January 8, 1996 in Nation/World

Church Lassos Stray Souls Cowboys, Western Types Congregate For Services At Post Falls Grange Hall

By The Spokesman-Review

Despite the wood stove lighted two hours earlier, Cloverleaf Grange No. 22 was still chilly as people in boots, felt hats and jeans filed through the door.

The congregation quieted as Lee Richmond made his way to the front. A girl held up her doll so it could watch the service.

Richmond, a man with more laugh lines than worry wrinkles, smiled at his congregation.

“We want to welcome everyone this morning to Cowboy Church,” he said. “Let’s just open with a word of prayer.”

Off came the hats.

About 40 people showed up Sunday for the service at Post Falls’ Cowboy Church, a fledgling non-denominational ministry that’s drawn devotees of Western life.

“It does sound kind of funny, like this is a fiddling, foot-stomping good time,” Richmond, 45, said at his Post Falls home recently. “But Paul says there’s one God, one spirit, one faith.

“We have the ability to reach people that would never set foot into a (mainstream) church.”

The monthly services draw people from Spokane, Spirit Lake, Bayview and Cataldo, as well as Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.

Some come even farther. John Wambecke drives his Chevy Suburban at least four hours each way, coming from Hermiston, Ore., to play guitar and lead hymns.

“I’m interested in a setting people can be comfortable in,” said Wambecke, a cattle feedlot owner. “I like to wear my jeans and don’t like feeling I have to put on any airs to go to church.”

The church is an offshoot of the Cowboy Church in Granbury, Texas, founded by former State Line, Idaho, rodeo champion Jeff Copenhaver.

The son of a world champion saddle bronc rider, Copenhaver spent much of his boyhood honing his roping and riding skills. By 14, he was winning amateur rodeo events.

At 28, Copenhaver won the world calf-roping championship. That day, in December 1975, was exactly 20 years after his father, Deb Copenhaver, won his world champion buckle.

“That night, I kind of just sat on the edge of my bed at the Holiday Inn at Oklahoma City and thought, ‘Is that all there is?”’ Jeff Copenhaver recalled in a telephone interview.

“I thought I’d be cool and famous and happy, but I really didn’t have anything. It started a search in my life for more than just a gold buckle.”

He and his wife began going to various churches, but the preachers left them flat.

“They were going through the ritual and a lot of religious form, but there was no life in them,” Copenhaver said.

So he began preaching himself - at rodeos, prisons, county fairs. Ten years ago, Copenhaver started leading Sunday morning cowboy services at Billy Bob’s, a Texas bar reputed to be the biggest honky-tonk in the world. Services were in the bar’s bull-riding arena.

Copenhaver’s Cowboy Church was born.

Since then, the church has spawned offshoots in Calgary and Post Falls.

The Texas congregation now numbers about 110. This spring, Copenhaver is building a log church there, with seating for 800. Build it, Copenhaver reasons, and cowboys will come.

Other cowboy churches have sprung up around the country recently, with one of the largest in Nashville, Tenn.

Many of the people attending these services, however, aren’t real cowboys.

In Post Falls, the congregation includes a family that sells medical equipment in Russia, a man who drives a milk truck, and a fellow who plows snow and sands roads for the Idaho Transportation Department.

Part of the draw, Copenhaver believes, is the laid-back, friendly nature of the church.

“We tell people, ‘If you feel good in a suit, hop to it and come in a suit,”’ he said. Few do.

Copenhaver also cites a resurgence of interest in things Western, from movies to country music to clothing styles to magazines.

“People drive to work on freeways, then sit in front of a computer screen. We’ve got kind of a robot age,” he said. “People stuck in the big-city lifestyle feel cheated out of their ancestors’ joys.”

Mike Stoltey has a foot in each world.

Every morning, Stoltey gets up early to feed his cattle and horses on 80 acres near Plummer. Then he goes to work delivering packages for United Parcel Service.

“Cattle prices now are the lowest they’ve been in 10 years,” he said. “I’m not going to rope my wages back 10 years.”

Richmond, the Post Falls “cowboy pastor,” lives a similar life. He delivers packages for UPS during the week, but spends summer weekends competing on the pro rodeo circuit. He and his family travel from arena to arena, from Pendleton, Ore., to Cheyenne, Wyo., to Yakima. In 1987, he won the Columbia River Circuit Steer Roping Championship.

Richmond was drawn to form a Post Falls congregation because of the Cowboy Church’s direct, down-to-earth approach.

“It’s not going to be real flowery, but it’ll be practical,” he said of his sermons. “You’re not going to get a lot of bull out of a cowboy.”

He preaches in a white hat, boots and jeans sporting a trophy belt buckle as big as a man’s fist. He advertises church services in newspaper classifieds, under “Horses.”

Halfway through Sunday’s service, he shoved aside the podium with one hand and pulled out a lariat. A boy in the front row was recruited to play a calf, and Richmond used the ensuing roping lesson to drive home his message.

“As Christians, sometimes it’s hard for us to ask for help,” he said, demonstrating how a friend had helped him hone his technique. “Persevere. Overcome. Keep practicing. We need to practice the Word in our lives.”

Richmond admits he’s a bit intimidated by the area’s big churches, with their many programs and thousandstrong congregations.

“But he can also use a little church,” he said. “I think you need to be faithful with a little, before you’re given a lot. I’d rather take 10 people that are totally committed than 100 that are just there.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

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