By Benjamin Stroup
The smell of cow was new for me. I grew up in a city, and life is altogether different here in Maysville, Kentucky (population: 10,000 people, 40,000 cows).
As a child, on those rare occasions when we would drive by cows, everyone in the car would throw back their heads and “mooooo.” Now cows live in the field across from my house. It’s definitely not Cincinnati!
Many days, the essence of cow manure wafts across the road and regales us. It’s not the sound of cows (or humans) mooing that’s unbearable . . . except for those occasions in the middle of the night when four or five cows start talking and won’t stop. When I moved to Maysville, I couldn’t point to a cow and name its breed. I could pick out a New York strip steak, perhaps, but I couldn’t describe a live cow much beyond its color.
My first day in Maysville, during the “get to know you” Q&A at Highland Christian Church, an older lady raised her hand and told me there were lots of lost people we needed to reach. I loved her instantly. Garneda was the type who would regularly give the “Kentucky handshake”—slipping a $20 bill into my palm, just because. She would take my family out to lunch and always picked the nicer places in town. So the day this kind widow asked a favor of me, I didn’t hesitate. I would have helped her with anything.
That’s when she asked me to “pray at my barn quilt blessing.” Hmmm . . . I wasn’t expecting that. I had to look up what a barn quilt was—it’s “the painting hung over a barn door.” I was lost. None of my friends or mentors knew what I was talking about, and I couldn’t find any help for this sort of thing in my Christian Minister’s Manual.
Garneda, a prominent community member, said some bigwigs would probably be at this shindig. How would I bless a barn quilt and not look like a goofball? How could I come across as spiritual without turning off anyone by seeming phony.
Over the years, I’ve been invited to help artificially inseminate cows and band steer (but refuse to be a part of either). I have been a judge at a 4-H food-o-rama where I unknowingly ate turtle, rabbit potpie, and deer steak. I follow tractors on the road almost daily. I have given the opening prayer for cattle auctions that draw cattlemen from all over the country. The people and things I have seen and experienced during my time in rural ministry have been like nothing I ever imagined.
Rural ministry has taught me that people—no matter their zip code, income, or acreage—are far from God and need to be reached. Within 20 miles of my church, as the crow flies (your mileage—on our curvy roads—may vary!), are 50,000 people who don’t have a committed relationship with Jesus. That includes friends, neighbors, and family of the people who go to my church. And my church is committed to connecting with them where they are and reaching them for Christ.
So on that spring day, I went down the road to Garneda’s barn and did the best I could to thank God for “creativity and beauty” and bless the barn quilt. I didn’t put on airs or make it something it wasn’t. All I could do was love Garneda, and her friends, by being a presence on that day and remind them of the God who loves them and sent his Son for them. It was just another new experience in the rural ministry life I’ve embraced.
Benjamin Stroup serves as lead pastor at Highland Christian Church in Maysville, Kentucky.