Who is the One I’d Miss the Most?
You regularly attend a place of worship, let’s say, and there are certain people you expect to see there week after week.
Who might you miss most if they were to suddenly disappear?
When you saw the title of this post, did you immediately guess that I was talking about my husband?
Or maybe Jesus?
Wrong on both counts.
The man in the pew whose story moves me most is known simply as Cowboy, and he doesn’t even know my name.
Cowboy is a colorful character here in Haywood County. When we moved to this area and found the church that’s become our family, I noticed him right away. There is a certain sorta man that catches a woman’s eye.
Maybe it’s his Sunday-go-to-meetin’ apparel. The battered broad-brimmed hat sporting law enforcement pins that he removes as soon as he enters the building. The dusty boots. The freshly-washed bib overalls with pockets for his family members.
He’s got a family, you say?
Indeed he does, and no one bats an eye when they enter the sanctuary with him.
Cowboy is a movie star, you see, or was. A major motion picture about some dark goings-on in southern Appalachia came out 50 years ago – one noted for dueling banjos and notorious for a certain brutal, violent scene. Cowboy, missing a few front teeth at the time, was asked to portray the most abhorrent character in the film.
“I’ve done worse in my life!” he reportedly cackled, and took the job. He and the film’s star, Burt Reynolds, became buddies for life.
But in these parts that’s not the story they like to tell. A man shouldn’t be known for what he’s been, but for what he’s come to be.
Cowboy’s wife, they say, was a God-fearin’, church-goin’ woman. He refused to attend with her. When she passed on some years back, the church simply did what families do.
They cared for him.
When work dried up and winter fell, the church chopped wood. Delivered it to Cowboy’s door by the truckload. Expected nothing in return.
When he was sick, folks dropped by to visit.
When he hung his head in shame, seized by past regrets, church members listened with compassion, sitting alongside him in silence while Cowboy choked out confession.
And then, before my time but who knows just when, folks looked up one Sunday morning to see a man coming down the aisle, faltering his way to the very front row.
An old man wearing a battered hat, dusty boots, bib overalls.
Wonder of wonders, that old man brought others with him. A tiny canine he calls Little Man, tucked into the right pocket of his overalls. A brown squirrel, Angel, who rides in his left, miniature leash around her soft neck.
And in his front pocket, right over his heart? Why, then, that would be his wife. She always did want him to come to church with her and he never would. Never did, until now. So he brings her ashes with him, I’m told.
These are strange times we live in, aren’t they? Folks stay home of a Sunday and sit in front of a screen, if they pay church any mind a’tall.
Jesus said the entire law can be summed up in one commandment: “Love God and love your neighbor.”
You can worship God anywhere, they say, and they’d be right about that. But loving your neighbor? Now that’s a bit harder to do from in front of a screen.
Cowboy can’t do much for anyone else, far as I can tell. His health is poor, and he moves with great difficulty. It takes at least two verses of Just as I Am for him to negotiate that aisle clear to the front, where he settles Little Man and Angel on his knees to listen to the preacher.
He’s not beloved because of what he does, or doesn’t do, or hasn’t done. He's loved by God and the rest of us simply for who he is.
A part of our church family.
And as for me? I watch for Cowboy every Sunday, this man who moves me most.
- Maggie Wallem Rowe, 2022
Maggie is a writer, dramatist, and speaker in Western North Carolina. She's the author of This Life We Share, a finalist for a 2021 ECPA Christian Book Award, as well as her new release Life is Sweet, Y'all: Wit and Wisdom with a Side of Sass. Maggie loves bluegrass, barbecue, and mountain dancing, but most of all she loves people. Visit her at MaggieRowe.com.