Camp blends religion with Old West theme

July 17, 1992|By Robert Erlandson | Robert Erlandson,Staff Writer

Increasingly desperate and snorting angrily, the bull slammed against the slats of the narrow pen and kicked at the gate with his hoofs.

John Zeigenfuse Jr., 22, settled himself on the animal's back, took a firm grip on the rope circling the bull's body and shouted, "OK!"

The gate flew open; the bull cannoned out of the pen, bucking into the rodeo arena. Mr. Zeigenfuse clung for a few seconds before the bull flung him to the dirt and for good measure kicked him in the shins.

At the River Valley Ranch in Carroll County, a Christian camp with an Old West theme, riders earn those bruises for Jesus.

Smiling and waving, Mr. Zeigenfuse got to his feet as the 500 or so people gathered in the weather-beaten wooden stands of the River Valley Ranch's arena cheered.

"It's all part of the game," he said later. "It's 90 percent balance and 10 percent strength and it's the hardest, most exciting event."

During the week, Mr. Zeigenfuse, a recent Towson State University graduate who wants to become a teacher, works as head camp counselor. On Saturdays, he turns rodeo cowboy.

The rodeos open with the rousing Grand Parade, cowboys and cowgirls galloping full-tilt around the arena with flags flying to the William Tell Overture, the Lone Ranger's theme music.

Events follow in quick succession; broncos bucking riders into the air and trick riders clinging precariously to stirrup leathers as their horses race around the ring.

Two-member teams on horseback compete in baton-passing races and in pickup races in which riders scoop up their grounded partners and carry them across the finish line.

A game of musical chairs on horseback showcases riding skills.

Slap-happy clowns draw laughs with their gags and earn applause when they distract angry bulls and horses so that thrown riders can escape.

Trick rider Beth Elkins, 21, of New Freedom, Pa., met her match in the mule race when her mount, Francis, turned truly mulish. First Francis threw her to the dirt, then pulled off her boot when he stepped on her foot.

Mrs. Elkins smiled bravely as she delicately patted the dusty seat of her jeans.

The rodeo drew to a close with "Ringo," a trained horse, kneeling as if in prayer when his rider, "Cowboy Bob" Hart, 69, a rodeo and show-business veteran, ordered, "Do what every Christian should do, every morning and night."

This re-creation of the Old West is the work of the Rev. John Bisset, 76, former pastor of Overlea Baptist Church, whose Rs roll strongly through his native Scottish burr. RVR, as the ranch is known, offers what he calls "a Western vacation with spiritual values" to about 200 campers a week in the teen and junior camps.

Known universally as "Uncle John," Mr. Bisset said the ranch began as a dream when he was growing up in a village near Glasgow and he studied a book about the American West belonging to one of his brothers.

"I always had a desire to be a westerner," he said, looking the part in high-heeled cowboy boots, black leather vest, western-style shirt and black 10-gallon hat.

In 1948, Mr. Bisset and his brother, Peter, 70, who is pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Baltimore County, started the Peter and John Radio Fellowship, which broadcasts at 8 a.m. daily on WRBS-FM.

Meanwhile, John Bisset clung to his idea of combining Christian living with a western theme and in 1953, with his wife, Barbara, launched the River Valley Ranch as a non-profit venture.

The teen camp is built as a western cattle town on 500 acres of rolling fields and woodland. A separate junior camp occupies a heavily wooded site nearby.

The interracial, nondenominational camp has a strong Christian identity but aside from a nightly chapel service, is not a "churchy place," Mr. Bisset said, adding: "We just try to get them right with God."

Russell Pace, 7, of Blowing Rock, N.C., had just completed his first week at RVR and was relating his adventures to his father: riding, stagecoach trips, campfire cookouts, swimming and sports.

Russell's recitation of his experiences stirred memories in Blake Pace, 38, a musician and news director at a small Christian radio station. "I was a camper here 26 years ago. I met Christ at the junior camp and I wanted my son to have the same opportunity."

The camp is also a family affair for John Zeigenfuse Sr., 46, of Parkville.

He has been associated with RVR for 24 years, 10 of them as head counselor, the post his bull-rider son holds now.

Two daughters also work as counselors. The Bisset family "did get me right with God," he said.

"My life was nowhere, very disorganized. Then I met Uncle John's son and he started talking to me about God and what He can do, and I've been coming here ever since. All my kids came here to camp, too," said Mr. Zeigenfuse, who works as a rodeo clown to keep the riders safe.

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