teach them about Jesus," Bubba explains.
The Millers spent the next four years building a church, and a home, both on the 45-acre parcel of land right alongside Interstate 45, about a dozen miles north of central Huntsville.
"My husband, of course, he rodeoed his whole life," Tammy says, staring out over the dirt ring, where an 11-year-old rider tried his best to reach eight seconds on a steer. (He made it maybe six, but got right back in line to try again.) "It's just this passion that God put in our hearts, to train up young people and give them a safe place to come."
The roughstock is what drew Tye Coleman here in the beginning. He was 16 then—just a kid from a farm in nearby Martinsville, who'd ridden his share of horses that would rather be left alone.
"Growing up, my family cowboyed and ranched," says Coleman, who is now 24. "I'd watched rodeo my whole life, and I loved it. It was something I dreamed of, but I had never had the opportunity."
Until he met the Millers anyway. They keep their barrier for entry low: sign a waiver and promise to show up. There's no charge, which Tammy feels is just about the way Jesus would want it. Soon, Coleman was riding saddle broncs and learning to ditch the ropes for bareback riding. He got pretty good. Then he got even better.
And then, as often happens to cowboys, he got hurt.
In the eight years since he first showed up at Branded For Christ, Coleman has dislocated his shoulder, broken a number of ribs, and just a couple weeks ago, he suffered a hairline fracture in his right wrist when his horse had trouble getting out of the gate. Those weeks and months laid up without the adrenaline high that comes with riding could have been the lowest of lows had he not found his place inside the church.
"This church, it's been life-changing," he says, as he helps work the gates behind the saddle bronc chute. He pauses his thoughts to offer some advice to the rider mounting a bull:
"Grab tight there with your right hand."
"Don't forget to lift, lift, lift."
"Yes sir, just like that."
Teamwork and unity are so important in rodeoing, and in life, he says.
"I feel like every opportunity is here. More so than becoming a champion yourself, it's about helping other people change their lives, so they don't have to suffer through hardships," he continues. "That's what it was for me. I know that's the only reason I kept coming back. Because otherwise, the first time I got injured, I could have checked out. But it was a family atmosphere. I mean, Bubba and Tammy have loved me like family—like another kid."
The gate cranks open, and the rider Coleman was helping shoots out. It's Bubba and Tammy's son, Bradlee. He's one of the best cowboys in the ring today. At 14 years old, he's already won the bull-riding junior world championships in Vegas two years in a row.
It's maybe a little easier for a kid like Bradlee to climb the ranks, when his backyard is set up for rodeoing, and his dad straddles jobs as the pastor here and the rodeo coach at Sam Houston State University. In the beginning, Bubba served as one of the main rodeo coaches for churchgoers, but as the ranks have expanded, so has his stable of experts. The youth pastor, Garet Aldridge, who made a name for himself on the college rodeo circuit, now spends the first half of many Sundays behind the chute offering step-by-step instructions; cowboys like Coleman offer up expertise too.
But when Bradlee finishes a ride, his father is usually the first one to meet him at the gate, offering tips. (After Bradlee's last ride, Bubba was right there to tell him, "there was room enough for you to put a fence post between your body and your arm" and give him tips to better his form.)
Still, with all this help, Bradlee knows that becoming a full-time cowboy someday feels like a longshot. When he feels that doubt creep in, he turns to Jesus, or thinks about some of the big cowboys that have come through the church, like Champion or Benton.
"That's the dream," Bradlee says about the Houston rodeo, after his last ride of the afternoon. He pauses as he pulls off his cowboy gear to reveal a layer of church-ready clothes for the 5 o'clock worship and flashes a wide grin at the thought. "Someday, I want to be a cowboy who rides in Houston."
Later, inside the pre-fab church, little cowboys lift one hand up toward heaven as the band sings. It's the same way they lifted one arm back in the chutes, preparing for their rodeo rides, but now they're reaching for a different kind of glory, as the band wraps up their last song.
Coleman is on the keyboard; it's a skill he's picked up through the church, where Tammy's father is also teaching him how to play steel guitar. A black dog wanders the aisle, before settling in for a short nap on the rug spread out in front of the lectern where Pastor Bubba is about to begin his sermon, after tithes are given.
Bubba walks up to his spot at the front of the room, leather boot soles clapping against a poured concrete floor. His black cowboy hat remains perched atop his head, only to be removed in the moments he asks his congregation to bow their heads in prayer.
He talks about connections and commitment—how it's impossible to create action without first finding a place you belong.
"See church, it's the same way with God. We need to feel committed to doing what God's called us to do, how God's called us to do it," he says. Without this, he says, "you're going to be like a dog chasing his tail, and never going anywhere."
Heads nod, and murmurs of affirmation rumble through the rows of chairs, as the meaning of this sinks in. Commitment and connections aren't enough, Pastor Bubba continues. They need to be followed with plans and action.
Somewhere in the back, Tammy smiles. She loves the outdoor part of the day. But this is the hour that moves her. And right now, her husband is preaching her deepest hopes.
"I don't think there's anyone in this world—whether they're living for God or not—that does not want to be loved. And I think this church allows us to show the love of God through us, whether we're helping them get to the next level in their sport, or preaching, or serving them dinner after service," she says.
In her husband's sermon about love and action, Tammy sees a road map with detailed directions for how her congregation can help lift its cowboys to the very top of their potential, both in the ring and in life. It's enough to make her eyes sparkle.
"We're loving them unconditionally—and that's God's love," she says. "It's an unconditional, I-love-you-no-matter-what. So this church is a place for us to express God's love."