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A Biker's Life: six days in Sturgis

By Doug Pitt

Rows of choppers, cruisers and custom motorcycles line the streets in downtown Sturgis, S.D. The near-deafening rumble of these motorized works of art reverberates as hundreds of riders cruise by on display. The sidewalks are no less jammed. Vendors, makeshift beer gardens, exhibits and an eclectic throng of bikers, weekend riders, tourists and locals vie for space. On one corner, a woman entices people into a tattoo parlor while a nearby T-shirt salesman barks into a bullhorn proclaiming the virtues of his 100 percent cotton garments.

At a nearby bar, women dance on tables while thirsty patrons guzzle beer and slap back shots of whiskey. Of the nearly 600,000 people who have descended on this tiny town of 6,000, many have come to bask in the pervasive "anything goes" attitude. In its 62nd year, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is known as much for being a bastion of hedonism as it is for attracting bikers from all over the world.

Day One: Unconventional ministry
There is a brotherhood among bikers, and that family is well represented in downtown Sturgis by the leather, chrome and tattoos that seem to blanket the town. Today, it’s at least 100 degrees in the shade. A well-meaning ministry team dressed in country club attire stands ready with free ice water for any biker willing to stop, but the bikers aren’t interested. The preppy clothes scream, "We’re not one of you," and the bikers let the offer melt.

When I meet Assemblies of God Home Missions motorcycle chaplains I come face-to-face with real bikers. These men and women are not typical Sunday morning preachers. They wear leather, they are passionate about motorcycles and they live nomadic lives traveling from rally to rally covering as much as 20,000 miles per year. Along the way, they minister to everyone from the children of biker families to hard-core bikers themselves.

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In the biker world, hard-core bikers are called "One-Percenters," distinguishing them from the remaining "99 percent" of bikers who supposedly ride just for fun. One-Percenters are often associated with gangs like the Hell’s Angels and Pagans. For A/G chaplains Rick and Carol Rigenhagen, based in Michigan, One-Percenters are a vital part of their mission field. The Rigenhagens are not deterred by riders’ appearance or affiliation, and are intent on building cogent relationships with the goal of eventually leading them to a personal encounter with Christ.

"Bikers and prisoners don’t usually respond to white-shirt ministers," says Rick Rigenhagen. "Preaching in leathers, we recently had seven people saved in a service of 17."

Building trust and ministering to such bikers takes time and is not always easy says Rigenhagen, but much prayer and patience have brought breakthroughs. The leader of one gang wanted nothing to do with the Rigenhagens, but Rick was persistent in developing a friendship with the man. After weeks of resistance, Rick eventually was invited to a gang dinner. When he stood to pray he found it difficult to get everyone’s attention until the leader gruffly commanded everyone to be quiet. Although unorthodox, the encounter proved to be a turning point in Rick’s acceptance with the leader and the gang.

"As long as it takes, we are here for these guys and they are seeing a little bit of Jesus every day," says Rick.

Day Two: A way of life
The sight and sound of hundreds of motorcycles racing through the Black Hills sends chills down my spine. Riding can hardly be considered "quiet time" amid the cacophonous roar of a throng of tailpipes, but for me riding is often a time to think and talk with the Lord.

I often sing while I ride my Harley and have become adept at singing with my lips closed after eating a bug or two midway through a chorus. The peaceful solitude of riding is renewing and recreational for me, but for Assemblies of God chaplains Phil and Linda Wright, riding is a way of life.

Highways & Byways Ministry, which the Wrights started eight years ago, is not for the faint of heart. Last year, Phil and Linda were on the road 270 days enduring rain, scorching sun, and even ice as they traveled to rallies. Linda recalled being so exhausted from a ride that she told Phil she physically could not climb back on the bike if they stopped.

Big Phil, as he is known on the streets, says one of the keys to biker ministry is understanding the bikers’ spiritual, emotional and physical needs. As we talk bikes and ministry I ask why they would put themselves in harm’s way to minister to such a tough crowd. Phil responds flatly, "Because you won’t."

His answer is not meant to be accusatory, but lays down a simple fact: If not them, then who will minister to bikers?

"We’re not here to judge people," says Linda, emphasizing the philosophy of their ministry. "We’re here to show them love and to share Christ."

Day Three: Shinier than chrome
In the biker world, as highlighted here in Sturgis, sex, drugs and rock ’n roll are the fuel that helps drive this counterculture. In Sturgis, the Buffalo Chip is the king of the campgrounds where 25,000 campers swell to 50,000 for nightly concerts. Each night as the festivities grow, inhibitions fall. Exhibitionists and drunks fill the area.

Just inside the main entrance of the Buffalo Chip is a fabricated building that once was a topless bar, but now serves as home for the Christian Riders Ministry (CRM), which was founded by DQ and Beth Roberts.

Every morning CRM serves nearly 700 free pancake breakfasts to anyone who comes through the doors. A chapel area inside offers spiritual encouragement, and a mechanics corner features free bike repair.

A few minutes into my visit at CRM a man walks up to DQ saying he heard they would help him fix his bike. DQ pulls a staff member over and they go to work. "I can get my bike, belly, and soul all fixed in one place," says one biker.

