Cowboy on a mission
CHRISTY SWIFTIf you need a little inspiration, try a drive down State Road 66 to the Reality Ranch in Zolfo Springs. There you'll find cowboy, rancher and preacher Randy Johnson. He might be behind the podium in the outdoor chapel, giving a sermon. He might be sitting in the shade, chatting with an old cowboy friend. He might be up on a horse.
Published: January 23, 2013
Published: January 23, 2013
The surprising part is that Johnson is a C-5 quadriplegic.
At the age of 21, growing up in Avon Park, Johnson had an accident. A kid who didn't always act as he should, Johnson went for a swim in Lake Isis the summer of 1975. Horsing around with his friends, Johnson dove into a shallow area of the lake.
"I ran down real fast and jumped up," said Johnson, describing the event vividly although it happened over 35 years ago. "I didn't put my arms in front of me; I just did a tuck. My head struck the bottom."
Johnson fell unconscious, and two friends dragged him out of the water and called an ambulance. The prognosis was not good. Johnson could not move at all, and his parents were told it was only a matter of time.
But, miraculously, Johnson did not die. He was able to breathe without the help of a ventilator, and he started gaining mobility in his arms. Today, the soft-spoken gentleman in the white cowboy hat, sunglasses, and crisp shirt can get around quite easily in his motorized wheelchair. He can even drive a car and ride a horse, using a therapeutic saddle.
"God had different reasons and purposes and kept me alive," said Johnson.
Johnson was born in Kissimmee and grew up in Avon Park. He worked cows and was active in rodeo right up to the time of his accident. The day he broke his neck, he'd had everything going for him — his youth, a great ranching job, a life dedicated to his own needs and desires. He enjoyed what he now refers to as "foolish" activities.
"It was a life out of control," Johnson recalled.
"That night I felt very desperate. I thought my life was coming to an end." That night, he prayed that if it was his time to go, he would stop fighting. But if God could use him, "I'm available," he said.
Five years later, a recovered Johnson began running the Salvation Station Youth Ministry in Avon Park. He became an ordained minister in 1982. He also spent six years working with Teen Challenge of Florida. But the rodeo and ranching lifestyle never left his heart, especially ranching.
Johnson had a vision of preaching to the cowboy community. He started Reality Ranch in 1998, and through donations and the help of volunteers, turned an old working dairy on 47 acres into a working ranch with an arena, chapel, bunkhouse, stables, and outdoor worship area.
Johnson offers "Cowboy Church" every Sunday at 11 a.m., where between 10 and 200 people gather for services. An indoor chapel is available during inclement weather. The ranch hosts groups of campers, Boy Scout troops and more. They also sponsor youth rodeos, including the Wrangler division of the national high school rodeo association, the Florida High School Rodeo and the All Florida Junior Rodeo. The first Friday night of every month, the Sunshine Bell Barrell Racers compete, and the first Saturday of every month the ranch sponsors its own six-month buckle series for youth and adults, from January through June.
Johnson also reaches out to the community in other ways. Every Thursday, a group of women from Lydia's House, a Wauchula-based home/program for women coming out of destructive lifestyles, comes to the ranch to work with developmentally delayed adults. The women help the special participants learn to groom and ride horses during the Therapeutic Riding Program.
During the weekend, individual riding classes for children with disabilities are held. There are also bull-riding, calf-roping, and birthday party opportunities for the general public.
Johnson said he believes he was spared so that he could do the work he is currently doing.
"It's a vehicle to carry the gospel to people that are like-minded. I will win as many people as I can to the Lord. I will help as many people as I can, and in return they help me."
He added quietly, "We're all on a journey."