The Cowboy Church

The Cowboy Church

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

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.

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