A faith vast enough to fit the prairie Preacher: The Rev. Gertrude Horn, 91, has spent most of her life sharing the blessings and tragedies of her far-flung flock on Colorado's vast plains.

Sun Journal

October 03, 1998|By Duane Noriyuki | Duane Noriyuki,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GROVER, Colo. -- The sun rises softly on the plains, spreading light evenly across golden wheat fields and the timeless prairie. There are stretches where there is little to see but the land and the sky and, through the eyes of the Rev. Gertrude Horn, the love of God.

This is the not the Colorado that most people visualize. From here, the Rockies are but a faded blue wrinkle on the western horizon, visible primarily by the contrast of lingering patches of long-ago snow. The closest city is Cheyenne, Wyo., about 60 miles to the northwest.

Not everyone can love this land, but Horn, 91, known around these parts as the Prairie Preacher, has filled her soul with its nocturnal whispering wind, its vastness and its people. To see spring emerge from winter's desolate gray is to know that God is ever present, she says, even here. And in the fall, her favorite season, the cottonwoods and elms turn gold and the stars seem close. After the hot, dry summers, there is benediction, she says, in autumn.

For 64 years, she has driven -- or been driven -- across this land from one small church to the next as a circuit preacher, delivering the word of God, marrying its people, celebrating their blessings, sharing their tragedy, and -- more often now, it seems -- burying their dead.

She came here from California in 1934. It was toward the end of the Dust Bowl era when people were passing her in the opposite direction, defeated, desperate and seemingly forsaken.

Horn and two friends, who set out from Los Angeles in a 1928 Chevrolet with $25, drove to Colorado to spread the word of God. Born in Nebraska before moving as a child to Phoenix and eventually to Los Angeles, Horn had attended LIFE Bible College and been ordained through the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, founded by late evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

Upon their arrival, the three women, who called themselves the Gospel Trio, lived in shacks, using boxes for tables. Worshipers brought them food, and sometimes, when they passed the collection plate, among the pennies and nickels and dimes totaling little more than a dollar would be a bean or two.

At one point, when the end of the Depression was not yet in sight, Horn sat at a restaurant and looked out the window. "I said that if I thought I had to live here the rest of my life, I'd just as soon die right now, but God didn't hear that statement."

The other two women eventually left Colorado, but Horn stayed, conducting her nondenominational services, and never again thought about leaving. This, she discovered, is home.

Over the years, there have been those, "mostly Baptist ministers," she says, who have expressed dismay at having a female preacher in their midst. And once, in Briggsdale, a wedding had been planned, but when the father of the bride discovered Horn was a woman, he found a different church.

"But mostly," Horn says, "people have welcomed me and been very gracious."

On Sundays, Horn is counted on to lift spirits, to galvanize souls ++ contained in requisite sturdy shells, to be with her flock in their brightest and darkest moments, from one generation to the next.

In the back seat of a 1991 Cadillac with almost 90,000 miles, Horn is on her way to the first of two Sunday sermons. At one time, her circuit included six northern Colorado churches covering 1,000 square miles. But she is older now, so she has lessened her load to two. Her legs and voice are no longer steady, and sometimes it's hard to hear and see.

She is driven by her assistant of 30 years, Carol Opdycke, who rolls through a stop sign in the middle of nowhere and turns south toward Briggsdale, where Horn has been preaching for more years than she can recall.

The wooden skeleton of an abandoned house sits among weeds on the left. A woman and three children once lived there, Horn says. "I buried them all." Along another stretch, Horn points to another house. "A man there committed suicide." And just down the road, "A banker lived there."

Three cars are in front of the church as Opdycke and Horn pull up at a quarter to 9. Opdycke helps Horn out of the car, then up the stairs to the church. Already, the sun bears down and, inside, ceiling fans twirl slowly.

Merietta West sits at the piano welcoming worshipers, 15 in all, as she has done since 1952. Opdycke leads them in hymns; then Horn stands slowly to speak.

"You know, I don't know what tomorrow holds. Do you?" Horn asks through a microphone that magnifies her soft voice. "No. None of us does, but I do know who holds tomorrow. God is with us today, tomorrow and always."

Seated quietly alone, Lillian Gooch listens to the sermon. Gooch has missed few services, perhaps three in the past four years. She has known Horn since about 1940.

"We never had a lot of money," Gooch says, "and once when I was a little girl, I'd had a dream that there was a bunch of clothes that I got, and that evening when I got home from school, [Horn had] brought us three children a big box of clothes and food and everything."

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