Bikers for Jesus

GQ, Mar 2003

For born-again bikers the Sons of God, the attraction of heathen hell-raising has lost its appeal and they’ve decided to swap the booze for the Bible. GQ spent three days on the highway to heaven at their annual convention in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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Photographs by Chris Anderson

For a hardcore biker, Lonnie was an odd fish – no beard, no beer gut, no patch-splattered leathers. He wore a T-shirt emblazoned “Jesus Beat Satan With Two Sticks” and he spoke with a puny, Huckleberry voice, his eyes drifting as though behind them lurked some hidden psychopathy. When he rose to give his testimony, I thought he might tell us where he buried them.

“Hi, my name’s Lonnie Olsen and I used to ride with the Dirty Dozen and the Hells Angels, Arizona Chapter. I was abused as a child and turned to drugs in the sixth grade. Drinking, shooting up, everything – I was pretty much a chemical waste dump. But then I realised that even though I couldn’t forgive myself, Jesus forgave me when he died on the cross.” His eyes filled with tears, his voice began to break. “I just love you guys.”

As he walked into a sniffly embrace with a fellow biker, someone yelled “glory!” in thick Tennessee twang (“glauwry!”) and whooping applause broke out around the hall. Lonnie is a recent member of the Sons of God, a motorcycle club dedicated to born-again bikers – once members of outlaw or “one-percenter” clubs who have forsaken their hog-hellish ways for Bible study. (“One-percenter” refers to the one percent of motorcycle clubs that the American Motorcyclist Association refuses to acknowledge).

“Yeah I thought I was tough,” said one, examining his shattered knuckles. “But then I realised He is tougher than all of us. I’m talking about Jesus Christ, brother, because He died for you too.”

As a ‘motorcycle ministry’, the Sons of God hail from a tradition not unlike Christian rock. Both germinated in the late 60s, early 70s, when their heathen forebears were at their hellraising peak, sending shivers through small towns, shit-scaring sheriffs and causing hysterical parents to literally lock up their daughters. Back then, bikers and rock stars were icons of unfettered, phallic barbarism – they swore and tore up bars and hotels, they boozed, brawled and barfed but never bathed and, to cap it all, they flaunted Satanic names like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, or the Hell’s Angels and Satan’s Slaves. Decent, churchgoing folk were so petrified that they hatched a counter movement which continues to this day – the seeping Christianisation and bloodless treachery of all things once regarded rebellious, a phenomenon which now embraces skateboarding, hip hop for Jesus and drag racers for Christ.

There are over 100 motorcycle ministries in the USA today, with names ranging from the flat (Christian Motorcycling Association) to the frankly ill-judged (Servants of the Wind, Riders of the Lamb) and their styles are equally various. Some are coffee clubs for Christians with bikes, while others cater to missionary zealots for whom the Harley, that road-slaying fire-breathing chariot of destiny, is merely an effective way to reach potential converts – “all you need is a bike and a Bible!” In this morass, the Sons of God carved a niche in 1979 as the only club specifically for ex-members of outlaw clubs (or secular clubs, as is the common euphemism) although today even that condition is porous. Clinging to the only scrap of rebellion they have left, they describe themselves as the ‘one-percenter club for Christians’.

I spent three days at their annual convention last year at a block-square Methodist Church, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A dreary blott built around car parks and malls, Tuscaloosa looks especially bleak in the rain. Where I had expected the massed roar of a hundred Harleys and the thick funk of exhausts and armpits, I discovered instead a handful of dripping bikes in the forecourt with thin strains of country music drifting out from the church hall. One of the flock was cranking out a self-penned number called “If God is for us (who can be against us?)” The Wild One, it was not.

In the sixties, Hunter Thompson called the outlaw biker “a half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the era of the Wild West”. In which case, the Sons of God are a hangover from the hangover – so hung-over in fact that they all swore never to touch the stuff again. After a full innings at the ale pump, a tale the bellies tell well, they are now teetotal to a man, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and Jesus (usually in that order). Hence the budget cola and no swearing, the hugs (not drugs) and happy-clappy singsongs. Even the the buffet was Christian, provided by a fellow ministry called Cooking For Christ. “I asked the Lord ‘how can I serve you?’” said the chef, “and Jesus told me ‘feed my sheep, feed my sheep.’” No matter that barbecued pork would have been the last thing Jesus had in mind, the menu was set for the three days – hog for the sheep with beans on the side, and a lardy tub of banana pudding for afters. Like a prison line, a routine known to many here, the bikers scooped a dollop and shuffled forward, bellies bursting forth like marching-band drums.

