Motorcycle ministry reaches out in the name of Christ
By Jessica Connor
ISLE OF PALMS—A group of open-air riders is reaching out to people in the spirit of Christian love, just like United Methodism’s founding father John Wesley did 270 years ago.
Except instead of doing it on horseback, they’re missioning by motorcycle—and having a grand time in the process.
The Wesley Riders started in 2009 as the brainchild of Bob Witcher, an Atlanta attorney and biker for 44 years who calls Isle of Palms home.
“I read somewhere that John Wesley rode 250,000 miles on horseback; that was his version of a motorcycle,” Witcher said. “You’ve got people in church who play golf regularly. Why not ride motorcycles?”
The Wesley Riders are an outreach and witness program of First United Methodist Church, Isle of Palms, but they are hoping to become a conference-wide group, comprising congregations across South Carolina who fellowship and outreach in the spirit of Wesley.
Witcher has long enjoyed the almost sacred experience of being on motorcycle – the joy of the open road, the unfettered access to nature, the spirit of the people he meets on his travels, the closeness to God.
But as he started to read statistics about the decline of the UMC, he knew he was being called to help stem the downward spiral.
“We’ve lost 32 percent of our traditional membership, and numbers are falling,” Witcher said. “People want to do things differently. For some churches, praise bands work. I’m not a musician, but I do know how to ride a motorcycle.”
His church gave him the go-ahead. After all, Wesley himself used the open road to reach out to the unsaved or unchurched.
“I’m really excited they’re willing to try it and really think outside the box so to speak,” said the Rev. David Surrett, First UMC pastor. “Anything that reaches people for the church and for Christ is great, and I think we have to be more creative than we once were. People don’t come knocking on the church doors any more, and we have to go out and find them where they are.”
Now, the Wesley Riders are in an organizing mode – trying to spread the word to other bikers to join their ministry, to fellowship and to begin social justice work through charity rides and more. Witcher hopes to have 40-50 congregations across South Carolina involved, all doing their part to be the hands and feet of Christ while doing something they love.
A spiritual thing
For those involved with the Wesley Riders, there is nothing like the feeling of sitting low to the ground on a powerful machine, zipping through back roads with the wind in your hair, truly alive.
“An open road is an experience for me – a good connection with nature and with God,” said Tom Chason, a yacht broker and First UMC member who has been riding almost 50 years.
For Chason it is about the journey, not the destination; the freedom of being in tune with nature and the elements, being a part of all creation.
“Not like getting in your car,” he said; it’s much more intimate than that.
Fellow Wesley Rider Bob Murray agrees.
“It’s different scenery than you see in the car – not even close. You’ve got nature, bugs, the weather,” said Murray, a boat captain and biker for 30 years whose friends call him Captain Bob. “People always ask, ‘What do you do when it rains?’ You get wet!”
Murray said the solitude and the closeness to nature he gets on a motorcycle is a fast ticket to spiritual enlightenment.
Surrounded by the vast beauty of creation, and with such access to it, “How can anybody not believe in God?” he asks. “You look around you; it all flows. It all works.”
Wesley Rider Laurie Breisch, a retiree who now serves as an active volunteer, said it’s the sound of the motorcycle that exhilarates her more than anything.
“I do a lot of deep breathing,” said Breisch, who has had her Harley for 10 years and loves to ride. “It’s a high, but a calming high.”
“It’s a spiritual feeling,” Witcher said. “Riding in the back of the pine woods, I can feel God. The Holy Spirit becomes real to me. Because you are out in the open, you can maybe feel it more. When you’re riding, you smell the horse manure in the field; you feel the wind and the bugs.
“It’s knowing there’s a world out there and you’re a part of it – not separate from it, not isolated from it.”
An outreach frame of mind
All of that combines to put Christian bikers in what Witcher calls “an outreach frame of mind.”
After all, there you are on the open road, meeting all sorts of different people who are automatically more in tune with nature and more open to God and the Holy Spirit.
“Social outreach is part of being United Methodist,” Witcher said. “You meet so many people riding: poor and rich. You don’t sit out there in a lily-white church and write a check. You meet people who need that check, right there in society.”
Murray said he’s met some of the neatest characters while riding, like the time he spent three days with five elderly bikers he met in Hickory, N.C., the youngest being 80 years old.
“It’s one of the few sports everyone can do: men, women, doctors, attorneys, garbage men, plumbers, the unemployed,” Murray said. “Not Republican, not Democrat, not Jewish, not Christian. You don’t have to have a brand new bike. You meet all kinds out there, and 90 percent of them would give you the shirt off their back.”
The group will begin their social outreach through charity rides to help groups like the United Methodist Relief Center, in nearby Mount Pleasant, or Epworth Children’s Home, in Columbia.
And they will go where the Lord guides them – meeting people, spreading the Word, helping others – much like John Wesley did two and a half centuries ago.
After all, Wesley chose not to ride around in a carriage, but on a saddle in the snow and rain to reach the common people.
“Anybody who did that has got to think a lot like a biker,” Witcher said.