On a scorching hot Fourth of July weekend in Davisburg, the air is thick with humidity and the mechanical growl of the 500-some motorcycles roaring into the 4-H fairgrounds. The grounds are filling up with leathery, tattooed dudes decked in Harley vests and handlebar moustaches, biker chicks in skintight jeans and skull-and-crossbones caps, gleaming helmets and polished chrome winking in the sunshine.
But today is not your average biker rally. The differences are subtle, but marked. Theres no booze. No drugs. No cussing. No babes in tiny bikinis bouncing their surgically altered assets. Most of the bikers patches dont bear the typical M/C insignia, which stands for motorcycle club instead, they say M/M.
A good chunk of the bikers here today are ministers, chaplains or pastors, and every single attendee is united by membership within a brotherhood: the brotherhood of Christ.
These are bikers for Jesus.
Mark Mad Dog Daly sports a deep tan and a shaved head, and has a voice that sounds a little like Tom Waits on a bad day. Just two decades ago, he was a career junkie and swindler who landed in a maximum-security prison in Florida. Today, hes the director of Waterfords H.I.M. Hogs in Ministry a Christian motorcycle group that evangelizes to secular biker clubs across the state and country.
Daly, 49, grew up on the East Side of Detroit. He fell in love with motorcycles early on, but also fell in with the wrong crowd.
It wasnt like I was raised in a bad home, he says, but sex, drugs and rock n roll, that was the theme of the day. I was 13 the first time I shot dope and I liked it.
Made a ward of the court at 15, Daly continued using and doing what he had to do to support his habit, conning and hitchhiking his way across the country.
From the time I was 15 to 30, there wasnt a year in my life that went by that I didnt end up in some kind of lockup, he says. I was going from hotel to hotel, jail to jail, running from my addictions.
At 30, Daly found himself in Florida, facing 30 years in prison after being charged with aggravated assault with a firearm, resulting from what he describes as a drug deal gone wrong. While sitting in a county jail awaiting trial, each Sunday he was visited by a man of the church. Daly faithfully ignored him for the first six months until loneliness got the better of him, and one day he let the pastor into his cell. The padre recited just one verse from the Bible, And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, and Daly found his life forever changed.
I didnt have a clue what truth was, he says. I was a lying, manipulating, dope-addicted Detroit con. But the freedom part sounded pretty darn good. I was sick and tired of being locked up and running from the law. That day I got down on the jail cell floor and asked Christ into my life. Just like that.
Daly had actually done just that several times before during his various stints in jail, but says each time he was released hed go right back to shooting up. This time, however, something was different for Daly. When his case made it to trial, Daly was sentenced to only three years in max, which he attributes to the mercy of God.
He joined Bible study and self-help groups, and says God gave him favor with the wardens: Daly was awarded the coveted job of grooming and training the prisons guard dogs. As part of the training exercises, the wardens took him outside the prison grounds, turned him loose and told him to run and hide. The dogs were then sent out to track him down.
Id be sitting in the middle of a field reading the Bible and waiting for them to come for me, he says. And they came every time.
After he was released, he returned to Michigan and joined a Narcotics Anonymous group, where he met his future wife, Pam. Daly decided to he wanted to minister to prisoners, but says he was rebuffed by the chaplain of a local jail.
She said, youre a convicted felon, youll never be a minister here, Daly recalls.
A year later, he was an official chaplain and still is, in addition to his full-time employment as director of H.I.M.
Although motorcycles have been around since the late 1800s, the image of American biker culture began to take shape just after World War II specifically, the image of the outlaw biker. Perhaps the first truly wild biker party took place in Hollister, California, in 1947 during Fourth of July celebrations. The rally turned into two days of drunken debauchery, and was the basis of the 1953 Marlon Brando flick, The Wild One.
Throughout the 60s, exposés on the most notorious of all biker clubs, the Hells Angels, written by everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to government officials, helped cement the image of the outlaw biker as a hard-drinking, violent criminal.
As legend has it, during the height of the outlaw-biker media frenzy, the American Motorcycle Association issued a statement assuring the general public that 99 percent of all motorcyclists were in fact moral, law-abiding citizens. As for the remaining 1 percent? The outlaw bikers took to referring to themselves as one-percenters, adding 1% to their club patches as a badge of pride.
