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Bikers rumble to United Methodist church

Duncan Overrein, also known as "Brother Dunk," has found acceptance, hospitality and spiritual nourishment at the biker church at Crossfire United Methodist in Moravian Falls, N.C. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.

By Reed Galin*
July 25, 2008 | MORAVIAN FALLS, N.C. (UMNS)

Duncan Overrein looks every bit the middle-aged biker.

A graying ponytail snakes from his helmet, twisting in the wind like a worm on a hook. Black sunglasses reveal no facial expression, but he still manages to look dangerous. A wiry goatee presses against his leathered neck as he roars down Highway 51 in the Carolina foothills with 20 of his "bros" and sisters.

"Used to be, I thought I was a pretty bad guy," says member Gary Steelman.
"Now I don’t have to be that way."

Most ride Harleys. There’s a lot of leather and tattoos. Overrein rides a black-and-white chopper that is almost menacing in its authenticity––the miles it has obviously seen, the lack of polish or fancy accoutrements.

He leads the clan onto a country road toward Moravian Falls.

A low rumble precedes them like a warning that trouble is coming.

It isn’t.

They’re going to church.

A biker church

The bikers turn into the parking lot at Crossfire United Methodist Church, but they don’t stop. Parking lots are for conventional people. These parishioners peel off onto the front lawn and line up their bikes before the church door in an effortless, but noisy, choreography.

Overrein extends his hand to a visitor. The look in the biker’s eyes is piercing, but not hard. The visitor instinctively understands the message: "Don’t judge me by how I look; judge me by who I am, and I will give you the same respect."

When he introduces himself as "Brother Dunk," it is not just biker-speak. It is how he feels about everyone at the biker church, whether they ride or not.

It’s a family thing

"I’ve been to churches where the welcome just wasn’t there for folks like me," Overrein says. "I’ve sat in the back and watched Suzy-Q’s looking at how Debbie is dressed and Bob is whispering to George about his new car. Man, we need to wake up and realize it ain’t about what we ride; it ain’t about what we wear; it’s about how we need to love on people. When I hug Bubba or Catfish over there and say ‘Bubba, love ya, brother,’ I mean that."

Indeed, there are hugs and smiles all around as Bubba, Catfish and Brother Dunk, and their families file through the doors.

The church band fires up. This is no Sunday choir. It is a rock-and-roll-style thumping bass and wailing lead guitar, but the lyrics speak of the spirit. Congregants sing along, clap, or sway with raised hands––however the spirit moves them.

A lead singer, covered with tattoos, offers biblical references between songs, and then the Rev. Alan Rice, pastor of Crossfire Church, rises from a pew. In a conversational manner, he talks about the challenge of changing from within. A young man in a skull-and-crossbones scarf nods in agreement.

Confrontational beginning

Rice reminds the congregation of how the biker church began out of a confrontation with Overrein. That was four years ago. As he explains later in an interview, the congregation—known then as Moravian Falls United Methodist Church—had dwindled to about 10 members. During a meeting to discuss the congregation’s future, one of the women told Rice there was a biker outside who didn’t want the church closed.

Worshippers pray during a biker
church service.

The biker was Overrein. He had been befriended by an elderly man in the church—the last remaining male of the congregation. Rice invited Overrein inside, spoke with him, then told him the meeting had to resume. Overrein said he wasn’t leaving. The situation became tense. “I thought, ‘There’s going to be a fight,’” Rice recalls.

Not wanting an altercation inside the church, Rice suggested they step outside. They did so, and after further talk, Rice asked Overrein if the church was important to him because he had Jesus Christ in his heart. Overrein looked at him and said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

“I said, ‘If that’s true, I’ll start a place where you and other bikers can have church.

If you give me your hand, we’ll pray over it right now,’” Rice says. “He gave me his hand, and we prayed that God would raise up a biker church.”