Lonnie’s testimony was typical. In a ritual plucked straight from AA, biker after biker was summoned to the mike to confess how hopelessly sin-riddled he had become, and how Christ fairly fixed it all. You know the drill: “Hi, I’m Arly, I’m biker trash from Tennessee”. (Whoop! Cheer!) “I was an alcoholic, drug addict and a lover of Satan, but then I discovered Jesus.” (Cue scattered applause and cries of “praise god!”).

But the hall was optimistic, a sea of empty seats with scattered islands of bikers clutching tins of soda. At one end sat a lonely table of sew-on badges and T-shirts – things like “Jesus died for bikers too” and “loud pipes save lives but Jesus saves souls”, a reference to the Harley’s throaty throttle. At the other end, vast Eddie with the sunken eyes was setting up his guitar. Once a feared brawler for the Brothers of the Wheel, Eddie now sings for the Sons of God. Since discovering Jesus, Eddie has recorded 7 CDs of his soft Christian salutations, with titles such as the inevitable “Praise Him” and the bizarre “Potter of Love”.

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“You been saved yet?” I heard a voice on my shoulder. It was Curt, the national vice-president.

“Not yet, no.”

“What are you, a Moslem?”

“No, I was raised a Hindu.”

“Oh, a Hindu! You worship monkeys and elephants, right?” He grinned. “Well that’s not your fault. You know that Jesus sent you here, don’t you?”

“No, GQ sent me here.”

“Yeah, but who made GQ?” Curt started to prod me in the chest. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could say at the end of this weekend that ‘I used to be a Hindu but now I met Curt and I found Jesus and I know all that Hindu stuff is wrong!’ Wouldn’t that be amazing!”

“Yes, it would.”

“Can I pray with you for a minute?”

“Curt, I just got here.”

And he made a circle, his fat hands down on my shoulders. “Thank you Jesus for sending this man here today to learn more about our ministry. May you enter his heart and help him, oh Lord, to forget what he  thinks he knows…” etc etc.

I should have known. Instead of blithely fibbing and enjoying the quiet life – a lesson learned through countless rows with Jehovah’s Witnesses – I had betrayed myself as a hell-bound idol-worshipper at a missionary convention. So my lot was drawn – looks of pity and occasional mistrust, and interminable attempts at proselitysation. It’s not easy, fending off blessed bikers. They bear down on you, block off the exits and taunt you with gambits like “So you want to go to hell do you?” At one point I was surrounded by five tattooed giants all playing good-cop-bad-cop to scare me into buckling. “Listen, Sanchez,” I was told, “We don’t want you to go to hell. Nobody does. But that’s where you’re going if you don’t accept Jesus.”

Evangelist Christianity’s appeal to the lost soul is strong, and few souls are more lost than that of a wandering, drug-frazzled biker. In Jesus they had found not only an anchor, a rulebook, a purpose and a place in heaven – regardless of the countless sins accumulated in their outlaw days – but they had also found all the answers to all the questions in the world. They had been robbed of all doubt. “All I need to know is right here,” they would say, smugly waving a copy of the Bible (albeit a paraphrased Bible in many cases). And they take the Bible quite literally, none of this Christ-as-a-metaphor nonsense. As far as this lot are concerned, women were made from Adam’s rib, hell is fiery, abortion is murder and all that evolution stuff is just monkey business, a theory at best (a line that Alabama teachers, incidentally, must take with their students, according to state law).

This new found certainty can be quite a shock – bikers aren’t used to having all the answers. Most of them didn’t do school or books, they just battered their brains with drugs, fighting and falling off bikes. And then suddenly, armed with only their Bibles, they were thrust out into the world, to biker rallies in particular, to hold forth on the true meaning of Life. Which is a hell of a change in lifestyle and had given their “just saved” joy a manic edge – quite apart from the trademark glint of bodysnatchery you find in the eyes of the reborn, many of the Sons muttered to themselves constantly. Ajax from Ontario paced around the hall like a lion, whispering “praise God” and “thank you Jesus”. Others succumbed to Tourettic eruptions of “Hallelujah!” or “Glauwry!”

“Why did I join a motorcycle club?” said Lonnie. “Because I wanted to belong. And everyone here will tell you the same thing. I had no family, no brothers and sisters, my dad was an alcoholic. But when I joined a motorcycle club I had people who would do anything for me. You share everything, it’s one for all and all for one.”

For bikers, as for Dogtanian and the Muskehounds, the “one for all” motto is a hallowed tenet, and makes the outlaw a terrifying prospect in a fistfight. Upset one and you upset 50 chain-slinging meatheads, and Lonnie rode with some of the meanest meatheads around. Fighting the Bandidos from New Mexico and Texas on one side, and the Californian Angels on the other, the Dirty Dozen developed a reputation as the most violent biker club in the country. Ultimately, the Angels chose to accept the whole club, rather than remain at war.

