At the Feed Store of God Cowboy Church, Where Police Say They Found Dead and Neglected Animals Yesterday Morning

At the Feed Store of God Cowboy Church, Where Police Say They Found Dead and Neglected Animals Yesterday Morning
Photos by Anna Merlan

"I don't want to talk about all that." The pastor took some letters from the mailbox without glancing over. "What I really want to talk about is getting more people to come to church on Sundays. You want to talk about religion, you can come by anytime."

Yesterday, we got an email from the police department saying that Air 1 had been doing a routine patrol over South Central Expressway when they noticed a dead calf lying in a corral. The pilot said there were other cows and horses nearby that appeared to have no access to food or water. Animal Control has taken over the investigation, but they haven't issued any statements yet about what they found, and they're not answering questions, saying they've been "overwhelmed" with calls.

We were referred instead to City spokesman Frank Librio, who told us that brand-new Animal Services director Jody Jones isn't yet ready to handle media requests. He said that the incident is "under investigation," adding, "We're not going to reveal anything to do with the investigation, because we don't want to jeopardize it."

James Hatley Jr.
James Hatley Jr.

When I arrived at the property yesterday, I found the Feed Store of God Cowboy Church and James Hatley Jr., its pastor. The church's name is on a trim white sign out front, and spray-painted again on a battered old trailer sitting out in the yard. It's way down South Central Expressway in a lonely corner of town, perched in a stretch of auto salvage yards and dirt side roads.

Hatley told me he didn't want to discuss the allegations. But since I'd driven all the way down, he invited me inside anyway, to talk about the Lord.

"We practice the letter of God," Hatley said. "The whole of the Word. Laying on of hands and all that." On Sundays, he anoints the heads of his congregation -- which includes his wife, nieces, nephews and cousins, among others, he said -- with oil.

True to its name, the building itself is an old feed store, one that Hatley said had been in his family 11 years before it closed and he converted the space into a church. "Used to be you could get food for your animals here," he told me, "now you can get food for your soul."

At the Feed Store of God Cowboy Church, Where Police Say They Found Dead and Neglected Animals Yesterday Morning

Once inside the church, Hatley settled into a back pew, looking exhausted, and scrolled through something on his phone for a moment. A fan whirred in the background, but the room was stifling hot. "The pulpit, the pews -- me and Jesus made everything," he said, not looking up. "This church was built on faith, not money."

But the devil, he said, is always attacking the faithful, while people "living like heathens" and "swindling people" were "living good, in those big houses in far North Dallas."

The pastor's cell phone rang. "Thank you for your prayers," he told the woman on the other end. "You continue to pray for us, and we'll pray for you."

The subject of Job came up, and we moved to a front pew. Hatley grabbed a Bible with a leather cover, emblazoned with a picture of Jesus with a crown of thorns. He leafed through the book, looking for a particular line. "Would you help me today, Lord?" he said conversationally, flipping the pages. "Help me with this young lady now."

As he started to read, the phone rang again. "The devil's always gonna try to stop you," Hatley said, shaking his head. "Just hold that thought."

He walked away for a minute, then came back, and together we read a verse, Job 1:21, which reads: "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

"If God wasn't telling me to speak to you, I wouldn't be speaking to you," Hatley said after he finished the verse. He talked about growing up in this part of town, riding rodeo events in high school, studying engineering in college, all the years he fell away from the Lord before finding Him again at the age of 49.

It was all leading up to something much bigger, he said. "God is soon to come back. All these days of no rain."

"There's been a lot of media out here today," he said a moment later. "I wouldn't talk to them, because I knew they were an attack from the enemy."

We talked about the church. They need somebody to play the big black piano in the corner on Sundays. The CD player, sitting on a box next to the pulpit marked "Tithes," was suddenly busted too.

"People care more about animals than they do about human beings," Hatley said suddenly, looking up from Job, which still lay open before him. "They wanna spay and neuter and all that." But God, he added, "ain't offering to mistreat animals" either.

"A person's gotta have a clean conscience," he said earnestly. It was hard to know just where we were headed with this. "We're supposed to be helpers. Saints don't mistreat people."

Hatley stopped eating pork and beef some time ago. He doesn't hunt either, though he used to love hunting quail. And he doesn't kill the church's rats anymore, he said. He puts water out for them instead.

We'd been sitting in the pew for nearly 40 minutes, and had gotten through most of Job and then gone back and done a bit of the first chapter of Genesis. I asked again about the dead animals the police said they'd found.

"The animals don't belong to me," Hatley said. "I rent space to others." Then, a moment later, he added, "I don't want to kill nothing. I don't want to hurt nothing."

Except fish. Fish are OK. "Fishing, you're out there and you can commune with God," he said, sweeping his arm to take in the pews, the pulpit, everything he and Jesus built together. "Sometimes you just need to talk to God. Most of the time, he's the only one who cares. People die of heat stroke. It's too hot. People die and they don't see nobody but the coroner."

Animals, though, he said, "You got people who make a big issue out of it."

"It ain't my call who lives or dies," he said. "It's God's. You could have a team of doctors around you, but if it's time to go, it's time to go. ... He controls life and he controls death. I live a godly life, but some people point fingers. They throw rocks and then hide their hands. The devil, he is always out to get you. He want me living in iniquity, hiding in a hole."

"People talk about global warming," he said. "That's just the devil starting up his wood on the fire. It's gonna be a big barbecue, and I don't want to be on the menu."

I took a few pictures of the pastor and his church before he got uncomfortable and asked me to put the camera away. I pushed open the big red swinging door of the church and stepped outside.

Outside the front door, immediately to the left, three small donkeys were grazing in a small corral, while the several broken down cars and large piles of dung keeping them company weren't doing much of anything. A man in a blue pickup rolled up, and Hatley went over to talk to him.

Across the way, two horses stood in a small pen. Next to them was a much larger corral, standing totally empty, but with the dirt trampled as though animals had been there not long before. It was unpleasant to see it like that, somehow. It was hard to tell where the two horses' food or water was, but to an amateur's eye they looked decently healthy, as did the donkeys. The empty corral was the only thing that felt off. I started walk over to it.

"Angel," the pastor called to me across the yard. "Don't you take one more step." He watched motionless for a long time, he and the man in the truck, until finally I got in the car and drove away.


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