Outlaw bikers rev up for God

Former misfits find a church geared to them

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Matthew Butler delivers a sermon.
Christena Dowsett for Al Jazeera America

TEXARKANA, Texas — Matthew Butler stands in the church pulpit behind a lectern shaped like a motorcycle.

It's a Sunday morning in October, and Butler readies himself for a sermon on the Ten Commandments at the 1st Biker's Church of Texarkana. Men and women dressed in jeans, leather jackets, biker boots and T-shirts talk in the pews while a band, including his wife, Jacque Butler, on bass, plays a twangy country gospel song. A woman in her 50s who is a member of the congregation walks around giving hugs to everyone. "Everyone can use a hug, me included," she says.

Biker churches like this one are cropping up throughout the Bible Belt and elsewhere around the United States. Bikers who once thrived on sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and even crime are leaving behind the wild times for the calmness of Bible study and prayer meetings.

Without a church like this, there would be hundreds of people with nowhere else to go. We are literally reaching into the darkness.

Matthew Butler

"Churches like this gather misfits," said Matthew Butler, who became the church's pastor in 2010 after working in its music ministry. "Without a church like this, there would be hundreds of people with nowhere else to go. We are literally reaching into the darkness."

In Texarkana, a town that straddles the Arkansas-Texas state line, this biker church offers a stark alternative to more traditional churches.

"This is just a place where we wouldn't be judged and looked down on," said Russell Stewart, a deacon of the church and one of its founding members. "At other churches, the way we dress, we would be judged. We are all just here to worship the Lord."

The church started in 1999 when some bikers gathered on Sunday morning in one of their garages to talk about God. More members started attending, and soon they moved to a spacious former Baptist church in downtown Texarkana, where today more than 300 people are listed on the church rolls. 

I preach with conviction around my heart. The Lord speaks to you in the hum of the motor.

David Vanbuskirk

Preacher David Vanbuskirk.
Christena Dowsett for Al Jazeera America

Outlaw motorcycle gangs, which make up about 1 percent of motorcycle riders in the United States, have clubs with names like the Hells Angels and Banditos. They are not recognized by the 235,000-member American Motorcycle Association because of their criminal activities.

The Biker-Friendly Church Network lists nearly 100 churches where Harleys and helmets are welcome on Sunday mornings. Those in the biker ministry say hundreds more aren't widely advertised. Unlike traditional churches, they aren't recognized within religious denominations but rather focus on evangelism and discipleship — witnessing and training in the Bible.

Even with God as their unifier, Christian bikers tend to isolate themselves by groups, a holdover from gangs, in which members wear elaborate stitched patches to show their allegiance. But some want that segregation to end.

On a recent Saturday several groups — with names like the Iron Apostles, Soldiers for Jesus and Hallelujah Riders — gathered in Kilgore for fellowship and prayer at Living Word Church, whose pastor let them use the space. Motorcycles with Jesus stickers lined the grounds, and tales from the road were shared in between preaching and barbecue.

Kevin and Bobbie Haygood, a biker couple, organized the event to unite various motorcycle ministries in northeastern Texas. While many of the riders knew one another from various rallies around the country, they hadn't worshipped together.

"We all should be worshipping to the same Lord because we have the same message, just different patches," Kevin Haygood said, handing out patches that read, "United in Christ, Jesus Is Lord."

Haygood said he and his wife were once part of that rough gang culture and strayed from clean living. He was riding with the Outlaws in Georgia in 2004 when a former rider involved in a Christian ministry told Haygood he was praying for him. Those words started to change his life.

"Life went south, I moved west, and God worked in between," he said.

The Haygoods now pass out Bibles at motorcycle events across the country. These rallies, said Bobbie Haygood, are "places of craziness, decadence and darkness."

"We are trying to be the light. We are trying to be obedient," she said.

So are many of the other bikers who have found salvation while riding a steel horse.

David Vanbuskirk, a preacher for Bikers for Christ, said he is the last person anyone expected to spread the gospel.

"All the men in my life were teaching me how to rob, steal, do dope and sell dope," he said. "They had a lack of concern for life. I didn't want my sons to be raised like that, and I don't want my daughters to be with men like that."

He started preaching to change lives.

"I don't have an education, and I'm rough around the edges,” Vanbuskirk said. "But I preach with conviction around my heart. The Lord speaks to you in the hum of the motor."

You get to take someone from hell to heaven, and they are changed forever.

Matthew Butler

Keith Cannon.
Christena Dowsett for Al Jazeera America

Keith Cannon, dressed in jeans and a leather vest, stood at the back of the Kilgore church with his hands raised to the ceiling, praising God. He was 10 years old the first time his uncle put him on a motorcycle. He fell in love with riding and later with drugs.

Nearly nine years ago, Cannon was living in a homeless shelter. He was arrested in 2004 for drug possession and a year later was arrested again on a drug and weapon charge. But he said his life changed when he entered a 12-step narcotics program. Three years ago, he was saved. He is now self-employed as a welder, and business is thriving, he said.

"We were some twisted people before we got saved," said Cannon, whose father was a missionary. "You can ride your bike the same, but now you love Jesus."

Bikers tell stories of similar miracles at 1st Biker's Church. Becky and Eddy Cook have attended services there since 2009 and have rarely missed a sermon.

Standing outside after Sunday-night service, Eddy Cook smoked a cigarette and spoke of how God saved his life in 1999.

"I was partying and doing everything that Jesus wouldn't want me to do," he said.

His addiction was meth, and he knew the drug would likely kill him or land him in prison. Then one morning he did meth, and that afternoon he asked God to give him strength to escape the drug life. He went cold turkey, never entered rehab and never craved drugs again.

After that, the Cooks searched for a church but couldn't find one where they felt comfortable. They didn't want to be judged by the clothes they wore or how much money they earned.

His uncle attended 1st Biker's Church, and four years ago the couple decided to attend too.

Eddy Cook said, "I went to shut him up, but the sermon that was preached was for me, and the rest is history."

For him and many others like him, it's all about God these days, and ministers like Matthew Butler feel it's their life's calling to rev up bikers' souls.

"You get to take someone from hell to heaven," he said. "And they are changed forever."

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