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2001/08/14

Rodeo Chaplain Jerry Reynolds Spreads The Gospel In Unique Ways Story and Photo by Allison Morgan, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Evangelist Jerry Reynolds spreads the gospel from unorthodox surroundings. His parsonage is a road-worn travel trailer, his sanctuary a sawdust-filled stable. His congregation is dressed in dusty jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. Reynolds is a rodeo chaplain, and each year his ministry touches the lives of countless young people involved in college rodeo events across America. A modern-day circuit rider (the rodeo circuit, that is), Reynolds travels with the Ozark Region Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, which includes 28 schools in seven states with some 10 competitions each year. "As a preacher, it doesn't matter where you are," says Reynolds, who logs 50,000 to 70,000 miles each year following the rodeo circuit. "I'll preach anywhere - location has never been an obstacle." Reynolds, a resident of White Bluff in Dickson County, took an interest in rodeos when his sons, Greg and Jamey, became involved in junior-level and high school competitions. For five years, Reynolds, a longtime patron of Dickson Farmers Cooperative, served as a high school rodeo chaplain, holding informal devotional programs as he traveled with his sons to competitions all over the country. Five years ago, Reynolds took his ministry to the college level when he and fellow rodeo wrangler Bud Young developed the Spirit Check Devotion Program. This unique ministry has become an integral part of the Intercollegiate Rodeo Association's events, during which Reynolds conducts 15-minute "devotions" before each rodeo competition. "The reception in the schools has been overwhelmingly positive," says Reynolds. "What I find most fascinating is the overall effect of the program. This can be a pretty crusty crowd, but these devotionals have changed the atmosphere and the kids. It's really doing something." Rodeo participants and spectators alike are invited to attend these sessions, which are held wherever space and weather permit - in a stable, in the bleachers, or in a quiet corner of the arena. First held in Alabama "The first one we held was at the University of West Alabama," says Reynolds. "It was the nastiest, muddiest day. I had to hold my Bible under a poncho. I kept thinking that this was never going to work. All of a sudden a group had gathered, and we've been rolling ever since. Now it's plumb comical - if I'm a little late, pandemonium sets in. You think these kids aren't paying attention, but they are." Along with his college rodeo ministry, Reynolds remains involved in several high school rodeos across the country. During these events, he holds regular worship services on Sunday mornings before the rodeo competitions begin and spends the rest of the time visiting with and ministering to the rodeo participants. "This man has more kids than any of us could ever imagine," says Kenny Littrell, director of the Illinois Rodeo Association. "He knows them all by name - and they know him, too." Has a 'strange connection' Reynolds also knows about the families of most of these young people as well as their hopes, dreams, and problems. Reynolds' simple yet powerful motto - "Jesus is judge" - says it all about his relationship with these young people. "I have a strange connection with these kids, especially the troubled ones," says Reynolds. "I never condemn - I just point out vigorously. That's the only kind of relationship that works with these kids; it's the only way to reach them. Even the worst hooligan will respect me to no end." Reynolds describes his ministry as "hands-on" because he is actively involved in the lives of the young people in the rodeo association. Often, he can be found making his way through the crowd, handing out heart-shaped stickers that say "Jesus loves cowgirls" or iron-on patches that say "Jesus: The Real Light." Many of the rodeo riders have these patches proudly displayed on their jackets or cowboy hats. "He's like a dad to us," says Bruce Haddock of Clarksville, one of the college students who regularly attends Reynolds' devotions. "He straightens us out, he feeds us, and he takes care of us. Most of all, he'll listen to us." When he's not preaching or ministering to one of his "kids," Reynolds can be found in the rodeo ring, keeping the time, waving the start flag, or serving as announcer for an event. "I believe in real-world evangelism," says Reynolds. "I get dirt on my hands and manure on my boots. There's a method to my madness. I talk to people in a way that helps them deal with reality, and I use a lot of humor in my services. There are so many ways you can help people see themselves. It's a method that God has gifted me with, and it works." The call to ministry came rather late in life for Reynolds, who preached his first sermon at age 35 after spending 18 years in the medical field as a respiratory care technician in Thomasville, Ga. At age 37, he returned to school and graduated with a degree in theology from Florida Baptist College. He first worked as a pastor and director of missions before he began providing evangelical ministry to small churches. In 1988, this ministry called Reynolds and his family to Tennessee, which brought him closer to his hometown of Livingston, Ky. "I've gone through quite an evolution," says Reynolds, who has been an evangelist for some 19 years now. "Ministry has always put me where others didn't fit. Nothing could ever replace what God has given me over the last two decades." Besides their sons, Reynolds and his wife, Charyl, have two daughters - Dana, 25, and Jana, 18. Son Greg is now 22, and son Jamey, 20, is a bull rider at Oklahoma State University. Charyl, a registered nurse at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, serves as the family's financial nucleus since Reynolds' ministry is funded only by donations. In fact, Reynolds is his own non-profit business - "Jerry Reynolds Evangelical Ministry." One of the donations Reynolds most appreciates is a used travel trailer he pulls behind his truck to all the rodeos. This road-weary trailer not only serves as his home and office but also as a gathering place for the rodeo participants when they want to talk or need a place to stay. "As unassuming as this trailer is, it's a place of refuge for the tired, the hungry, the scared," says Reynolds. "The kids know my door is always open. It's a truly interesting relationship. They see me as a parent-figure, but they also know they can say anything to me. There's a connection there." Reynolds says he can see his ministry "working miracles" everywhere he goes. In just five rodeos last season, he witnessed some 20 people accept Christ, and that pattern has held steady since his devotion program began. "My Biblical hero is Peter because God worked through him to save 3,000 souls," says Reynolds. "I've always wanted to be somewhere when 3,000 souls could be touched. I went through my records the other day and found the names of more than 3,000 people who have been saved through this ministry. I sat down and cried." Though the road gets long and times often get tough, Reynolds says he sees no end to his ride along the rodeo circuit. As rodeo chaplain, Reynolds says his ministry has given him an opportunity to "be in a lot of places where God is doing great things." The key, he says, is a willingness to be where it's happening. "I'm privileged to be where God is working. Don't think for a minute that I wouldn't be here for these kids, even if I had to walk here. I never let a little thing like lack of funds or a few thousand miles stand in my way. There's nothing in this world I'd rather be doing."

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