“Yeah I was a violent criminal, I was a piece a crap,” said Lonnie, in his little-boy voice. “I’ve ruined so many lives, some that are gone for ever.”

Ironically he started out riding with a sober club known as the Fifth Chapter, which grew out of AA. “You couldn’t drink and do drugs, but you could sell them, run women, steal cars, mug people, do whatever. It was living the outlaw lifestyle but without being a drunk, so you had an edge. It actually became quite profitable.” But the Fifth Chapter broke the code, and to bikers, the code is all: respect the patch, help any biker in trouble and never, ever, deal with the cops. Their integrity blurred by all that sobriety, the Fifth Chapter allowed DEA (Drug Enforcement Agents) to “fly their patch” (wear their colours) in order to infiltrate the Dozen and make a few busts. Suddenly Lonnie was riding around with a target on his back.

“I met this senior of the Dozen and he told me, if you’re going to fly a patch in this state, you’re going to fly ours or not at all. So I started flying the Dozen’s patch from 1991.”

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The power of the patch in the outlaw world is not to be underestimated. A tribal endorsement, it is presented with great ceremony (known as ‘patching out’) and snatched back as punishment. It must be returned if you leave the club for any reason, even death – only honourable exceptions are buried with their patches – and if you fly the wrong patch in the wrong town, you’ll pay a heavy a price. Ditto, if you fly a patch that you haven’t earned. In fact, if you fly a patch that looks similar to that of another outlaw club, you’re in for a pummelling. It’s a minefield, the whole patch scene, and new clubs must tread very carefully. Certainly, the Sons of God only settled upon their design after months of deliberation and discussion with other clubs. They fly a 3-piece patch, typical of outlaw clubs – a gothic “Sons of God” across the top (the ‘top rocker’), a purple and yellow Jesus with a crown of thorns beneath, and “New Jerusalem” at the bottom (the ‘bottom rocker’).

It’s ridiculous, of course, these playground battles – “hey he’s got a yellow one and it’s got our typeface, let’s duff him in!” But then legs get broken, skulls get smashed and it’s not funny anymore. One ex-Angel described the world of the outlaw biker as “kid’s games for keeps – everyone wants to be king of the hill.” And the Sons of God are by no means exempt from these patch-spats. Chin-wagging with the flock one day, Cruiser – a “Sister In Service”, as female members are known – casually mentioned a member in South Carolina whose wife was gang-raped while he was stomped. “I think it was something to do with how he wasn’t supposed to be wearing a three piece patch because he hadn’t been a true outlaw, something like that.” She shrugged and giggled – they have an odd sense of humour, bikers. “It’s so complicated!”

As for whether the unfortunate member was permitted to fight back, Cruiser couldn’t say. The club guidelines forbid members from carrying guns, but would retaliation, per se, compromise its turn-the -cheek principles? It was a question to which there was no straight answer. Some members eyed me shiftily and threw up a smokescreen about “the sword of truth”, others threw up their hands and walked away. “You need to talk Abe about that.”

So I did. Abe’s the national president, a chuckling Santa-bearded senior for whom the sands of time have rather inverted the hourglass. He would remain standing even if all his bones were removed. “If your walk with God is true, you won’t have any trouble,” he mumbled into his beard. Which is no kind of answer. He refused to let on about the South Carolina incident, for fear that I might name the outlaw clubs in question, enrage them and so invite retribution on the Sons of God. “We like to keep that sort of information within the club,” he said finally, and hobbled off.

Day one ended with the first truly tribal moment of the weekend, the kind of thing that confirms one’s belief in the strangeness of strangers – an initiation ceremony for probates (new members). Bob from Oregon, who rode with the Devil’s Henchmen for 35 years, was telling me about the time he was stabbed 13 times at a Hells Angels funeral. “He was right on top of me, stabbing me in the chest with this rifle with a bayonet on the end,” he said. “That was the closest I came to death, I think.” Then he politely excused himself, took off one boot, rolled up his trouser leg and began to mime his way through Swing Low Sweet Chariot. He was one of 18 probates in a row, all bumbling through the silly moves and giggling as it got faster and faster.

Two along from Bob stood Lonnie, who has witnessed some blood-curdling initiations during his outlaw days. “Anything from minding the bikes to murder,” he said, his eyes drifting off again. “But I can’t tell you exactly what, I’d be breaking the rules.” Other members were similarly secretive about their outlaw initiations but there were off-the-record whispers about rape and violent muggings which cast these battered bumblers in an altogether darker light.

