The tourist-oriented town of West Yellowstone, Montana, didn’t know what it was getting when a former prison chaplain from Arkansas showed up in the summer of 1998. But it soon found out.

The small but popular gateway to Yellowstone National Park swells to some 20,000 visitors per day during peak season. But only about a thousand brave souls endure the winters—when temperatures often drop to record numbers and snow piles high.

To be considered a permanent resident, said Benny McCracken, requires living through at least two winters. He and his wife, Juanita, a retired schoolteacher who worked at the park gatehouse during the summers, have not only endured but delighted in year-round living in “West” (as locals call it).

Benny had to look up the location on a map when he was recommended by a friend in Colorado to be the pastor of First Baptist Church of West Yellowstone. Benny’s concern was less the location than the role, having never thought of himself as a pastor. 

But chaplaincy was something he was gifted to do—and the perfect approach to pastoral ministry in this unique town. The McCrackens and West Yellowstone have fit together like hands in well-insulated gloves.

His friend, who oversaw resort ministries in Colorado, described the approach as being the pastor of a parade. Benny said he’d experienced some of that coming and going in prison ministry. 

“I came in the peak season,” said Benny, noting in those days 100 or more people from all over the nation and beyond would show up for worship on a summer Sunday. Then a very cold winter service might bring in eight of the remaining residents.

“That was kind of a shock to get used to,” said Benny. But the weather he took in stride.

“We had probably 300 inches of snow that first winter,” he recalled. The mounting snowbank didn’t concern him. “I just put on my snowshoes and walked up on the roof of my house.”

Despite significant loss of sight as a teenager, Benny has taken full advantage of the adventurous opportunities in the Yellowstone region—hiking, backpacking, fishing, cross-country skiing, rock climbing and more. 

He is widely identified in town when riding his bicycle (since he doesn’t drive) with his long white beard flowing in the breeze. He swaps to snow tires for the long winters.

Benny’s ministry has extended well beyond the church walls—volunteering with the park visitor center and local emergency services. His gifts and experience in mental health have been called on numerous times in a place where such services are lacking.

Benny’s impact on the larger community was evident when the town’s citizens chose him to carry the torch on their behalf toward the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. 

Reluctantly, but with understanding and appreciation, Benny and Juanita are moving to Memphis to be near family. But their hearts will always be closely held by the western gateway to America’s first national park.

Tomorrow evening, the townsfolk of West Yellowstone will turn out to express their gratitude to the McCrackens for 25 years of immeasurable friendship and unselfish service. Yet it will take a while to get used to the flowing white beard not appearing in the pulpit, around the local streets and on the park trails.

Bruce Gourley (left) and Benny McCracken at a ranch near West Yellowstone, Montana. (Photo by John D. Pierce)

“Benny is one of the most amazing persons I have ever known,” said his friend Bruce Gourley, who lives just 90 miles (close by Montana standards) to the warmer north. 

“His determination and courage in the face of daunting obstacles has inspired countless people near and far, and his humanity and compassion channeled into community service has left an indelible mark on the town of West Yellowstone,” he added.

Benny shows deep emotion when talking about leaving the town and the ruggedly beautiful mountains, meadows and rivers teeming with wildlife. Along with dramatic canyons, stunning waterfalls, spouting geysers and other natural wonders.

“It takes a certain kind of person to live here,” he said. And he and Juanita have been such persons.

“I’ve loved it,” he said. “There is something mystical about watching a foot to 18 inches of snow pile up.”

In all the seasons, however, Benny said he’s found something deep within his soul.

“I’ve found ‘me’ more here than any place I’ve lived—and have found God more in nature,” he said.

Recently while in the park, Benny visited Gibbon Falls that drops over the rim of Yellowstone’s massive caldera—created by an enormous volcanic eruption some 600,000 years ago.

“I was thinking about the wonder of creation,” he said. “I’d never experienced God like that before.”

An extra measure of joy, he said, has come from taking so many others into the park to have similar experiences of awe and wonder.

“The hard part is leaving all of that,” Benny confessed. “It’s been a big part of who I am.”

And Benny has been—and remains—a big part of the lives of those of us who know and love him. 

Note: An expanded feature on Benny and his ministry in West Yellowstone will appear in the January-February 2024 issue of Nurturing Faith Journal.

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