Its the members of these 1-percent clubs that motorcycle ministries strive to convert. They attend secular rallies politely averting their eyes from the more worldly activities that take place at such things and try to befriend the bikers and evangelize to them. They pass out free coffee, literature, pamphlets that say Jesus the Biker and a compact bikers Bible. Their numbers are tremendous.
The Christian Motorcycle Association is an immense nonprofit organization, with more than 30 chapters in Michigan alone. Nationwide, organizers say there are more than 800 chapters, and the group continues to grow each year. It was founded in 1975 by Herb Shreve, a pastor at a small church in Arkansas, who attended a biker rally with his son and quickly saw a need for Christian outreach within that community.
But CMA is just one association albeit the largest in the ever-expanding pool of Christian motorcycle groups. There are national groups like Bikers for Christ (Some wish to live within the sound of church or chapel bells; We want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell!), Sons of God and Redemption Riders, and locally based organizations like H.I.M. There are dozens of ministries in metro Detroit alone. Although the methodologies and guidelines of groups may vary, the goal is the same: to convert wayward bikers particularly the 1-percenters to Christianity.
There also are Christian biker magazines (Wheels of Grace, Christian Motorsports Illustrated), Christian-themed biker apparel and bike accessories, and theres even a company called Arch Angel (archangelcustomcycle.com) that builds custom cycles: Each part is anointed and prayed over.
For every faction in life theres a motorcycle group, says Paul Garson, author of Born Again to be Wild: A History of the American Biker and Bikes. Every large group in society has within it motorcyclists, and they tend to gravitate toward each other. Motorcyclists cross all boundaries. Garson thinks its a natural fit.
The Christian movement is very passionate and bikers are very passionate. Its like a melding of spirit in metal, he says. You could look at it like an updated version of the Crusades. These are the new Christian knights with their iron horses.
Jose Sanchez, president of Chariots for Christ, a Detroit chapter of the CMA says, Most of these people, even though theyre rough on the outside, theyre good people. They come from broken homes, were abused as children or come from alcoholics and substance addicts. Biker clubs offer them a brotherhood.
But why care what these bikers are doing with their lives? Why bother trying to convert them?
Because Ive been there, done that, and because the Bible tells me to go out into the world and make disciples, says Sanchez, who used to ride a foreign bike but said he bought a Harley so hed be received better in secular clubs.
The juxtaposition between Bible and bikers may not be as strange as it first seems; many current Christian motorcyclists had struggled with substance abuse, and went to such treatment programs as NA and Alcoholics Anonymous both of which extol the virtues of finding, and trusting, a higher power.
Pastor Jim Combs, the founder of H.I.M., doesnt look the part of the biker as much as Daly. With his sandy blond facial hair and perfectly even and white teeth, Combs, 46, has an animated, aggressively charismatic persona. A pastor for 25 years, he says H.I.M. grew out of one special chance encounter.
As the story goes, about eight years ago Combs was asked to visit a biker who was dying of cancer, one who held a grudge against the church because hed asked to have a pastor sent to his deathbed and was told the church would only do so for members.
Combs said the man, known as Rat, had a particular question. The club he rode with had a tradition: When a member died he was cremated, and his brothers from the club would sprinkle the ashes in their gas tanks and take him for one last ride, Combs says. Rat wanted to know if this was OK with God. Combs said God wouldnt mind.
The encounter sparked a friendship between the two, and when Rat died Combs oversaw his funeral. He says Rats brothers asked him who he rode for meaning, what club. On the spot, Combs quickly responded, I ride for Him. Later, he made up the Hogs in Ministry acronym, and the group was born, christened by its first big, official event, the Biker Sunday rally.
H.I.M. started out of Combs church, the sprawling Faith Baptist Church in Waterford, and has now grown to include 10 branches in Michigan and five more nationwide. To become a member, one must be born again, own a motorcycle and go through an eight-week discipleship program. There are no dues the groups survive in part on donations, or what they refer to as love offerings.
H.I.M. is nondenominational, on several levels. All branches of Christianity are welcome, as well as all manner of bikes yes, even the Japanese ones.
If youre on two wheels, youre welcome here, Combs says.
Combs, who has never been involved with CMA, decided to found H.I.M. because he wanted to reach not just the bikers, but also their families.
They minister mostly to the guys on the bike, Combs says of CMA, but what about their children? CMA does great stuff but they dont connect the kids with the church.
