The sight of motorcyclists in black leather traversing Vermont is common this time of year. Many of us imagine them as rebels, mavericks, members of biker gangs. But not all of them are Hell's Angels. Some of these dark riders are evangelical Christians biking for Jesus.
Take Philip Guica: The affable, soft-spoken Pittsford resident is the "Road Rep" for the Vermont Christian Riders. His group is a local chapter of the Motorcyclists for Jesus Ministries, one of many Christian biker groups. Guica reports that MJM counts about 300 members; his chapter has about 20.
According to the mission statement available on its website, MJM's main purpose is "to lead and guide motorcyclists in the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We endeavored to give positive direction and counsel on living under the authority of the power of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit."
Chapters organize TEAMs -- that's Telling Everyone About the Messiah -- of two of more members to ride to various events. TEAMs attend Christian celebrations, but they also travel to non-religious biker rallies. At the annual Motorcycle Week in Laconia, New Hampshire, they distribute free Bibles and religious tracts.
When Guica goes to rallies, he hangs a pamphlet rack from the back of his bike, offering tracts with titles such as "The Day of the Lord Is Coming" and "Heaven: How do you expect to get there?"
"We don't push ourselves onto them," he says of the other bikers, "but if they'd like to talk, we talk." The goal of this outreach? "They just need to get right with Jesus," Guica answers.
One Sunday in late May, Guica has organized a ride to a bike blessing in Clarendon, New Hampshire. The riders begin gathering at 8:30 a.m. at a Denny's parking lot in Rutland. I've arranged to ride with them.
Guica arrives early on his black Honda Goldwing. From a distance, the Vietnam vet, who makes jet-engine parts for General Electric, doesn't look much different from your typical biker dude. He's dressed in black leather pants and a leather vest, and wears a black POW/MIA bandana on his head.
But a closer inspection of Guica's attire reveals the large MJM logo -- complete with cross and Bible -- on the back of his vest, and the tiny metal fish dangling from the zipper on the front. He has also attached several Christian patches. The largest and most striking bears the image of a metal spike stained with dripping red blood, a reference to the crucifixion. "My sin put him there," it reads.
Guica, who belongs to an Assembly of God church, and T.J. Mallen, a Granville, New York, resident who identifies himself as a Pentecostal, are the only two MJM riders who show up on this cloudy day for the trip to the blessing. They're joined by five bikes carrying members of ARM, the Association of Recovering Motorcyclists, a group of post-addiction bikers. Many of them are also religious, and believe in "a higher power."
Like Guica, Mallen is a Vietnam vet. The gray-bearded tough guy is also sheathed in black, though he's wearing nondescript, synthetic rain gear. He didn't want to get his leathers wet, so he left them at home.
But if his outfit lacks Christian symbols, Mallen's bike is sufficiently branded. Etched into the windshield is an elaborate rendering of the face of Jesus in front of three crosses. Jesus is weeping. Scripted in elegant calligraphy above the scene are the words, "Born to die that you might live."
Beside the crosses, the artist has drawn what looks like a Harley logo. It reads, "Jesus Christ, Son of God."
Mallen, a postal worker, has graciously agreed to carry me on his Honda. I feel a little uncomfortable about straddling a bike and clinging to a man I've just met, but I needn't worry. The passenger's seat on his bike is slightly elevated, and separated from the driver's perch by a backrest. My seat even has armrests.
Mallen sees me trying to guzzle my coffee before we set off and tells me I can bring it along. "I've got a cup holder," he says.
He offers me a helmet and plugs it into the bike's radio, so we can talk on the way to New Hampshire. We set off just after 9, with Guica out front.
Once we're under way, Mallen explains that he usually leads the group in a prayer before departure. Officially, he's the group's chaplain, but he also uses a different title -- "I'm the prayer warrior," he says.
In lieu of leading a public prayer, Mallen confides that he said his own silent blessing, which he reveals to me. It begins, "You are the Supreme Father," and ends, "We're putting our life in your hands, and here we go." I get the sense that his prayer is different every time.
Guica, who grew up near Cavendish, leads our pack down remote two-lane roads with lots of curves. The morning is overcast and gray, but the sun manages to peek through occasionally. The breeze is cool but not cold. The lilacs are blooming. It's a beautiful ride.
When we stop for a rest in a parking lot in Reading, Vermont, I comment to Guica that tackling the open road on a Sunday morning sure beats sitting in a pew. "Sometimes our ministry takes us out of the church," he says with a shrug. "Sometimes we don't make it to church for two months at a time."
When we resume our ride, Mallen turns on the radio and plays gospel music over the bike's speakers. He says that often, after a day's work, he hops on his bike, cranks the gospel music to full blast, and rides home singing along at the top of his lungs.
A cheering crowd greets us a short while later on the Clarendon town green. Some of them are filming our arrival with hand-held video cameras. Most of the roughly 25 spectators have come from the Solid Rock Free Methodist Church, which is sponsoring the event. Congregants of all ages have come to meet us. They've set up tables to distribute coffee, donut holes and bottled water.
We pull in alongside another group of bikers. There are a dozen motorcycles in all.
After everyone has had a chance to grab some refreshments and make pit stops at the bathrooms across the street, the preacher climbs the steps of the bandstand. The bikers bow their heads. "Bless these motorcyclists as they ride to and from their houses," the preacher intones. "Grant them patience as they deal with problems along the road."
Several other speakers take the stage, including Guica, but as the sky darkens, some of the riders begin to leave. After donning rain jackets, pants and rubber boots, our group departs. We're headed to Springfield, to have lunch at the Royal Diner and Corvette Museum.
On the way, Mallen and I talk about God, life and the war in Iraq -- he's troubled by it. He tells me he became a Christian 12 years ago, after accompanying a friend to church. Now he doesn't smoke or drink, and I don't hear him swear on our trip, either. But he doesn't seem particularly dogmatic. When the subject of homosexuality comes up, he says he's got gay friends. "Who am I to judge?" he asks rhetorically.
This attitude serves him well later in the afternoon. Halfway through our meal, two biker couples sit down in the booth next to us. The two men appear to be roughly the same age as Mallen and Guica, but they're clearly not Christian bikers. The one closest to me wears patches on his jacket that read, "Try burnin' this one, asshole!" beside an American flag, and "Don't speak English? Get the fuck out."
Before long, the bikers are all talking. Turns out the two guys are veterans, too, and they all know some of the same motorcyclists. Guica and Mallen don't bring up their affiliation with MJM -- one of the other guys does. During a lull in their conversation, he asks, "So, you guys from CMA?" He's talking about the Christian Motorcyclists' Association, the country's largest Christian biker group.
"No," says Mallen. "MJM."
"What's that?" the biker asks.
"Motorcyclists for Jesus Ministries," Mallen replies.
To my surprise, the biker says he once went to a bike blessing with some Christian riders. He and his girlfriend saw some bikes in a McDonald's parking lot one day and stopped. Turned out it was some Christian riders going on a Run for the Son, so the couple joined them.
The biker says he's not a Christian -- he was a hippie in the '70s and "got into drugs" -- but he prays to God every time he climbs onto his bike, to ask for safe passage. The two MJM reps nod.
After Guica and Mallen settle the bill -- Guica leaves the waitress a religious tract along with her tip -- we get up to leave. The bikers bid us a friendly farewell.
On the way back to Rutland, his voice barely audible over the rumble of the engine and the rush of air, Mallen observes that his ministry is all about building relationships with guys like them. At some point, they'll go through a hard time and seek counsel. Mallen and his MJM peers hope they'll turn to Jesus. "It's about planting that seed," he says.
That and burning rubber.