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Christian deer hunters take Scripture to the stand
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Tom Rakow, right, points out to Kent Rydberg the patch of forest with the deer stand he'll be using. Rakow is the founder and president of the Christian Deer Hunters Association. Rydberg is the membership director. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
We're one of the more religious states: Sixty-two percent of Minnesotans claim to be members of an established faith. It's well known Minnesotans also love their deer-hunting. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone put these two things together.

Hutchinson, Minn. — Over the course of human history, whole families or villages used to live or die by the hunt. So it does seem primal and somehow right for the hunter's afternoon to start with a prayer. Tom Rakow's always do.

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Image Tom Rakow

It's a cloudy, windy day in the countryside west of Hutchinson. Rakow and Kent Rydberg stand side-by-side with their bows, president and membership director of the Christian Deer Hunters Association. The group is based at Rakow's home in Silver Lake, but claims hundreds of dues-paying members around the country.

Rakow grew up in Wisconsin, and came to deer hunting long before he came to God.

"Unfortunately, I poached my first deer while I was squirrel hunting at age 11, and things just went downhill from there," Rakow says. "Deer hunting was my God."

A teenage Rakow was carrying an archery permit when he shot his first deer with a .22. He stuck an arrow in its side and got away with it. When Rakow was born-again at 21, after watching a televised crusade by preacher Billy Graham, he realized deer hunting was his own false idol. He says either he had to find a way to harmonize God and deer hunting, or the hunting had to go.

On this day we're moving over a plowed field, into tall grass on our way to deer stands in the forest. Needless to say, the Rev. Rakow is now at peace with his two passions. He ministers to 80 people in his independent Silver Lake church each Sunday, and spends up to 30 days in the woods each fall.

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Image Tracking the shot

Rakow's theology of hunting balances two main messages from the Bible. The first one is the chance to appreciate God's natural splendor. Rakow marvels at pheasants and mice that cross our path, and of course the deer whose scrapes, rubs and tracks are left along the path we're following.

"Ultimately God created that deer," Rakow says. "What did I have to do with it? He fed that deer in the wild, caused the antlers to grow. I didn't have any part of that."

But the Bible's second message is the mandate to hunt. As one example, Rakow cites Psalm 8.

"There is a hierarchy. Humans, you and I, we have been made in the image of God. We have a divine responsibility to be stewards over creation, and part of that is hunting as a management tool," he says.

Using the Bible as a hunting guide leads to some distinctive insights. The Christian Deer Hunter on trespassing: "If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we're not going to go somewhere someone doesn't want us to be."

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Image Kent Rydberg checks his bow before the hunt

On the his relationship with the Department of Natural Resources: "Romans:13, (where) Paul (is) writing to the believers in Rome, he says that the Powers that Be have been ordained of God, and we are to submit to those powers."

On the plague of chronic wasting disease ravaging deer in his home region of Wisconsin: "Being from that area, there are a lot of people where deer hunting ranks up there where it did for me, more important than God ... There are principles, (and) when (they're) out of balance, and we have attitudes that are out of balance, ultimately those numbers are going to come down one way or another."

And the perspective of the Christian Deer Hunter raises new questions that have not yet captured the public imagination, such as "Would Jesus shoot Bambi?," the title of a chapter in a book Rakow is currently writing.

The answer is complicated, but it boils down to this -- Bambi is not a real deer and yes, Jesus probably would.

Once we reach the stands, for an hour we sit in dead silence, 20 feet apart and 15 feet off the ground. Then, behind us, some rustling. Rakow tenses, his bowstring drawn back to his shoulder.

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Image Rakow climbs down from the stand

The soft twang of a bow, and Rakow's trailing string winds off into the brush. He's climbs quickly down from the stand and rustles off through the fallen leaves. It doesn't look good.

"I think I just basically trimmed some hairs off his back," Rakow says, though he's hardly vexed by the missed shot. "When I find my arrow that's usually not the best sign!"

For the Christian Deer Hunter, it's alright. The membership director, Kent Rydberg, didn't get one either on this day. But God talks to him all the time on the deer stand, and that's something.

"I always knew it was a good time to sit out there and think," Rydberg says. "And when God's all around you, it's sort of hard to put him out of the way, so there's been some really good thinking times."

Of course, it's always better to fill your permit. But these guys have decided it's not just deer they're hunting for out here.

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