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Baptist bikers distribute toys to children’s hospital & homes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–After a simple prayer in the shadow of the towering Gaylord Entertainment Center on the fringes of the city’s tavern district, FAITH Riders ministry made a convoy nearly three blocks long on their latest ride of mercy.

Motorcycle riders roared past the ramps to I-40 from downtown Nashville, