ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Considered the last of the circuit-riding preachers, Robert E. Harris says of his sorrel mount, Sundance, "We're co-laborers. The impact would be nil if the horse wasn't there."
Harris, garbed in Western boots, black frock coat, string tie and a black 10-gallon Stetson, allowed that his get-up also catches attention.
Both "the horse and the outfit are the come-on," he said. "In this day and time to see a man dressed like this on a horse is like seeing a man from Mars. They don't know what to expect."
But he still credits his horse. "The horse is the drawing card. Everybody loves a horse. I love horses, too."
Harris, 67, of Asheville, N.C., has wanted to keep alive some lore of America's past and also spread the Christian message. For 11 years he has been doing both, mostly of late at a rest area along Interstate 40 west of Asheville.
"It's an opportunity to teach some American history and also give a Gospel message," he said. "I meet all kinds of people from all over the world that travel this highway.
"It's a real good feeling to get talking with them."
Although Harris also pastors a small Asheville Baptist church, The Chapel, and conducts morning services at a shopping mall, he's out each weekday on horseback at the I-40 rest area, 10 miles from the Tennessee state line.
"This year, I've particularly worked this place," he said. "People tell their friends at home, and they sort of look for me. I become part of the landscape."
In that setting, he said, "I don't do any preaching, I just answer their questions," and pass out a brochure with his picture on it, some history of circuit riders and an appeal to accept the love of Jesus Christ.
"I am a witness," Harris said. "It's a seed-sowing ministry. I get a good bit of feedback. I think it opens doors and generates a different method of reaching people."
He emphasized that he solicits no contributions, and that sometimes people tend to shy away until they realize there are no gimmicks or collections.
"Once they learn that, it's a different atmosphere altogether," he said. "People who had been cold become very warm and genial. They open up and relax as if they'd been let out of a cage. They're human beings just like me."
However, he draws a variety of questions and conjectures. Some assume he's running for office, or delivering mail; and to such speculation, Harris says:
"I'm campaigning for the Lord, and my candidate is bound to win." Or: "Yes, I'm delivering mail of a kind. I have a message of good news."
When youngsters overdo petting his horse, he advises they ought not do it anymore for a reason. But why? "If you keep it up, he'll follow you all the way home." That sets them puzzling.
Previously, Harris had a quarter horse named Two-Eyed Redeemer, but he became sick on some feed and died. For three months afterward, Harris looked for a replacement.
Finally in Sun Bright, Tenn., he spotted two Tennessee walking horses that appealed to him, the 11-year-old Sunduster, and his offspring, 3-year-old Sundance, both sorrel, blaze-faced and white-stockinged.
"I was like the old mule tied between two bales of hay," Harris recounted. "The mule could reach either bale, but he starved to death trying to decide which one. What I did, I bought both horses."
He alternates with them in his daily highway ministering. "I'm no longer a one-horse preacher," he said.
Although a Baptist, Harris downplays denominationalism. "I just go out as a Christian," he said. "I say it's not what we belong to, but who we belong to that's important."
As for training, Harris said his ministry began in high school and he had a year of junior college, and some Bible correspondence courses, "but for the most part, just practical experience."
He said he has several honorary doctorates "but they don't mean much more than a curled-up tail on a pig--they're just there for decoration."
Harris sometimes shows up at surrounding towns in North Carolina and Tennessee at public events, fairs or on streets. At times he has to go it afoot, but he still wears his frontier preacher's outfit.
However, his main pulpit is astride his horse, out there along the highway, where travelers pause to chat. Harris remarked:
"I say I probably will never be a foreign missionary and go around the world, but if I stay at this rest stop long enough the world will come around to me."