Going to church, the cowboy way

Steven Spearie

Sporting a bolo tie and a black cowboy hat over his flowing gray hair, the Rev. Ray Spellbrink straps on his guitar and thunders, “Good evening. Y’all look good,” like he means it.

Taking account of the nearly standing-room-only crowd in the tiny Atterberry Community Baptist Church, Spellbrink jokes that “somebody must’ve gotten a good word in.”

The church’s pastor, playing his bass, reminds the audience of a promise he made recently: If the crowd at Atterberry’s Cowboy Church service reaches 100, he and rhythm guitarist Ed Sinclair and the Rev. Abraham Mogerman, who pastors New Lebanon Baptist Church in nearby Kilbourne, would take pies in their faces.

“Who wants to see Ed get a pie in the face?” asks Spellbrink, to yelps of approval.

With that, Spellbrink, Sinclair and the band — including five other guitarists, two keyboardists, a fiddler and a drummer — launch into the familiar opener, “The Unclouded Day.”

Spellbrink’s wife, Cindy, has announced the hymnal number, but hymnals are scarce and most know the song, which has been performed by everyone from Don Henley to Willie Nelson: “Where the tree of life in eternal bloom/Shed its fragrance through the unclouded day.”

When Ed Sinclair takes the lead vocals on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Jacen Calvert and T.J. Durham promptly stand up, clapping and swaying, leading others to do the same. The closer, “I’ll Fly Away,” a standard sung by Alison Krauss in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” is nearly raucous, with the band, cramped together in the tiny sanctuary, at full throttle and a good deal of the crowd, now more than 100, singing playfully along.

It’s a scene few could have imagined. The independent Baptist church in Atterberry, about 28 miles northwest of Springfield in Menard County, had seen its numbers dwindle in recent years, to the point that the doors were shuttered for months at times. A fire destroyed the 95-year-old structure in 2006, but Sinclair, an independent contractor, stepped in to help build the new church.

When Spellbrink was voted in as pastor last June, he brought with him Cowboy Church, a come-as-you-are service filled with country gospel singing that has revitalized the church.

Spellbrink’s reasons were simple: The area supports live country music, such as the music performed at the New Salem Country Opry. And he and Cindy were part of the Cowboy Church band at Clementine Memorial in Springfield, where they occasionally sit in with Sinclair as the New Jerusalem Singers.

According to CowboyChurch.net, the services began as a way to minister to farmers, ranchers, cowboys, horsemen, rodeo contestants and their families.

Cowboy Church is heavy on the music — no “beer-drinking, woman-chasing or cigar-smoking songs,” though, says Cindy Spellbrink — except for a brief sermon. “A word from our sponsor,” Ray Spellbrink calls it.

There’s a home-cooked meal before the service at Clementine and after the service at Atterberry. Free-will offerings are taken up in cowboy hats. In other parts of the country, Cowboy Church services may include roping or equestrian events.

CowboyChurch.net’s directory lists some 637 ministries across North America, though many more probably exist, says Ray Spellbrink. (Neither Atterberry nor Clementine are included in the Web site’s directory.) The 47-year-old Department of Human Services worker from Springfield regularly preaches in blue jeans, proof that Christians “aren’t a bunch of stuffed-shirts.”

“Cowboy Church does challenge the status quo,” he adds. “We’re alive in serving God. And it has, as someone in our church said, put us on the map.”

Comic relief

The Cowboy Church band at Clementine Memorial is in the middle of the call-and-response classic “John the Revelator” when lead guitarist Dan Wilson does a restrained Pete Townshend-inspired windmill move with one arm.

Wilson, 50, is the band’s frontman “even when I try not to be.” A bus driver for the Springfield Mass Transit District, he’s been a stalwart on the local music scene, most notably with the Easy Street band, for the last 30 years.

He’s also the Clementine band’s comic relief.

“I promised my wife when I married her that she’d never be bored or rich,” he tells the crowd. “I’ve lived up to my promise.”

When Wilson extols the virtues of a joyous hereafter — “I just know my side of heaven ain’t gonna be quiet” — the Rev. Dennis Farmer deadpans, “I think it’ll really be heaven if Dan has his own side.”

As at ease as at the Eagles Club, where he has a regular Friday-night gig, as he is at Brother James Court, where he entertains twice a month, Wilson admits Cowboy Church may not be for everyone. But he applauds Farmer, who brought it to Clementine in 2003, for trying.

