What: The Tennessee Guest Ranch consists of a 7,000-square-foot home, a sweeping barn and stables. The Christian ministry operates a small boarding school on site and supports mission programs like a pair of orphanages in Honduras.
Where: Sequatchie Valley
For more information: www.tnhorsevacation.com.
The volunteer crew is made up of plumbers, electricians and just plain old helping hands. The group consists of helpers from across the South who usually gather in the first week of June. They generally stay at a site for about a week, working to complete most of the framing, electrical work and plumbing.
There are dozens of similar groups across the country, some even of the same name.
DUNLAP, Tenn. - It felt like an Amish barn-raising.
Dozens of men massed deep in the Sequatchie Valley to swing hammers, lay pipe and praise God. The Mississippi-based group Builders for Christ is spending this week at the Tennessee Guest Ranch, a Christian ministry and boarding school northwest of Dunlap.
Early Wednesday, before the morning fog had lifted, men in church T-shirts and dirty jeans stood in a dusty wooden horse pen to hear the Word. Then it was on to doing what they came for: building for Christ.
Each year, the traveling construction troop brings people together from various states, including Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana and North Carolina, usually to build churches. But this year, the group decided to help the growing ranch, which supports Honduran orphanages and missionaries as well as playing host to family getaways and youth group trips.
Builders for Christ, and many similar Christian building groups, offer free labor. They take their own vacation time, pay for their own travel and their own food while on site. This week, they're sleeping in a nearby Baptist church. They generally work on framing, electrical work and plumbing. And often they never see the fruits of their labor.
"When we leave, there are going to be people touched by it even though we're not going to know about it," said Margaret Crawford, a Louisianan who was feeding snacks to the volunteers. "That's what ministry is: not always knowing the end."
Each project, usually the first week of June, has become a family reunion of sorts for the group of 60 or so volunteers, Crawford said. And the nondenominational ministry almost always picks up new volunteers along the way.
Jay Heffron, from Oklahoma, has been volunteering with the group for 23 years. He's a pastor now, but was a machinist for years before. His reason for getting involved is simple:
"I thought, 'Well, I can't preach, I can't teach, but I can swing a hammer,'" he said.
He's learned enough about construction through the years that he built his own home.
Mississippi Pastor Paul Harris, who leads the group, said they wound up in Tennessee unexpectedly after their original plan to build a church in Indiana fell through. Then they came across the ranch's request for help online.
"The funny thing is that God always puts a project together," he said. "When we see how it falls together, it's clear that He's done it."
Before his days as a pastor, Harris built homes. He estimates this project alone provided some $50,000 worth of free labor to the ranch. That's the point. Many churches can afford the materials, but not the cost of hiring construction crews.
"Some of them couldn't do these projects just because they couldn't afford it," he said.
The Tennessee Guest Ranch is home to a handful of boarding students, most of whom are generally interested in veterinary work. Many of them go on to work with cows, horses and goats as missionaries in other countries.
The ranch also rents rooms so that families or groups can get a taste of life on the farm. They're assigned a horse. They milk the cows. And they have Bible study out on the trail.
On Wednesday, just after 7 a.m., the bleary-eyed volunteers leaned their elbows on the ranch's wooden horse pen.
Tammy Young, owner of the Tennessee Guest Ranch, stood in the dirt and preached. As she often does, she pointed to a Bible verse about horses.
The Psalmist David warned of being like a horse, which "must be controlled by bit and bridle." Instead, she said man should be willingly obedient to God.
Her son displayed mastery of horsemanship for the assembled volunteers.
At his command, his horse went forward. It went backward. It even lay down on its side, resting one side of its face on the dirt.
"Think of the level of obedience here," Young said.
But, she said, her son still wouldn't want to be out on the open trail without that bit in the horse's mouth.
"There are different levels of obedience," she said.
Then everyone turned. Back to work.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.