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Church lassos worshippers with friendly cowboy spirit



Published: Sun, February 9, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



There's more music than preaching at a typical service.

DALLAS MORNING NEWS

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The hogs and sheep once housed here are long gone but the remnants of holding pens, iron gates and wooden fences give the small sanctuary a rustic charm not found in most urban houses of worship.

As the Rev. George Westby says, "Welcome to Cowboy Church!"

Located in the historical Stockyards district, the simple two-room church draws Sunday visitors decked out in fringed leather and Stetsons -- and others in sweats and tennis shoes.

For the most part, the Rev. Mr. Westby said, the church relies on word of mouth, or the curiosity of tourists who wander by from nearby Texas memorabilia shops.

"It's people with the true love of the cowboy spirit," Mr. Westby said of the nondenominational church he founded 12 years ago.

Service

A Cowboy Church service isn't your typical religious experience. At the beginning, in sort of a communal howdy, participants give their names and tell where they're from. At the end, they form a large prayer circle.

In between, members sing from the Cowboy Church songbook and read Scripture. Mr. Westby talks a little, but there's a lot more music than preaching.

"I liked how it was short and you can just read a chapter. Then, you just sit and listen to music," said 12-year-old Rebecca Lewis.

Unlike in most churches, they don't pass the hat. The hat -- a light-colored, straw cowboy model -- sits on a small card table by the door, for members and guests to leave or take money, depending on their circumstances. Proceeds benefit local charities.

Doris Wallace, a member for six years, said she and her husband were attracted by the church members' sincerity and friendliness. Raised in the Church of Christ, she said she also appreciates the free-flowing and relaxed atmosphere.

"You can dress whatever way you want," she said, tugging at her sweat shirt while grabbing supplies for the children's Sunday school. "It's about worshipping God instead of all the other stuff church is about."

First-time visitor Claire Harless said she enjoyed last week's service, even though she doesn't plan to leave her Baptist roots.

"It's such a neat place to incorporate the Fort Worth history," she said.

Throughout the service, passers-by on the sidewalks outside could be seen through the church's tall windows. Often, they would walk in time with the music while those inside clapped and tapped their toes on the brick floor.

Feel comfortable

Mr. Westby said he wants everyone who drops by to feel comfortable.

"There's no finger-pointing here," he said, adding that the Golden Rule is the church's guiding philosophy. At the end of each week's service, he gives children attending his Sunday school for the first time youth-oriented Bibles to take home.

Gary "Goose" Gregg of Fort Worth said he keeps coming back because of Mr. Westby. The ranch caretaker, decked out in a western vest, jeans and an earth-colored cowboy hat, joined about three years ago.

"Some of us come from ranches, some of us come from the city," he said. "But we've all got one thing in common -- praising God."




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