- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

VANDER, N.C. (AP) - On Sunday, the sanctuary at Freedom Biker Church was a sea of black leather and beards.

Motorcyclists, some of whom braved morning snow flurries, settled into their seats for the morning service.

“I ride for Jesus,” read a patch on one member’s jacket. “Black leather, tattoos, jeans - proper Sunday attire,” read another.

When Forever Comes, a Christian rock band, struck up a number as the lyrics of the song flashed on a screen behind the band.

Then, Associate Pastor Bill Johnson took the stage. Johnson, who is tall, bald and wears a long, braided beard, welcomed the congregation.

“How are you all doing this morning?” Johnson asked. “Welcome to Freedom!”

So began another Sunday service at the church, where suits and ties are in scarce supply but biker regalia is in abundance.

“They don’t have to take their colors off,” said Senior Pastor J.D. Tew. “They just come.”

Cumberland County’s branch of Freedom Biker Church got its start in a barn.

Tew had been serving as a pastor at the original Freedom Biker Church in Clayton when he said he felt a call to start a church near his hometown of Autryville.

Services started in July 2009 in a barn behind Tew’s home. Initial membership was about 45 people, a number that has grown to about 150.

“We’d have a barbecue, cook a pig,” Tew said. “We’d just make a day of it.”

In November 2012, construction was completed on the church’s current building on Rock Hill Road. Today, Tew estimates average Sunday attendance at more than 250.

The original Freedom Biker Church was founded in 2006 by Mike and Charlene Beasley, according to the church’s website. Mike Beasley, a motorcyclist, felt compelled to establish a place of worship where riders felt welcome and comfortable.

The church is affiliated with the Baptist State Convention. Tew said there are a dozen Freedom Biker churches in the country.

Tew, who said he has been riding motorcycles nearly 30 years and gave his life to Jesus in 1998, said he felt called to become involved in the Clayton church, where he served as pastor of evangelism and missions.

The response to the new church confirmed Tew’s belief, he said, that a biker church was needed closer to home.

“People in the motorcycle community were looking for something that the traditional, conventional church couldn’t offer,” said Tew. “It’s come-as-you-are, and I think there’s a freedom in that.”

Tew stressed that the church’s message of salvation does not differ from that of many other Baptist churches. The main difference is in the atmosphere.

Tew said the church doesn’t limit its membership to bikers. He estimates about 30 percent of the congregation of Fayetteville doesn’t ride.

“We’ve got some 80-year-old grandmothers that go to Freedom Biker,” Tew said. “They like the atmosphere.”

Worshippers began arriving before 9 a.m. Sunday. Because of the cold weather, some drove cars, but plenty of motorcycles leaned in the sun outside the low-slung metal building.

Members, some sipping coffee from plastic foam cups, chatted in the parking lot. Meanwhile, children were getting Bible lessons in a portable building labeled “Chopper Church,” Freedom’s version of Sunday school.

Tommy Pope stood in the parking lot waiting for the service to start. Pope, dressed in black leather and sporting a thick beard, said he has been with the church since its beginning.

“I used to ride in a club,” Pope said. “I don’t anymore. I ride for Jesus now.”

Pope, who attends with his wife, Betty, said the warm atmosphere at Freedom Biker keeps him coming back.

“People love on you,” he said. “Everybody loves on you, hugs on you.”

Roswita Toepfer is a psychologist who enjoys riding motorcycles. She said she has been a member of Freedom Biker Church for about a year.

Toepfer, wearing jeans and a black sweatshirt, said she initially had some reservations.

“The first time I came, I saw all these burly guys standing outside,” she said. “I almost made a U-turn.”

Toepfer said she sometimes gets “weird looks” when she tells people she goes to a biker church.

“Some people feel like we’re a cult or something,” she said.

As the 10:45 service time neared, worshippers began filing into the church. Posters advertised an April 5 “bike blessing” and a midweek “refuel” service.

After several numbers by When Forever Comes and the welcoming by Associate Pastor Johnson, Tew took the stage behind a podium shaped like the front wheel and handlebars of a chopper.

Tew delivered an energetic sermon with the theme “Good Medicine.”

“You got to open that Bible until the pages stop cracking,” Tew told the worshippers. “Wear it out.”

Church member Jody Elkins doesn’t ride, but her husband, Keevin, does. She said they visited for a bike blessing last year and have been coming back every since.

“There’s no judgment here,” Elkins said. “It’s anybody’s church.”


Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, https://www.fayobserver.com

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