Big Twin Salvation
(Canadian Biker Magazine, November 2002)
The Capital City Bikers’ Church is a 10-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, but a world away from the conservative streets of Canada’s capital. It’s tucked away in the Ottawa Business Park, among grey high-tech companies and office supply shops. But one look at the front door plastered with Harley-Davidson stickers and you know it’s different.
“Any biker cruising down the road enjoying it all must sit back and wonder ‘where does this all come from?’” says 35 year-old pastor and founder Rob Dale, during the church’s first anniversary party. Inside, polite women in floral sweaters mingle with burly male bikers in black leather, bonded through a common interest in God. There are no bells or steeples. Instead, there’s a sign in the window saying “For Bikers. By Bikers.” A checkered bar, televisions, a pool table and black leather clad people greet you as you enter. On the orange and black walls hang chrome headers from a V-Twin, a huge pig’s head (fake), and a cross.
“For a lot of these guys, a place where they’re comfortable is a bar,” says Rob. “So this is a non-threatening place for them to hang out and figure out the spiritual side of life.” The church, one of three in Canada, meets Thursday evenings. Members hang in the “bar” downstairs until 7:30 p.m., when they go upstairs to worship in the hall they share with another church. There are bi-monthly “tech talk” seminars, where Rob has arranged for mechanics to teach motorcycle maintenance to parishioners. His future plans include a fully tooled garage, storage area, and emergency service for broken down bikes.
Rob grew up around motorcycles. He was 13 when his mother married his stepfather Gary, a member of an outlaw club in Ottawa. Rob remembers coming home, “seeing 30 or 40 Harleys lining the street outside my house.” He became a biker in that atmosphere. “It was who I was,” he says. But who he was included God. Rob attended church through his adolescence looking “basically like I do now” and then went to Bible College. He was ordained by 23, and began preaching throughout Ontario. He cut his hair and learned to fit in. “I was one of those grumpy old preachers who got up and told everyone to repent or burn.” He stopped riding a motorcycle.
After his mother died of breast cancer, Rob was back in Ottawa, and he made a decision. A used Harley-Davidson Sportster being sold by his stepdad caught his eye. He bought it and began hanging around bikers again. “I started going to the bike rallies, and through hanging around there, it really hit me that church was not just irrelevant, it was a non-issue. When you’d talk to somebody there and say ‘What does church mean to you?’ they’d sort of look at you sideways. One person said ‘I haven’t set foot in a church since I was a kid.’” He also ran into an old friend, Garner “Hillbilly” Foster. Rob and Hillbilly dreamed of a place that would accept bikers and introduce them to God.
Hillbilly had recently found God after a life on the harder side of being a biker. “By 30 I was a crack cocaine addict, I was an alcoholic, and I was on the verge of dying,” he says. He made the conscious decision to become a biker after seeing the amount of respect they got when he was young. “I bought a Harley and started hanging out with heavy guys, and the natural progression took its course. “Everything’s different now,” he says. “I have a reason to live—to take the message of Jesus back to the world I came from.”
The atmosphere in the church is entertaining. When Rob preaches he comes across as part comedian, part preacher, and everyone listens intently. The drum rolls added for effect don’t hurt, either. The brotherhood of motorcycling has translated well into a church. Standing 6’2”, Rob has regrown his long, dark reddish hair and his bushy goatee. His church attire is the crested black leather vest, long sleeved black T-shirt with flaming CCBC logo, and jeans that much of his congregation wears. His 220 lb frame blends right in as he offers handshakes—and often hugs—to every biker who walks through the door.
One visitor to the birthday party is Dave Neal, who drove three hours from Peterborough to attend. “I had church shoved down my throat, but I grew away from it,” says Dave, peering through thick glasses atop a face with a grey goatee. Dave is an ordained minister who rides a Harley, and Rob has helped him start a church in Peterborough. “Our church is like a club house. Rather than a pulpit, there’s a ping-pong table. Those guys could be sitting at a bar, or we could get them off the street,” he says.
Another guest is Isaac “Ice” Furtado, who says he hopes to follow Dave and Rob’s footsteps with a church in Ajax, east of Toronto. Rob hopes the 35 members the church has will continue to grow. It’s his self-declared mission to take the church to as many people as possible in the biker community. “If I could summarize my job, it would be grace,” he says. “People should be accepted for who they are, and not for who I want them to be, and that’s been a real change in my life.” To remind him of his lesson, Rob got a new tattoo on his forearm—a cross with the word “Grace” written through it.