Heaven and horses
July 22, 2015
They meet where the Niobrara is wide, and the door to heaven is narrow.
Johnstown Rodeo Bible Camp has completed its 21st season, reaching more than 165 youth this year in the Sandhills of north central Nebraska.
Volunteers still come together every summer at the Brown County Fairgrounds, teaching the gospel alongside rodeo fundamentals.
On the roster are some world champions who prefer to remain mostly anonymous, says director Greg Lanka, founding member of the camp.
“We know that some of these kids go home to unsaved parents, unsaved friends. That’s going to be hard for them, they’re going to have a difficult time. We just have to trust in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit always finishes the work that it begins. Greg Lanka, camp director
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"We want to give all the glory to God, win or lose," Lanka says. "We want to teach our youth that faith is a daily walk. It's not just an emotional, one-time experience."
Participants attend on the basis of donations. Advertising is minimal. Most are referred by word of mouth.
Not all camp goers come to the campus identifying as Christians.
"We get some kids that come with a completely secular world view," Lanka says. "They've never been exposed to the Bible or what God says is the plan for this world."
Rodeo experience in each group also varies. "We have kids that have won a bushel of buckles," Lanka says, "and others who don't even know how to saddle a horse."
Every day is a busy one, starting with staff devotion and prayer request while breakfast is cooking. After morning meal, youth head to the barn to tend to their horses. There's Bible study, followed by clinics for each event, to include barrels, poles and goat tying and bucking events.
A big afternoon meal provides refreshment, then it's time for the afternoon rodeo, complete with grand entry and buckle prizes. Sometimes there's more practice, and every day finishes with supper and chapel, some games, and a sleepover in the exhibition building.
Camp typically starts around Memorial Day, and each youth is assigned a counselor. Groups are divided into pee wee, junior and senior camps, accommodating ages eight through high school. Practical skills are built detail by detail through positive reinforcement.
"We try to give them at least three compliments and then a correction," Lanka says. "We find that if you go with the correction right away, they put their head down right out of the arena and go and do it the same way tomorrow. But when you keep it positive, their eyes light up and they get hooked into what you're saying."
Wyatt Ehler, 10, of Ameila, attended as a pee wee last season and came back this year to win a saddle as a junior camper. He took home the prize for memorizing scripture between sessions.
"I studied in my dad's office," Ehler says. "I put the words to music to help me remember."
Ehler memorized 117 verses from Proverbs 1-4. The group used the English Standard Bible for the contest.
Ehler took his ranch horse Buddy along this year, and enjoyed dummy roping and calf tying best. The 14.5 inch Corriente roper is a little big, but it's something to grow into and it's engraved – the numbers of the verses Ehler recited are on one fender.
Winning is put in perspective, even in a competitive atmosphere.
"We are taught," Lanka says, "to care about others. That sounds anti-competitive, I know, and yet it's not. The way we are going to win is to get better at what we do. We still want to encourage others."
Youth can be disqualified for profanity or a bad attitude. "We don't allow bad language, or tearing down another person."
Camp teaches youth to use prayer for support and guidance.
"When you're scared, when you're back in the box, you can pray, you can pray any time. God wants you to be your best. He wants to help you with your rodeoing, help you get better."
Sometimes kids keep in touch from camp to camp.
"I know they make new friends," Lanka says. "I know that they talk to each other in between camps because they tell me they do."
Camps last from two to four days, depending on the age group, and every season has a theme. This year's was Creation vs. Evolution.
"We know that some of these kids go home to unsaved parents, unsaved friends. That's going to be hard for them, they're going to have a difficult time. We just have to trust in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit always finishes the work that it begins."
The camp buys jersey calves for roping stock, rents cattle at a good price from Ira Spanel in Broken Bow, and gets its bucking stock donated by the Ed Chauncey family out of Mission.
A board of directors meets over the winter.
For more information, visit the web page at http://www.johnstownrodeobiblecamp.com.