It bugged me, all the secrecy – after all, what did Jesus have to hide? But every self-respecting club has its club secrets, not least those who traditionally operate outside the law. And though the Sons of God is law-abiding now, it is structured exactly like an outlaw club – which is to say, it’s like the bastard son of an army unit and a student bridge club.

General members are rigorously ranked – prospect, probate and patch-holder – and they are governed by all kinds of rules about when and where to do what and with whom. For example, probates (who wear only the bottom rocker) are forbidden from wearing their colours out on the street, unless they are accompanied by a patch-holder. (Heaven knows why – since when did a hardcore outlaw need a chaperone?) Further up the ladder, the bridge club titles kick in – the secretaries and treasurers and chapter presidents who organise club events, buy the snacks, hire the PA, that sort of thing. Like a Monty Python sketch, certain chapters are composed entirely of these presidents and treasurers, each with little cards and special badges to prove it.

It’s ironic that the great American biker – so free! so wild! – should volunteer for such a rule-bound life, but even outlaws have laws, no matter how much they claim they hate authority. And when the rules are broken – word is, some Sons were spied having a beer once, tsk tsk – the tribe has a strict disciplinary procedure. The elders meet, the committee votes, all those in favour say “aye”, and the verdict is announced. Outlaw clubs treat errant members to a comprehensive beating. The Sons of God might take away the patch for a while. Oh yes. No messing.

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Day two began with tornados. (Yet again, no riding – was God frowning on His Sons?) We had planned a day trip to a nearby grotto where monks had built a scale model of Jerusalem out of bits of junk, but then twisters started snaking through the heart of Alabama, barely a mile from the church. Sirens wailed, everyone scuttled into cellars and the seniors retreated into one of their drawn-out, top-secret meetings.

So I spent much of the day on the church steps, scanning the horizon for funnels and nattering to the sheep. Wheels told me how to make speed from Vicks inhalers. Spiceman invited me to Albuquerque for the big Indian pow wow next year – “I’m a spice trader by trade, but Jesus is the spice of life!” It was all very amicable. No one was trying to convert me (Curt was stuck in a meeting) and I was even given a zippy little road name, ‘Scoop’ (the photographer was ‘Snapshot’). I did have one to-and-fro, though, with Dave about whether Buddha went to hell or not. (Again, the bogus aristocracy of the afterlife gives the destitute something to swagger about). Dave was adamant – Buddha was burning along with Krishna, Mohammed and Attila the Hun because none of them had accepted Christ. So sayeth the Bible. But then poor Buddha was born roughly 500BC, how could he have known Christ?

“Hmm… I see what you mean,” said Dave, hemming and hawing. “OK, Buddha didn’t go to hell, but he didn’t go to heaven either! He was just, sort of… lost.” Dave is currently looking to launch a career in bounty hunting, which he sees as yet another opportunity for ministry. “I can go kick the door down, put a gun to your head, and when I got you cuffed up in the van, I can talk to you about Jesus,” said Dave, quite seriously.

Then Arly Davidson (his real name) came running up the stairs to command the stragglers down to the safety of the basement. “Glauwry!!” he yelled. (So he’s the one). “Come on now, brothers, we may not have riding weather, but the Lord sure gave us some fine fellowship downstairs.” ‘Fellowship’ consisted of a bunch of big-boned bikers eating crisps off paper plates and watching Storm TV at full blast: “It’s crossing Highway 171 right now, and there’s a third one, a NEW one, near US 43. Go to a safe place…”

Claire Duprees lit up her umpteenth cigarette and laughed. “I can’t believe I turned down a Caribbean cruise for this!” She was one of a handful of women at the convention, most of them as rough as bags, aged in dog years by amphetamine and beer and the endless abuses of the road. Having heard her harrowing story, I couldn’t believe she entertained biker company at all.

Worst move she ever made was running away with a biker at the age of 14. A lone rider, who associated with the Hells Angels, he brutalised her for a decade, tattooed “Carl’s Bitch” on her arms, beat her beyond recognition and eventually killed her father. A nasty, nasty man with Aryan Nation sympathies, he tortured old people before robbing them and made Claire an accomplice on some of his cruellest crimes. Once Carl was himself killed, Claire staggered into another abusive relationship with Larry, a huge hairy man who stood just yards from where we were speaking. “He’s better now, though, now he knows the Lord,” said Claire, smiling.

