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OLD-TIME RELIGION CALLS GREAT PLAINS RANCHERS

SHARE OLD-TIME RELIGION CALLS GREAT PLAINS RANCHERS

When prairie storms shake the revival tent, preachers mop rainwater off the pulpit and ushers scramble to hang extra walls in an attempt to keep gusts from lashing the faithful.

"Lord, I wish I knew how many people have had their souls saved under that old tent," says the Rev. Steve Cody of Lenapah, Okla., an ex-rancher who is director of Ranchman's Camp Meeting Association of the Southwest."Only God knows. I know I've seen several hundred, myself."

Ranchers across the Southwest are gathering for revivals this summer in a slightly smaller canvas sanctuary - because one section of the tent was shredded recently in a fierce West Texas storm.

Cody and the association's tent recently made their annual five-day stop in Colorado, halfway through a 10-revival circuit that starts in the Palo Duro area of the Texas Panhandle and winds through Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico before arriving in Chiricahua, Ariz.

The gatherings are times for preaching, star-gazing, altar calls, Bible games for the kids, prayer meetings and all-you-can-eat chuck wagon meals.

Camp meetings and tent revivals have long histories. In the church-laden South, the main attraction of worshiping in a tent has always been to catch a breeze. But tents were a necessity in the wide-open West.

This is still true in some areas, Cody notes. This summer, for example, a group of ranchers is trying to organize a camp meeting in Montana. It's 250 miles between churches in that part of the state.

"The whole thing started with the tradition of taking the church to the ranchers, since so few of them had a church they could call their own," says Hank Smith Jr., the 72-year-old patriarch who for 35 years has hosted a camp meeting on his rolling 37,000-acre ranch 60 miles southeast of Denver. "Nobody here cares what church you go to or don't go to . . . We just focus on the Lord."

Rancher revivals probably began in the mid-1800s, when frontier missionaries roamed the high plains. One camp meeting in Fort David, Texas, which is part of another circuit, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

The early July camp in Colorado drew about 500 people and the 40-by-80 foot tent, with 200 folding chairs, was full for many evening services. Most of the worshipers are evangelical Protestants; a few are Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Many ranchers make these meetings their summer vacation and one service in Colorado drew ranchers from at least eight states.

One plus: Members of the same family have been cooking on this circuit for a half century, preparing barbecue, fire-alarm chili and basic breakfasts in massive black cast-iron kettles over open-pit fires.

And the evangelists know how to win over ranchers with sun-hardened faces and aching hearts.

In one service, a call to conversion was condensed into one brass-tacks commandment: "You've got to climb down off your high horse and come clean before the Lord."

Another preacher offered a proverb on the effects of sin: "He that spits at heaven, spits in his own eye."

Ranch life is changing. Ranchers and their spouses talk about cattle, rain, the price of beef - and computers. Some children wear cowboy duds during the camp meetings, while others wear trendy fashions and listen to rock `n' roll in the family tents and trailers.

Concerns voiced in prayer meetings include worries about drug abuse and troubled teens, as well as the usual concerns about neighbors who are sick or unconverted. One recent sermon was about the threat of AIDS.

"There aren't many meetings like this one left, that are the real thing. Some people still want to reach out to the people who will always want to live out on ranches and in these kinds of small towns," said the Rev. Bill Johnson, a Baptist from Woodland Park, Colo., who preaches on the multi-state circuit.

"There's a lot of fellahs that would never, ever set foot in an organized church. But they'll come out to one of these meetings."