Chesapeake, Va. — A mighty belch — loud, long and clear — erupted from the crowd, prompting swivels of heads and muffled laughs, but the guilty party remained anonymous.
It happened just as Pastor Rusty Rawls asked his congregation to turn to the Book of Genesis in their Bibles and the only other sound in the dim assembly hall was the flutter of pages.
Without missing a beat, Mr. Rawls looked to the crowd at Seven Cities Freedom Biker Church and began his hourlong sermon on making no excuses when it comes to following God.
"Our members feel like they have been judged and looked down upon," the church leader said after the service. "They know they can come here and we will love them right where they are at. Sometimes, where they're at is the sin they are in."
Burping is by no means a sin, but the relaxed, no-frills attitude at the biker church is a major draw for its leather- and denim-clad members, many of whom bear tattoos, scars, scruffy hair and serious baggage.
"We get a lot of drug addicts, alcoholics," said Mr. Rawls, 48. "But the bikers here are some of the most giving people you'd ever come across."
Seven Cities Freedom Biker Church is one of 10 such churches along the East Coast. There's also a Canadian biker church in Surrey, British Columbia.
The first church was founded in 2006 in Raleigh, N.C., by a man named Mike Beasley.
Mr. Rawls said he and his wife, Chris, 45, were introduced to Mr. Beasley by a mutual friend who was asked to be a part of the startup team.
Mr. Rawls already had started a motorcycle ministry at his current church and worked with the Christian Motorcyclist Association, a national evangelistic outreach program.
The two pastors hit it off and opened the first Freedom Biker Church on July 9, 2006. Mr. Rawls said more than 100 people attended the service. Now, Sunday attendance averages 350 to 400.
Six years after the church opened, the Rawlses and their two children moved to Virginia Beach to start another one.
"Our son, Max, was attending Bible college in Virginia Beach, and we would travel up there at least two to three times a month to visit," Mr. Rawls said. "After doing this for about a year and a half, it finally dawned on us that God was calling us to plant a biker church in Virginia Beach. Each time we visited our son, we always noticed all the motorcycles in the area but never thought of planting a church there."
Sitting at the end of a large parking lot, the Chesapeake church bears reminders of its previous life as a country bar and a hip-hop club. The fellowship and dining area at the front feature high- and low-top tables as well as a bar, where several coffee makers instead of liquor bottles are displayed. Sunday services are held in the former dance hall — a two-story cavern with mirrored walls, a disc jockey booth, low lights and a booming sound system.
Long rows of chairs, separated by an aisle painted to look like a street lane, face a low stage where a motorcycle is parked in the corner and a silver "freedom bell" dangles from a post.
The bell resembles the one that is rung by the owner of a new bike at a Harley-Davidson store, Mr. Rawls said. The motorcycle is like those that congregants rev to salute a member's baptism — a ceremony performed in a galvanized horse trough.
On one wall, written in large block letters, is a paraphrase of John 8:36: "What the Son sets free is free indeed."
Seven Cities hosts several church events and services throughout the year, including a family meal after the last Sunday service of each month.
Sedans and trucks filled about half of the lot this past Sunday, and about two dozen gleaming motorcycles were parked in the fire lane in front of the low building.
Before each service, members and visitors are invited to "hang out" and then join a prayer circle in the parking lot.
Pastor Jeremy Scott's booming voice greeted the crowd. He wore a black leather vest, a T-shirt, jeans and a bandanna that covered much of his head — but not his half-dollar-size earrings.
"Good to see you this morning," he shouted, his chin covered by a graying red beard. "If you have anything holding you back today, let it loose. Put it inside the circle and leave it here."
After a series of lengthy worship songs performed by a guitar player and a drummer, Mr. Rawls launched into his sermon. For an hour, he regaled the congregation with self-deprecating humor, personal anecdotes and a fatherly assurance that it was not too late find Jesus.
Laughter, claps and shouts of "Amen" punctuated his talk. When a man and woman came forward to ring the freedom bell and rededicate themselves to God, the applause was thunderous.
After the service, the members filed into the dining room, where they laughed and talked over plates piled with hot dogs, beans, potato salad and vanilla pudding.
In between bites of a hot dog, Brenda Day, 67, said she grew up Pentecostal and started going to a conservative church when she moved to Virginia Beach. Her son saw an article in the local paper about Seven Cities and suggested she go.
"He's got leather, jeans, and said he would never feel comfortable going to a regular church," said Ms. Day, who was wearing a black blazer and matching long skirt.
The retired police dispatcher said she has enjoyed becoming a part of the church and appreciates that people don't have to be afraid or self-conscious if they want to sing loud and raise their hands in praise.
Sitting at a high-top table, JoJo Blevins, 49, said she started attending after a friend's recommendation.
"My first time I felt like I didn't fit in, but every time I came back, I liked it more and more," said Ms. Blevins, wearing a black leather headband. "The message is relevant. Everybody's real friendly and nonjudgmental."
Feeling comfortable and welcome is why the church exists, Mr. Rawls said.
Some "old school bikers" who tried to connect with a local church found it difficult to overcome expectations of appearance and didn't fit in with that spiritual community.
"Most were told to clean up on the outside then come back," the pastor said. "But these guys loved the freedom of the open road and wanted to still ride their bikes. They're looking for love and acceptance. It's not our job to clean 'em. It's our job to get 'em in the boat and let God do the rest."
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