Ed: Tell me about your camp and your program for children.
Bryan: I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. For years, when I first started ministry almost 30 years ago, I did a lot of youth ministry and as I began to heal, I began to feel the freedom to talk about it. I say this all the time: rodents and roaches play in the dark, and when the lights come on, they all go find a place to hide.
There was freedom for me in being able to talk about it. As I shared my story, I realized that thousands of kids across this country were connecting with my story, and then I started looking into the numbers of people who admit to being sexually abused. This doesn't count all those who are not saying anything about it.
This has been a dream in our hearts for years. We actually started a camp with Royal Family Kids' Camp, which is a nationwide organization that helps local churches engage children who have been abused and neglected. I didn't start out to engage kids in the foster system, but identifying children who have dealt with sexual abuse is hard outside of the foster system.
A lot of the kids in the foster system are there because of some level of abuse, much of it sexual abuse. We founded Lonesome Dove Ranch in 2015 to serve the needs of children who have been exploited and sexually abused. It was born out of my own pain.
Ed: Tell me about how the camp runs. How many kids come in and out? Where do they come from?
Bryan: When we first began, we started by making inroads to organizations that serve the orphan. We set ourselves up at the camp for the worst-case scenarios. Our clinical counselors, are all Christian and counsel from a biblical and gospel-centered framework.
That's one thing we let the state know. Here in Texas, however, there is a faith-based component in the government for Child Protective Services. They promote our camps out of the capital in Austin and churches promote them.
We've become very well known among the fostering community. We actually have non-Christian people who send their kids to this camp because it's free and they're looking for activities. It's an incredible experience; they get exposure to horses, to water sports, to fishing and outdoors.
Most people who aren't believers are willing to let their kids experience this because they don't have to pay. We make no bones about it. It's faith-based. We’ve built a reputation to the point where case workers in the state of Texas will have a child who has come to them from an incredibly traumatic situation, and they will point them to us as a place of safety and refuge.
Because I'm not only the director of Lonesome Dove, but also a pastor, we have an orphan care ministry in our church. We are working on a training for foster care and adoption, so Christian families can be ready to answer the orphan epidemic. It's a beautiful thing for me to see a kid who's come to us because of a traumatic experience who ends up being adopted into the church I pastor from a family we trained, and I see them flourish in a forever family.
Ed: How long do the kids stay?
Bryan: We're not a residential facility. We've inquired about that, but at this moment, they simply come a week at a time. We keep it to 50 kids a week, because we've learned that the needs are so severe. Every time there's 50 kids on site, there will be 150 adults. We're three deep per child. Some of those are professionals, some are volunteers, some are just support staff, but we feel like we have the impact that we have because of the intense one-on-one. The needs—emotionally, mentally, sometimes physically—are extreme. The one-on-one attention is what allows them to have the impact we have in a week.
It costs more money to do it this way, but we've always said the answer for us is more camps, not more kids. Right now we are at five camps.
Ed: Tell me about the volunteers.
Bryan: There's no salary position at Lonesome Dove Ranch. Camp directors are volunteer, all the staff is volunteer. We have executive chefs who leave their businesses for the summer to come and cook all the meals out of our new commercial kitchen that we've just built.
Ed: You mention trauma. What does the camp experience give as part of a care continuum?
Bryan: We give the kids dignity and love without wanting anything back. Most of these kids have only been shown love because there was an agenda. We have no agenda.
A lot of the kids who come to us have no exposure to the gospel. At the end of the week, we give them an opportunity to come to Christ and be exposed to the gospel. Then, the goal is to resource those families. If they either came to us from a foster family or when they leave us, they're going into a new foster family. We offer resources, and reference local churches and other parachurch or church ministries we know that can walk them through this long term.
Ed: Tell me about the cross and the rocks.
Bryan: On the last day of camp, we take the kids on a hay ride where there are object lessons. We take them by a stable where Hope is. Hope is kind of our mascot, one of our 10 therapy horses. She was rescued from abuse, and so they hear her story. They don't know all week long that the horse they'd been riding was discarded, thrown away, came to Lonesome Dove Ranch, and has turned into one of the most beautiful horses.
They've become friends without them knowing her story. When they find her story, it connects. We take them through a fallen tree that is laying sideways—but which is growing and surviving.
The last stop in this four or five-stop hayride is the cross. At the cross is where they hear my story. They've been at the ranch, they know me, they've talked to me all week, but they've never heard my story. They don't know I'm one of them. I talk a little bit about my journey through abuse, and how I turned to addiction and ran from God, and then how Jesus came into my life.
I share the gospel with them, and I tell them that when they leave the foot of the cross, we have rocks they will ride over. Kids will give their lives to Jesus there and I ask them to leave their pain there. Isaiah 53 says, "He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He bore our sins and carried…"
The kids will write their pain on those rocks. Over the last several summers, there are thousands of rocks at the base of that cross. These have captured some of the deepest pain in a child's life. It's an active way for them to give it to Jesus. Those rocks stay there year-round. The pile of rocks at the bottom of that cross gets bigger and bigger every year.
Ed: You're a pastor of a rapidly growing megachurch. For some, this would seem to be a distraction. It's obviously not for you. Why?
Bryan: They say that the church takes on the personality of its pastor if you've been there long enough. I've been here almost 15 years now. I don't hide my brokenness. From the pulpit I am what Henri Nouwen might call a wounded healer. A lot of who we are as a church is us being boldly broken. We're a church for broken people.
This whole vision is very much in alignment with the heart and the DNA of this church. We ask our people in the marketplace, education, arts, entertainment, politics, wherever they work, whatever their vocation, to reflect the DNA of this church in that world.
This is my world outside of church, where I become a Christian. A lot of pastors are so professional that they forget to be Christians. This is where I can be a Christian.