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Tuesday_BriefingTHE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

Jerry and Michelle Burwell don’t get very far into telling their story before their eyes fill with tears and their voices break. The owners of Way of the Cross Ranch are overcome with emotion at how they see God using their 71 acres in Mt. Vernon.

“We’re nobody special, we really aren’t,” Jerry says as he watches a handful of horses and riders walk slowly around the outdoor arena in his backyard. “Why we got to do this, I have no idea.”

Horses_tease boxThe Burwells host an equestrian clinic at the ranch every month, with the help of an army of volunteers that operates more like a close-knit family. They invite kids from Southern Thirty, a local adolescent emergency shelter, and from the Baptist Children’s Home in Carmi.

Guests can fish in the pond, participate in craft time around a picnic table, or ride one of several horses donated for the day by the Burwells’ friends. No one has to ride if they don’t want to. But most eventually do.

“Some of the inner city kids we get, they’ve never even been around horses before, so that’s fun,” Jason Billings says. He points out David,* a young teen riding a chestnut horse around and around the arena, led by a ranch volunteer. Every so often, David smiles and waves to the camera.

As recreation director for Illinois’ Baptist Children’s Home, Billings has been bringing kids like David to the ranch for a few years. But there’s something bigger at stake than introducing kids to horses: Over the past few years, four or five of the kids have accepted Christ at the ranch. They attend church with Children’s Home staffers, Billings says, “but it’s nice to see someone from the outside actually cares, too.”

Each clinic includes at least two devotion times, and volunteers also talk one-on-one with kids about Jesus. Since the Burwells started their ministry, 38 kids have accepted Christ.

“I always tell them, ‘I don’t care if you know one end of the horse from the other when you leave, but you’ll know about Christ,’ Jerry says. “That’s really all we care about.”

Read more about Way of the Cross Ranch in the new issue of the Illinois Baptist, online this Friday at

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