Our church is really biker-friendly, theyre used to it. Bikers have problems in their lives, but Ive never met churchy people who dont have problems in their lives, they just have a masquerade about it. Were really good at categorizing sin, instead of just realizing that bikers, churchgoers, were all sinners.
But, Combs says, H.I.M. isnt made up of Bible-thumping bikers.
Were not going to shove God down anyones throats theyre just going to gag.
And what about those who simply dont want to be converted?
Some people just dont want God, but we keep loving them anyways, Combs says. I think the church has a responsibility to love everyone, bikers and businessmen, homemakers and hookers.
Randy Rush is Dalys assistant, whats referred to as an undershepherd. He bought his first Harley at 16, and also bought into the hard life.
I started smoking cigarettes when I was 7, drugs when I was 12, Rush says. My father was an abusive alcoholic, and I watched him beat my mom bloody when I was 4 years old. I didnt have a whole lot of compassion after that point.
Salvation arrived in his 20s, when his mother offered to put up some traveling missionaries for a few days.
One guy was really bold, and I kept telling him, Get away from me or you might get hurt. And he said, Go ahead. Even if you hurt me, God still loves you. That broke my heart, and then it broke me.
Rush heads one of the outreach teams. He tells of attending big secular rallies, the kind where there are people taking their clothes off, smoking, drinking until they drop.
We dont go there and beat them up with the word of God, Rush says. We offer them coffee, and the cups have our logo on it. We usually dont even talk to them unless they ask.
Rush says H.I.M. usually offers to pick up trash or help out at the event; in exchange, organizers allow them to take the stage on Sunday for a short worship service.
Daly, Combs and Rush all claim theyve never received a strong negative reaction when evangelizing at secular rallies. They say a common bond of mutual respect among bikers keeps things civil, even when the bikers in question dont particularly want to be converted.
Sometimes it takes us two, three years to build a rapport with these clubs, Daly says. We dont go in as ministers, we go in as bikers. We build a relationship and allow the spirit of God to lead the conversation. We pull our bikes up on Main Street, and wait for God to make divine appointments.
Rush says, A lot of them will put their hand up right away. But you just let it go. We live in a free country and salvation is a free choice you dont have to pick it.
Combs says few ministries ever reach the 1-percenters. But when you do, theyre the most loyal people youve ever met because they understand commitment.
Vinny Cucchetti has been a member of a 1-percent club in Detroit for the past 13 years. Hes also a chaplain for H.I.M., and now rides for both groups. His story is a familiar one he grew up in a good home in Berkley, but still got involved with drugs and a rough crowd, which led to his arrest and spiritual rebirth.
Cucchetti had been friends with a member of the club and was torn over whether he should join. I was consulting God on all my decisions, and I asked him, This is a 1-percent club, why am I being drawn to join this? And after much prayer and thought, I kept getting the green light to go. Looking back, I dont think I could have had access to these folks had I not gotten their respect and become loved by them.
Cucchetti describes his club as a tight-knit circle thats much different from the image of the wild, outlaw-biker clubhouse.
These clubs are much more feared from the outside. Once youre in, its very friendly and pleasant. Its not organized crime, at least not in my experience. Theres all kinds of people in 1-percent clubs. Heart surgeons, entrepreneurs. You can be whatever you want.
With riding clubs its more social and theres not a tremendous amount of commitment. With 1-percenters, theres a better solidarity, a lot tighter of a brotherhood.
Cucchetti says hes had some theological discussions with his 1-percenter brothers, and every member is fully supportive of his role of minister and position with H.I.M. They let me not wear my colors when Im ministering, and they support me. They think its great.
When he was ordained a minister in 2001, Cucchetti invited his brothers to the service about 13 of them showed, in full biker regalia. They sat through a heavy-duty church service which they would never go through themselves.
He says one of his most profound memories is of a ride with his club, one that he didnt really want to go on, because of some of the worldly stuff. But I felt compelled by God to go.
It was a long ride 1,650 miles in four-and-a-half days and one of Cucchettis brothers was having a rough time. He had some sort of stomach flu, and while checking out a group of girls, he dropped his bike and hurt his hand. So Cucchetti offered to pray over his brother and the next day, he seemed in much better spirits, his hand looking better. Cucchetti was pleased.