“How are you gonna catch fish if you don’t bait your hook?” Wilson asks. “A lot of people don’t go to church because they don’t feel comfortable. If church isn’t fun and exciting, why should people make the effort to get up out of bed and go every Sunday?

“You can go to the bar and have a good time, but it’s OK to have a good time with God, too,” he adds. “What I’m doing is blessing people and doing what God gave me the talent to do.”

‘Friendliest, lovingest church’

Joyce Dooley of Tallula says she felt stagnant in her old church. She didn’t know the answer was right down the road and was something called Cowboy Church.

“God didn’t intend for us to get bored in church,” says Dooley, who joined the Atterberry church with her husband, Ken. “This is the friendliest, lovingest church. It makes you look forward to the (next service.)”

Dance partners Art Rodgerson and Marian Anderson came to Clementine’s Cowboy Church and wound up as parishioners.

“It’s down-home like,” says Rodgerson, who grew up listening to country gospel music in Litchfield, Ky.

Rev. Farmer makes no pretense about Cowboy Church’s marketability; part of the church’s mission statement references “the ministry of Cowboy Church.”

“We’re supposed to make a joyful noise. We’re supposed to sing praises. We’re supposed to clap our hands,” he insists, pointing to Biblical references as proof. “A lot of churches refuse to let people know that.”

A lot of people, including those in the local Springfield presbytery, didn’t know what Farmer was doing when he brought Cowboy Church to Clementine in 2003.

“Some said we weren’t ‘Presbyterian-acting,’” Farmer recalls.

The presbytery and Clementine parted ways, with Clementine purchasing the church property, eventually leading to a well-chronicled property-tax dispute that led to the church’s brief eviction. Clementine held Cowboy Church at Douglas Park and the VFW Hall on Stockyards Road before returning to its building about a year ago.

That’s water under the bridge, says Farmer, 58, a culinary instructor at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, through Richland Community College. The church maintains good relations with the Presbyterian churches in the city.

Farmer’s career is steeped in country and western music as a player and entrepreneur. He once managed the Illinois Barn Dance dinner theatre in Virginia, Ill. and has an extensive collection of cowboy-entertainer memorabilia.

Even as it has become more established, Farmer says, the proposition of marketing Cowboy Church at Clementine is a bit trickier than at Atterberry.

“We have to market the church to people who would enjoy services in a small church,” he says. “Then you add in the music. Cowboy Church has served many of those churches well.”

Clementine has a core band, with Dan Wilson, the Rev. Farmer and his wife, Tracy Farmer, all trading lead vocals. Atterberry’s band features musicians who sit in, though Ed Sinclair and rhythm guitarist Irving Fry, who at 73 still plays local shows four nights a week, are mainstays.

The lineup of singers also changes from week to week: before services, Cindy Spellbrink goes around with a signup pad to make sure everyone’s included.

“You never know,” says Rev. Ray Spellbrink with a chuckle, “what’s going to transpire.”

What usually does transpire is plenty of fellowship and a healthy dose of country gospel music.

“I want people to leave Cowboy Church encouraged by what they heard and to leave knowing Christians can and do have fun,” Spellbrink says.

“It’s an important part of people’s lives,” Farmer adds. “It’s an inspiration to them. People clapping, standing up, raising hands. All those things make you feel good.”

A Lincoln claim

Clementine Memorial has Cowboy Church — and a stake in the Abraham Lincoln claim.

The structure dates to 1917, but some of the material to build it allegedly came from the original First Presbyterian Church building, also known as “Lincoln’s Church.”

The church, at the southeast corner of Third and Washington streets, was built in 1842. But according to one local story, it had “serious maintenance problems.” Services were frequently interrupted by trains traveling nearby.

Abraham Lincoln lectured there in 1853 and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was baptized there in 1855. But the Lincoln Pew, now at First Presbyterian’s location at Seventh and Capitol, didn’t make it there until 1912, when Lincoln’s friend, John W. Bunn, donated it.

St. John’s Lutheran bought the church in 1871 and sold it in 1911 to a Springfield party. The church was razed the next year, and according to Clementine’s church history, Benjamin Knudson, who was affiliated with Westminster Presbyterian Church, kept the material in storage.

Clementine is named for Knudson’s wife, Clementine Stuve Knudson.

In the vestibule of the church are the original stone pillars, still blackened by the coal-burning trains. Rev. Dennis Farmer, Clementine’s pastor, says he isn’t sure how much of the original material made it into the current structure, which was expanded in 1953.

Steven Spearie can be reached at (217) 622-1788 orspearie@hotmail.com.