That led to the formation of what eventually became Crossfire United Methodist Church. The group met initially in a coffee tavern, and later, a warehouse. Efforts to buy a building were unsuccessful because of zoning issues, and the congregation moved into the former Moravian Falls building.

Now the congregation is buying an old trucking building with 32,000 square feet of space on seven acres. The church hopes to have it ready for use in the fall, and it plans on sharing the space with nonprofit organizations.

Immersing new members

Crossfire Church has taken in probably 20 people this year, Rice says. “The majority of those are usually by baptism. They’re unchurched people.”

While one or two baptisms in the church have been by sprinkling, the norm is immersion in a creek, less than a mile away. That practice became standard after the grandma of one of the bikers said their sins wouldn’t be washed away unless they were baptized by immersion. While sprinkling is most common in The United Methodist Church, pouring and immersion are also recognized.

At Easter, a number of people were baptized at the creek. “It was freezing cold,” Rice says. The bikers rode their bikes back to the church afterward.

The church has grown to 138 members, with 30 to 40 percent either bikers or associated with bikers. Almost all are blue-collar or service sector workers. Several members are disabled.

Connecting with others

The church enjoys “enormous good will” with other United Methodist congregations, and the Western North Carolina has been “incredibly good to us,” Rice said. The conference funded the land and a large part of the purchase of the warehouse building, and it is helping Overrein and member Dwight Smith become local pastors.

Crossfire Church members hit the road.

Rice became interim pastor after the former pastor left last year, and was reappointed in June to a second year. It’s a ministry he performs without compensation. He also is director of rural ministry and community development for the conference and executive director of a conference-affiliated community development corporation.

The congregation has planted a church in Pennsylvania, and it is hoping to plant a biker church in West Virginia, Rice says. “Their heart is to replicate this ministry.”

The Crossfire members also have a heart for making disciples and doing mission work. They participated in a mission trip to Nicaragua and stay busy helping others – building ramps, cleaning yards, holding fundraisers for people in need, operating a food ministry. Last year, Rice says, the church gave 38 percent of its income for benevolent purposes.

Changed men

Rice says he does not have to struggle to be at ease with this congregation. "There’s no smugness from accumulated wealth or college degrees or family name. There is openness and a connection with other persons."

He says he has seen this group become less male dominant and accept people of other ethnicities as well. "This isn’t a homogeneous place." 

As a boot (rather than a collection plate) passes from person to person, Rice observes that these folks do a lot of generous things for one another and that he has seen a lot of change.

"Used to be, I thought I was a pretty bad guy," says biker Gary Steelman. "Now I don’t have to be that way."

Steelman is a large man, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and an American flag do-rag covering his hair. He still looks like a pretty bad guy, and that image is fine with him. But he has regrets about some things in his past. "Don’t we all?" he asks.

"Everybody has a need to feel they belong, where they’re accepted for who they are, where they are," Steelman says. "We don’t have to go down this road alone."

“Their heart is to replicate this ministry.”
– The Rev. Alan Rice

Overrein feels he’s come a long way himself. A few years ago, at the age of 52, he earned his high school diploma.

"If you met me six years ago, you wouldn’t like me," he says. "I had no patience. I had a lot of hate in my life––lost my dad at a young age. The brothers I rode with we probably did a couple things illegal, you know, but when it come to helping people out, you know, we help 'em."

The last guitar riff marks the end of the service. Folks spill out the door, milling about the bikes on the lawn, laughing and hugging. One Harley fires up, and then another, but no one is in a rush. Overrein’s wife, Lisa, gives the visitor some brownies for the road, and Overrein kicks his chopper to life and turns the high handle bars toward the highway.  

A tiny bell hangs from his rig behind the front wheel, just above the ground. It’s a leftover biker tradition to ward off the road demons. There seem to be fewer of those in Overrein’s life than there used to be.

Rice notes that none of the bikers believes the bell is effective. Today, they would say, "Big Daddy" looks over them. 

*Galin is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn. Additional information was provided by Tim Tanton, UMNS staff.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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