The Gospel on Their Shoulders

by Diane Strzelecki

The appeal of miniature donkeys—not least the legend of how a cross came to adorn their backs—has provided an entree for an Indiana couple to share the faith and support the Synod’s Ablaze!-related ministries.

0808donkeystory1.jpgYou might say that Jerry and Susie Patterson have lived a predictable midwestern life. Indiana born, these high school sweethearts are now in their 44th year of marriage. Jerry’s love of farming led to a lifetime of agricultural-related jobs, from ranch hand to sales manager for a seed company. Susie realized her early ambition to be a wife, mother of four children, and a nurse. Their faith in their Savior has been a constant as well. But they never expected that a hobby would help them share the Good News of the Gospel across the United States. And it all began with one small donkey.

The Pattersons bought 18-acre Ravenwood Farm (www.ravenwoodfarm.com) about 16 years ago when they settled in Hartsville, Ind., after living in Illinois and Tennessee.  Raised on an 80-acre farm herself, Susie felt right at home. There was also plenty of room for Jerry’s hobbies: woodworking and harness-making. Then the Pattersons decided it would be nice to buy a miniature donkey to keep their pygmy goats company and to provide entertainment for their grandchildren.

“We’ve always had a special place in our hearts for donkeys,” says Jerry, noting that Susie’s father had purchased a donkey at an auction when their own children were small. “Our kids had such a good time with her that we thought we should get a donkey for the grandkids.”

The Pattersons soon had more than one donkey, and they discovered an entire subculture of “donkey people”: farms, shows, and events across the United States. Soon Jerry took a donkey to a show—and he was hooked.

“I met a lot of nice people and thought showing would be fun,” Jerry says. A breeder shared her knowledge of “conformation” in miniature donkeys: their ideal structure, bones, and movement. The Pattersons were on their way, and they have made it a hobby to raise, show, sell, and, most of all, enjoy the creatures.

Marked for the Master

The Pattersons explain that one consistent trait of all donkeys, miniature and otherwise, is the “cross” that runs down the animal’s back and across its shoulders, a cross that, in folklore, has its own story. As she has done many times before, Susie is eager to share the legend of the donkey’s cross.

0808donkeystory2.jpg“All donkeys carry a cross because a donkey carried Christ,” she says about the legend. As the story goes, Jesus requested a donkey to take Him into Jerusalem, and the donkey and Jesus became good friends. When Christ was crucified, the donkey followed Him to the cross. After Christ had died, the grieving donkey stayed long after everyone had left. When the donkey finally turned away to leave, the shadow of the cross fell upon him and made an impression; so to this day, all donkeys have a cross.

“People always ask about the cross, whether we’re showing the donkeys at a state fair or entertaining visitors at the farm,” Susie says. “They are always in awe of the story—fascinated by it, really. That’s our little way of sharing our faith with the general public.”

Although legend, the story of the cross is a great icebreaker, the Pattersons say, a way to open the door for a more serious discussion of the Christian faith.

“I have never had a negative reaction to the story,” Jerry says.

The Hobby and the Mission

After 16 years in the business, the Pattersons note that their hobby turns a profit in some years. A donkey solid in “conformation” can fetch $3,000 to $5,000, and buyers are everywhere—especially on the Internet. Serious breeders have Web sites that tout their donkeys, tell about their farm, and, in the Pattersons’ case, tell the legend of the donkey’s cross.

Early on, the Pattersons, who are members of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ind., decided they would set aside 10 percent of the proceeds from their donkey sales to contribute to missions or charity.

“When our church was raising money to expand its building, we tithed to the campaign,” Susie says. “We just kept that up and were able to contribute to paying off the debt, as well as the debt from building an addition to the school.” When the Pattersons heard about Fan into Flame, the fiscal arm of Ablaze! that helps to fund Ablaze!-related ministries, they decided their tithe could help people come to faith in Jesus.

“The Fan into Flame program gives many choices for where your contribution will go, providing a whole list of expenses and mission costs so you can see the very real need,” Jerry notes. “We decided to allocate our tithe to a Native American mission in Wyoming, as we feel Native Americans have gotten a rather bad deal in this country.”

“With all the other causes out there, no one ever thinks of them, so we decided that this mission would be a good place for our tithe,” Susie says. “The money we gave last year provided for a vacation Bible school at the mission.”

Through their many conversations with a Native American friend, the Pattersons know firsthand the slow, intentional process of spreading the Gospel.

“Although she does believe in God, she has an entirely different outlook,” Susie says. “As we were trying to get through to her, we realized we really wanted to help other Native Americans learn about Christ.”

Attracting Attention

Anyone seeing a miniature donkey for the first time can’t help but be intrigued. Standing less than 36 inches tall, they retain the proportions of a standard donkey. Their fur comes in a variety of colors and is irresistibly soft. Children especially are drawn to the diminutive animals.

0808donkeysotry3.jpgThe Pattersons take their “show” on the road at least five times a year. Jerry has even trained his donkeys to pull a cart, winning a “driving” class at the Indiana State Fair. Still, he measures the success of a trip by the opportunities he has to share the Gospel and the love of Jesus through the donkeys.

The donkeys are also local celebrities, the Pattersons add. Area churches request their presence during Passion plays and Christmas pageants.

“We have paraded around churches in Joseph’s coats under palms to the delight of 200 Sunday school children,” Jerry says. “At Christmastime, churches will call to see if they can use our donkeys on a walk to Bethlehem.”

Susie says she can’t imagine life without the creatures. “As you can tell, I love my donkeys,” she says. “They are really neat animals, and the longer we have them the more we learn about them, the herd dynamics, and their personalities.”

And the longer they have them, the more opportunities they have to share their faith in Jesus, the Pattersons say.

“I’ve always felt if there’s one thing I’d like to do in life, it’s to bring one person to faith in Jesus who didn’t have it before he met me. That’s my goal,” Jerry says. “If someone comes to Christ because of what we’re doing, then we’ve accomplished our reason for being here.”

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