The Cowboy Church

A woman in love with a troubled Iraq veteran learns to let go and let God.

Posted in , Sep 21, 2012

Sherrill Dickey Porterfield and her husband, Jimmie

The ad in the paper jumped out at me: “Cowboy Church: Come as You Are! Boots and Hats Welcome!” My boyfriend would never go for wearing Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but “come as you are”? Maybe this Cowboy Church would be good for Jimmie and me.

He’d been back from Iraq for three months but it was like the real Jimmie hadn’t come home at all. Not the sweet man I’d fallen in love with, the one who had talked about marriage, about us growing old together.

Now he was an angry, depressed shell of a man who refused to get help. A man I wasn’t sure I had a future with. Could a new church help us? Could anything?

We’d met two years earlier. I had recovered from my divorce and was enjoying life again, working as a flight attendant and living in Orange County, Texas, when one night an e-mail from a man named Jimmie popped up in my inbox.

He said he’d been in the Army for 20 years, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he was retired from the Army but still in Iraq, working civilian support. “I’d love to know more about you. Write back when you can,” he wrote.

Who was this guy? It turned out that my friend’s husband was Jimmie’s boss. He’d given Jimmie my e-mail address so he’d have someone back in Texas to chat with. At first I was annoyed. Why didn’t anyone ask me first?

But I wrote back to Jimmie and the more we chatted, the more we started falling for each other. He was sweet and charming—a true Texas gentleman.

Four months later, Jimmie got a break from work and came to visit. He was even nicer in person. Handsome too. Real handsome. I’d found the love of my life. But did Jimmie feel the same about me? At the airport we held each other for a long time, neither of us wanting to let go. “I’ll be back,” he whispered.

We Skyped, sent pictures and dreamed of our future together post-Iraq. We talked about getting married, buying a house and settling down here in Orange County. “I can’t wait to spend my life with you,” he said.

I’d grown up going to a Baptist church with my grandmothers, and though I hadn’t been in years, I still talked to God every day. Thank you, Lord, for Jimmie, I’d pray first thing every morning. Please keep him safe. Let him know I love him.

Just over a year after we met, Jimmie came back to Texas for good. Finally the future we’d planned was here! Hallelujah! First, we’d find him a job, then work on our dream home—the fixer-upper I’d bought for us.

But week by week, Jimmie withdrew. He stopped talking about our future, our hopes and dreams. He stopped saying much at all. He blasted death-metal music and stared at the floor.

If he did talk, it was about fast-moving combat. He’d describe things in horrific detail. “Sometimes we’d imagine the tracer bullets were fireworks,” he’d say in a lifeless tone I’d never heard from him before.

“You’re not there anymore, honey,” I would remind him. But he’d just pull the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and turn away.

That was his uniform now that he was out of Army green: hooded sweatshirts, tank tops, jeans and combat boots. He didn’t want to listen to the gentlest suggestion that he dress up once in a while. He didn’t want to be told anything. By anyone. Especially not about the most obvious: that he needed to get help for his combat trauma.

I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Except to God. Lord, I prayed, I miss my Jimmie. He won’t listen to me. Maybe he’ll listen to you. Please help him.

Jimmie had been home for just a few months when his cousin, who was like a brother to him, died. The funeral was the first time we’d ever been in church together. Sitting beside Jimmie in the pew, I could feel his anger and sadness.

It occurred to me that in all the time we’d been planning our future, not once did we talk about having God in it. Sure, I prayed and I knew Jimmie believed—he’d taken his Bible with him to Iraq—but we never really talked about our faith beyond that. Never really got into it.

I was afraid to ask Jimmie if we could start praying together. He might feel attacked and that would push him further away. I thought about asking him to come to my old church, but they were pretty conservative—he wouldn’t stand for anyone telling him how to dress or behave. There had to be a way to get God in our lives. But how?