Outlaw bikers are second only to the Taliban in their cruelty to women. They regard them as property, cheap disposable property at that. While the men wear name badges, say “Tiny” or “Bones”, their women, or “old ladies”, wear badges which read “property of Tiny”, or “property of Bones”. Some women are the property of the entire club, which means any member can have his way with them – screw them, gang bang them, trade them in bets. “Like I said, you share everything,” explained Lonnie. “So if you ain’t got an old lady, here take mine, that’s how it goes. I’ve seen women traded for bic lighters, they have absolutely no value in the outlaw world. And if a woman disappears for a few days and comes back without a good reason, she’ll probably get the boot put to her.”

In their testimony, the Sons of God tend to skirt around their most heinous sins and focus more on how they themselves were victims of drugs and alcohol, how the booze made them “cheat” on their wives. But their wives tell a different story. When they take the stand, they do not bleat on about drinking, they relate the violence dealt them by men in leather jackets, who wear patches and ride Harleys – the men that still surround them. And they still wear subservient badges. “Samson’s Wife”, for example, spoke of how she has had to block out 19 years of ritual abuse. “Imagine the worst thing you can do to someone.” She had to bite her lip because there were children present. “Well, that was how I lived for 19 years.”

Come nightfall we had more pork and beans and a jolly old sing-song. Then the Oregon chapter played a video of their trip to the Pelican Bay maximum security prison in California, where they cynically lured lifers into chatting about Jesus by revving their bikes in the yard. With a Clayderman-style soundtrack and plenty of slavering shots of the Harleys, the movie featured grizzled old white men chatting to young black inmates behind yellow tape. By the time Curt came on, I was heading for the door.

“Whoa, hey! You can’t leave you haven’t been saved yet!” Curt yelled. “What if you walk out that door and a bus runs you over. Bang! Boom! What are you going to do then?”

“I don’t know Curt.”

“You’ll be sorry when you get to the gates of heaven and you see me there, all dressed in white, with Paul and Jesus there and you’ll say, ‘Curt told me, he gave me a chance…”

 

On Sunday, I awoke as sick as a volcano. Too much pork, too little time. But the sun was out (hooray!) and the boys were champing at the bit to finally get the motor running and head out on the highway. We went to church – of course – except this time the bikers shared pews with the regular flock, the stodgy white middle-class Methodists of Tuscaloosa. They sang hymns, or pretended to, and shared the communion wine, which was in fact grape juice on account of Alabama state law – alcohol is a no-no on Sundays, even in church.

As we left – everybody hugging everybody as usual – I asked Lonnie what he most missed about being an outlaw. “Oh we used to ride through town 6’’ apart at 100mph, through red lights and everything. It was ballistic! But my favourite feeling was when we were all together and someone said ‘five minutes’. And everyone got on their bikes and started revving the engines. My heart just pumped up. I loved that ‘five minutes’”.

At which point Abe called out, “let’s get something to eat!” And the brothers got together, straddled their hogs and started growling their engines. “Yeah!” yelled Spiceman. “Let’s put it in the wind, brothers! Scoop, you ride with me!” He handed me a helmet plastered in stickers like “Satan Sucks” and I jumped on the back. First stop, the breakfast buffet at Shoney’s Bar and Grill – then onto Arly Davidson’s house for a final round of ‘fellowship.’ Let’s go!

Watching the bellies hit the road with such swagger, a droll bumper sticker came to mind – “I drive way too fast to worry about cholesterol”. Except the Sons of God don’t ride fast, nor as a raggedy horde – they ride within the limits and in an orderly procession of pairs, two by two, led appropriately by Noah, and his wife “Noah’s wife”, so called because their house once flooded and they lost everything – everything but their sense of humour, evidently. With his right hand on the revs, Noah thrust out his left in a series of priapic arm signals.

I left the Sons of God holding hands in a circle, each one offering a lengthy prayer in turn. It was an emotional moment. Lonnie was blubbing, Bob was blubbing. Tough guys squeezing each other’s palms as the tears rolled down their cheeks. Every biker I met cited his longing for male companionship, the indefinable comfort of being around other men, as both the initial impulse for joining a bike club, and an enduring motivation for staying with one, even after turning to Jesus. “Camaraderie” was the favourite word, something that regular life just didn’t provide. For ‘camaraderie’ you needed to join a football team, or the army, or if all that sounded a little too straight, an outlaw club. Well this was it – the camaraderie comedown. After all the beer, fighting and rape, and with the terrifying prospect of straight life around the corner, bikersoarus needed rehab, somewhere he could retain the illusion that his criminal outlaw past was not without purpose.

As I waved my last goodbyes, Arly ran up to the car. “You leaving? But you ain’t been saved yet!”