That’s exactly the point.

"Whatever the reason they come by, they will end up knowing we care about them and they’ll learn about the sacrifices Christ made for them," says DQ, who started ministering to bikers at Sturgis 11 years ago in a small tent that humbly boasted a duct-taped cross. Today, CRM is one of the largest ministries in Sturgis.

Assemblies of God chaplains Curtis and Teresa Hubbell partner with CRM by ministering to bikers’ children, who often wander aimlessly around the campground. With puppets, balloon animals, face painting and music, the Hubbells share the gospel with children who might never set foot in a church. At some of the Hubbells’ high-energy services as many as 100 kids gather with parents in tow.

"Parents will see the puppets and sit through the entire show," says Curtis Hubbell. "We’ve even had One-Percenters listen to the program."

When the Hubbells minister, it’s a family affair. Their three children — ages 4, 8, and 10 — help by passing out Bibles and toys to the children. The Assemblies of God’s Boys and Girls Missionary Crusade is providing an inflatable bounce house for the Hubbells’ ministry and that, says Curtis, will help many more children come to a personal relationship with Christ.

"God told us that these children need protecting," says Hubbell. "We give them a fun, safe place to hang out and hear about Jesus."

Day Four: Meeting the bouncer
Walking down Main Street in Sturgis is like swimming upstream regardless of the direction. Although many people push the limits of decency, and alcohol consumes the masses, the atmosphere is electric and the crowd is friendly. Among the frenzy, the gospel is being preached in some of the most notorious places.

At one of the main intersections stands a three-level bar called One-Eyed Jack’s. The bar is known for its food but has become legendary for its nightlife. While surveying the open-air bar I spot a large, gruff biker wearing a shirt with the Harley symbol and the words Jesus Christ across it. Intrigued by this combination, I enter the bar and seek out this mountain of a man.

Brother Bert, as he calls himself, works as a bouncer at One-Eyed Jack’s, but the bar also serves as his mission field. Minutes after I meet him he climbs a couple steps, grabs a microphone and starts preaching to the nearly 100 patrons who are having lunch.

"I don’t want anyone to leave, just keep eating," instructs Brother Bert. Everyone is agape at this anomaly and remains seated. Brother Bert proceeds to share his testimony with the crowd in a way that is, at times, uncomfortably abrasive but somehow poignant and perfect for the moment.

He tells about his former work as a third-generation drug smuggler and the fact that he has broken all of the Ten Commandments. Yet through it all the Lord transformed his life and delivered him from the worst of circumstances. "The best part of my story," he tells his captive audience, "is that the Lord can do the same for you."

Day Five: A changed life
I opt out of a ride to Devil’s Tower and venture into downtown by myself. As I walk, it begins to rain and I duck into a vendor’s tent for cover. The vendor is a custom seat maker and the only other people in the tent are a married couple who are having a seat made. I notice a Jesus patch on the man’s vest and a Jesus tattoo on his arm. For the next 30 minutes, I talk with Frank Seifert, a fellow biker, who came to Sturgis with his wife, Arlene, to minister in the streets.

I learn that Frank has a background similar to many of the bikers I have met this weekend. Alcohol, profanity and fighting used to be daily parts of his life. But when Frank committed his life to Christ he was freed from all of that and now spends his time telling others about the transforming power a relationship with Jesus offers. Since becoming a Christian, Frank has led several people to Christ, including his tattoo artist, a former Satanist.

Frank hands me his business card that has a passage labeled "Jesus The Biker." The passage tells of Jesus being rejected, cast out, and hanging out with people who were much like bikers of today. It ends by saying if Jesus were on this earth in the flesh, He would be next to bikers on His Harley, telling them He loved them so much that He would die for each one of them.

Day Six: Realities of biking
As we approach the exit for Mount Rushmore, we come upon the scene of a motorcycle accident. A man lies dead in the road and his wife lies screaming in a pool of her own blood.

Passing only 20 feet from the dead man, I can’t help but think that he was alive just minutes ago. At that moment, I think, he is seeing heaven or hell for the first time and will for all eternity. The finality of the moment is crushing and I can’t help but wonder if the man had ever committed his life to Christ. As the woman screams, people come to her aid and one man asks that we pray for them. I pray for her, but for the dead husband it is too late.

Usually when we ride, it’s common to pull up next to each other and talk and make frequent stops to see the sites, but this ride is different. As my three friends and I ride toward Spearfish Canyon we never break formation, no words are spoken and we pass several spots where we would normally stop. Weighted in thought I talk with God and realize I’ve just experienced a life lesson.

One minute we’re breathing, laughing and enjoying life, and the next we’re in heaven or hell for eternity depending on our decision to serve Christ.

With the wreck fresh on my mind, I feel a sense of urgency to help motorcycle chaplains get the word about Christ to those who do not know Him. As I ride, my thoughts go back to the conversation I had with the Wrights and I am utterly convinced of the important role motorcycle chaplains play in the eternal destiny of bikers. And I wonder, "If not them, who will take the gospel to bikers?" The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Jesus would wear leather chaps and ride among them.

Doug Pitt lives in Springfield, Mo.

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