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Cheryl M. Lawrence: Pentecost and the biker church

A pastor finds that the Holy Spirit descends upon her -- on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Lawrence
After inviting bikers to attend her church, the Rev. Cheryl Lawrence realized she had to do something that terrified her -- go on a ride.

May 7, 2013

What in the world was I doing riding on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? My parents would have had a stroke.

I am not a biker. I do not have tattoos nor wear black leather. In fact, I think motorcycles are dangerous.

I am a middle-of-the-road, married mother of two grown children who is befuddled to find herself the pastor of an increasingly “biker” church.

This could only be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Once a month from April through September, my small church in rural North Carolina invites bikers to worship with us and join us for a continental breakfast provided by members. After breakfast, they depart on a 100-mile-long scenic ride that ends with lunch somewhere near the town of Rougemont.

Despite repeated invitations to climb onto the back of a motorcycle, I never intended to take one of these trips. It’s one thing to allow the Holy Spirit to shake things up in church, quite another to allow the Spirit to disrupt your own life.

However, I realized that although I enjoyed seeing all those Harley riders sitting in the pews on Sunday, I wasn’t really connecting with them as a pastor.

In my defense, I did not arrive four years ago at a biker church. I was appointed pastor of a three-point rural charge consisting of three small churches within a dozen-mile radius, each with its own personality. None of those personalities screamed “biker.”

But one of the first things I noticed during worship services at Rougemont United Methodist Church my first summer was the constant roar of motorcycles on U.S. Highway 501, where the church is located. The noise was deafening, even inside the building. I became a master of the thoughtful pause in my sermons or prayers, as I waited for the roar to pass. The noise was so persistent and obnoxious that I began to wonder: Is God trying to tell us something?

So in response to the noise of Harleys on the highway, we placed an invitation on the church sign: “Bikers Welcome.” I worried about it, though, and wondered out loud at an Administrative Council meeting, “Would bikers really be welcome here?” The council discussed it, and their honest answer was yes.

Despite the sign, bikers did not flock to church. However, the wife of a biker did come -- and eventually joined -- and soon afterward, her husband joined, too. They quickly became active members and organized the Biker Sundays, with my encouragement.

After the first successful worship, I gleefully told my husband, “I’m going to be the pastor of a biker church!” It was exciting to see empty pews filled by large bearded men wearing black leather and bandanas. The Holy Spirit was definitely blowing through this fusty, musty old church.

“You’re not a biker; how can you have a biker church?” my husband inquired. It’s true: I wear a black robe most Sundays and preside at a traditional service. I drive a Honda Accord. In all honesty, I often suspect I am a part of the fusty-musty-ness. I don’t know how to be any other way.

How could I be in ministry with people from a subculture about which I knew nothing?

In fact, my presence seemed to make most of the bikers uncomfortable. The church sanctuary made them uncomfortable. Those who attended worship would rush inside 30 seconds before the service started and rush back outside when it was over. But gradually, a few of them began to attend worship on a more regular basis. I heard they were calling Rougemont “my church” on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Robin, our active biker member, kept asking me to ride with them, on the back of his Harley.

The thought unnerved me, so I joked about it. “Shall I wear my black robe?” I said. “Unzip it maybe; let it fly out like bat wings behind me?”

“Ha ha. No, seriously, you need to ride with us,” he said.

Twice I scheduled a ride and then chickened out. Finally, in prayer, I surrendered to the feeling that God might actually be calling me to do this. I swallowed my fear and agreed to participate in the first ride of 2013.

That morning, in our worship service, I told the congregation the Holy Spirit brings wild and creative disruptions into the church. Just look: the pastor has shucked her black robe and is wearing bluejeans -- proof positive that the Holy Spirit is shaking things up! They laughed.

After breakfast, I squeezed into a borrowed black leather jacket, put on a helmet and climbed onto the back of Robin’s motorcycle. The bikes took off from the church parking lot like rockets, and I didn’t open my eyes for the first three miles.

The ride was exhilarating, no question, and after about 15 minutes, I managed to relax enough to enjoy it. When we stopped to stretch our legs at the halfway point, there was a lot of easy laughter and good-natured ribbing of the pastor, something that would not have happened inside the church building.

At the end, I stayed for lunch at a local tavern, and they even asked me to bless the food. The next day, half a dozen bikers wanted to “friend” me on Facebook.

I have two reminders of my ride. One is the purple bruise on my shin, the result of a clumsy dismount. I didn’t even feel it at the time, because I was distracted by the improbability of the whole experience.

The other reminder comes from the photos taken that day. When I look at the pictures, I am struck by the way I am grinning in all of them. Was I smiling so broadly because I was frightened out of my wits -- or because I knew Pentecost was descending upon me? Or, God help me, both?