That’s when I saw the ad for Cowboy Church. I e-mailed the pastor right away. “Dear Pastor Dale,” I wrote. “My boyfriend has just returned from Iraq. I feel strongly that we need a church home. He is bitter and angry, but he still believes. Can I talk or pray with you or someone from the church?”

Pastor Dale called me that very afternoon. “We have lots of former military men and women who come to Cowboy Church,” Pastor Dale said. “Our services are casual, and everyone’s welcome. Oh, and we don’t care how you’re dressed. We just want to reach people who, for some reason or another, have stopped going to church.”

“Want to come to church with me Sunday?” I asked Jimmie that night, trying to sound nonchalant. “The pastor’s real nice...he says we can wear whatever we want.” Jimmie nodded.

Cowboy Church was full of rustic charm, with a wood-frame main building and benches and hay bales out front. Out back there was the most picturesque little hill topped with a giant wooden cross.

The service was warm and welcoming, everything Pastor Dale said it would be. Jimmie sat as still as a stone and didn’t look at me, but I caught him tapping his foot to the Cowboy Cross Band.

“Nice service,” he said that night. “Wouldn’t mind going back.”

Yes! Thank you, Lord.

For a month of Sundays, Jimmie and I went to church together. I thought he was making progress—that we were making progress. Then, out of the blue, he said there was something he needed to tell me. Something that broke my heart: “I’m leaving.”

I asked him for an explanation, but it wasn’t up for discussion. Jimmie was done. With Cowboy Church. With Orange County. And with me.

I’d never felt so alone. I couldn’t even bring myself to talk to anyone at church about it. One Sunday the soloist sang “Temporary Home” by Carrie Underwood. The lyrics are about someone not belonging here, just passing through, and they got to me. I bolted out of church right in the middle of the song.

I almost crashed into Paul, one of the church elders. “Are you okay?” he asked. I broke down and told him everything— how Jimmie hadn’t been himself since he got back from Iraq, how he’d up and left me.

“Sherrill, I know it’s hard,” he said, “but you’ve got to let him go. Give him to God. If it’s God’s will, then he—not you—will bring Jimmie home.”

Let Jimmie go. Lord knows, I tried. I worked on the house we’d been fixing up together and hung a plaque in the kitchen with the words of Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” A reminder that God was at the center of my home, that he would never leave me.

Still, I missed Jimmie something fierce. I prayed for his health, prayed for him to find peace, but I didn’t ask God to bring him back to me. Your will, Lord, not mine.

I wondered if Jimmie missed me too. One day, when I finished the siding of the house, I snapped a photo and texted it to Jimmie. No message. Just the photo.

He texted me right back. It was the first contact we’d had in five months. “Sherrill! I’ve been hoping to hear from you. I thought you’d ignore me if I tried to get in touch. Can I call you?” he asked.

“Okay,” I typed before I could think. You should’ve said no. Do you want to have your heart broken again?

Jimmie and I talked for a good long while. He’d been staying with family 10 hours away. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” he said. “I miss you. I miss us. Can I see you again?”

There was something different in his voice. A quietness that told me he’d found a measure of peace. I agreed to see him.

Every weekend Jimmie drove 10 hours each way to visit me. He came to Cowboy Church with me on Sundays. No more death metal, no more silence, no more pulling away. He took my hand and opened up to me.

He said he’d been reading his Bible and he’d finally found answers to the painful questions that had plagued him after Iraq. Answers only a loving and all-knowing God could provide.

“I have something to show you,” Jimmie said one day, opening his Bible to Psalm 40. There in the margins next to “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,” he’d written: “God gave me Sherrill, my blessing.” He sure had changed, and I knew who had done the changing.

Last December, there was a small, simple wedding at Cowboy Church, at the foot of the cross on that little hill out back. Just Pastor Dale, a handful of guests, and the bride and groom. The bride in a prairie dress and the groom in U.S. Army Class A’s, standing before the God who brought them home to build a future together.

View our slideshow of images from weddings held in unconventional settings.

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