It was the final day of the ride, and his club members were riding in a pack on the freeway, bumper to bumper. Cucchetti was toward the front, and after he got off the exit ramp, a member told him someone had gone down on the freeway, and that it was bad. Real bad. A brother had hit the back of the bike in front of him, and flipped his bike, end over end, down the freeway. It was the man Cucchetti had just prayed over the day before.
I said to God, I just prayed for this man, why did this happen? Didnt you hear me? Well, they took him to the hospital, and theres nothing wrong with him. Nothing broken, nothing. The EMS, the fire department, they were all saying, Dude, you should be dead right now.
About a week later I got a postcard from him, saying, Thank you, Vinny. I know Im alive because of your prayers.
On the day of H.I.M.s 8th Annual Biker Sunday in Waterford, a first glance wouldnt see that this is a Christian biker rally. The majority of these guys look like bikers. Most everyone is dressed in black leather of some manner; their arms are leathery, dotted with faded tattoos of eagles, American flags and pinup girls, some of which were etched into their flesh back in Nam. Theres also a strong showing of female bikers, something not often seen in secular clubs, where women frequently ride on the back of a bike but rarely command their own.
The atmosphere is nothing if not extraordinarily friendly. As the bikers file into the grounds, they pass a group of teens and adults cheering them on, bearing signs that read Honk 4 Jesus. Inside the grounds, the bikers line up their rides and register, collecting their free H.I.M. T-shirts. Big Ed Kennedy, of White Lake, sits in a foldout chair, Bible in his lap, in front of a tub of ice water that is free to all. Hes just had double knee surgery and cant ride today.
I thought religion was for geeks, he says. I was the type to go out to bars, pick up women, drink, have a good time, and then I got saved. I just wish I could have become a Christian sooner.
Kennedy recently attended the Daytona Bike Week rally with H.I.M. You have to be careful, he says of the big secular event, and have your blinders on. Theres all sorts of sexual things going on, drugs, beer drinking, swearing. You have to watch yourself, because the devil is very sneaky.
A few yards away, a pair of burly guys in leather pants are having a theological discussion. Religion and God arent always the same thing, one says, as he fiddles with his massive motorcycle. Amen, the other concurs.
Before the hour-long ride kicks off, theres a service. Here, the afternoon becomes markedly less biker, more Christian-revival. The stage is draped with a giant American flag, along with a huge wooden cross spattered with red paint to represent the blood of Jesus. Beneath this effigy is a band; a guy in a bandana and a handlebar moustache is tearing up his guitar in a Christian rock song. Later, a trio of female singers fumble, slightly off-key, through a version of Lean on Me as the crowd claps and sings along. This is followed up by a rather tame version of Born to be Wild.
Combs rides up onto the stage on his motorcycle and greets the cheering crowd. Onstage, he has the sort of manic energy thats half Baptist preacher, half used-car salesman. His head wrapped in an American-flag do-rag, he repeats the same sentiment numerous times through his hour-long sermon. I love bikers, because you guys are nuts!
He tells the story of Rat, recalling how Rats brothers each brought a can of beer to the funeral and piled them at the end of his coffin. That was the first funeral I did with a pile of beer, Combs says. Would Jesus have done that? You betcha!
And the crowd goes wild.
Maurice Mock, one of the original members of H.I.M., is preparing to take off for the ride. Todays event is in memory of Ed Hazel, a Christian biker who died six years ago in a motorcycle crash. He was Mocks best friend. After he died, I didnt ride for 30 days, Mock says, but Ed wouldnt have wanted that.
As Mock flies along the road with the pack the ride winds through the side streets of Holly, Clarkston and adjoining towns he cranes his neck around to talk about accepting Jesus as his personal savior. The 61-year-old is also blasting the German industrial band Rammstein from his cycles sound system, while talking about waking up each morning and welcoming Jesus into his heart.
In my old life, wed hang out, drink beer, smoke pot, he says. But I dont even miss those days. Just because you have a new family doesnt mean you dont love your old one.
When asked if the memorial ride is emotional for him, he says no then retracts it moments later. It is, he says, indicating the empty space on the road right next to him, because if he was still alive, hed be right there beside me.
Many of the attendees comment on how much the event has grown over the last eight years.
Christianity really seems to be catching on, Kennedy says, nodding toward the masses of black leather converging on the lot. I mean, if you have secular bad-boy bikers converting, youve got something going for you.
Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org