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I Shall Give You Rest: The Cowboy Church Network of North America

Jodie Castellani | North Carolina, United States

Organization: Castle Light Images

When I went to visit Pastor Smith for the first time I thought that I was simply meeting a local pastor. To my surprise, I quickly learned that Pastor Smith was not only a local pastor -- he was the founding pastor of the Cowboy Church Network of North America which has planted cowboy churches across the United States and in portions of Canada. His wife had long been interested in using animals in her mission work at nursing homes. This, coupled with his daughter's interest in horses, were the original seeds for what was to become the Cowboy Church Network. On one momentous day, Pastor Smith met some strangers out on a trail ride with his youngest daughter. He invited them to his church, which was a traditional church at that time. When they explained they didn't feel comfortable coming in a formal church, he challenged them to come to "church" on his farm the next day instead -- and they did. They returned the next week with more friends, and more still the next week. This chance encounter exploded in growth well past the family farm and now encompasses many areas of the North American continent.

In a culture where chaos, anger, conflict, confusion, and loneliness are becoming more the norm, Pastor Smith, founder of the Cowboy Church Network of North America, supported by his family, is providing, not only a strong gospel message for those seeking, but a sorely needed safe haven and respite in troubled times. They are doing what the church is supposed to be doing (yet few do it seems) and that is providing a church "home."  Matthew 11:28 says “Come to me all ye who are weary and burdened, and I shall give you rest.” To be sure, this pastor provides a mission, a message, and an unwavering faith for his congregation first and foremost. However, just as Jesus fed the masses in the parable of the fishes and loaves before preaching to them--this church also focuses on the complete person. It was a community which defied many stereotypes about religion, particularly notable in our culture in an era when church attendance seems to be slipping away faster than any other time in our history.

My thanks to Pastor Jeff Smith who bravely allowed me, a perfect stranger, to enter his world. He welcomed me wholeheartedly and his transparency throughout the project is a testament to his integrity and his confidence in the ethics and mission of his organization. I also appreciate the hospitality of his wife, Kimberly; his daughter, Whitney; and his daughter, Kaitlyn, who gave me friendship and support in many different ways throughout this project. 


       The past year has been difficult for our nation. It has been an exhausting year, for both political affiliations it seems, as tidal waves of anger, arguments, and chaos have seemingly become the national norm. The potential long-term effects of stress are well documented in the medical and psychological literature, but how to ameliorate stress in times such as these is less clear.

The Cowboy Church Network of North America provides one such opportunity for their unique culture and for many communities across the United States and Canada. The churches not only provide religious instruction and a place of worship for their congregants as would be expected from a church-affiliated organization, but they also offer unique, healthy, healing rural environments--a place of solace, fun, and a sense of well-being for those who wish to seek and who find this lifestyle comforting.

This is the story of my two years documenting the Cowboy Church of North America at the their Midland, North Carolina headquarters and surrounding areas in the American South.  I immersed myself into this culture for a substantial period of time and was ultimately given access to the founding pastor, his family, their farm, the church, their community, and their administration. I was afforded the rare opportunity to witness this culture first-hand to see what they offer that separates them from other religious institutions including the respite they provide for anyone who comes for spiritual and community support. It is a healing place and it was a privilege to work with them on this project.





Jodie Castellani, Ph.D.

Castle Light Images

PO Box 6712

Concord, NC 28027

(704) 651-9569



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