JIM SINCLAIR/Black press staff
On a clear, hot summer evening in Stettler the parking lot at the local Agriplex is getting crowded with trucks.
Inside, it appears the premises are just about right for accommodating a turnout of about 140 people eager to hear some top-shelf gospel music and a spoken message on the value of godly living.
It’s an alternate Tuesday (July 5) and that means the Heartland Cowboy Church is convening at 7 p.m.
Opening the proceedings and warming up the room for Pastor Don Wudel are Eli Barsi and John Cunningham – a polished gospel duo. Barsi, on guitar and vocals is an engaging and charismatic performer who draws on many years’ experience in sharing her personal testimony of the joy of Christian living. Cunningham is rock solid and supportive on the stand-up bass and vocals.
The occasion is the semi-weekly get-together that offers a church-like experience for people who may not get to an actual church all that often, or maybe haven’t been to one in many years.
Pastor Don Wudel is a driving force behind the local cowboy church concept, something which has sprung up in other areas as part of the cowboy poetry phenomenon. Wudel had actually been involved in a similar effort in Elnora, and had been written up in the Red Deer Advocate in February, 2009.
“We saw the need for a place for people who wouldn’t go to a regular church on a Sunday morning,” informed Wudel, “they wouldn’t maybe go into a church building. So we meet on a night during the week, in a building that’s not a church. We meet in the Agriplex. Tonight we have some folks from Saskatchewan singing, that are kind of well known.”
The local cowboy church has been building momentum and a loyal following for the past four years.
“My family is from up in the Meeting Creek area, outlined Wudel in a conversation that began in person that Tuesday evening before resuming by phone two days hence.
After leaving home in his teens Don would eventually find his way back.
“We ended up buying the place from my dad 16 years ago,” he said.
The meetings are warm and welcoming, most often punctuated by some live music, a lot of oldtime hymns being sung, a message by Pastor Don followed by more singing, some food and refreshments.
Donations are accepted, fittingly, in an old boot.
“My husband (Don) and I both agree that Pastor Don always preaches God’s word,” related Fern Lindstrom who’s been attending the Heartland gatherings since their local inception.
“That’s the cowboy way…you know, like, straight from the shoulder,” she said. “He preaches that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour.
“Don always has a little humour in whatever he has to say,” added Lindstrom. “The fellowship is really great there, too.”
Pat Norman is another regular attendee.
“I knew Don before,” said Norman who’s been coming for the past year or so. “Then I heard by the grapevine he was Pastor of the Cowboy Church that was starting up in Stettler. I knew he was a good Christian so I was interested and started going.”
“I have my (Sunday) church I attend as well,” declared Norman, “but it doesn’t hurt to go more often.”
This cowboy way is clearly onto something, as the large attendance illustrates.
Maybe part of it is the edible offering that follows the meetings which have fed the spirits.
“The food always goes over big,” said Pastor Don.
The next instalment of the Heartland Cowboy Church is 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 19 at the Stettler Agriplex.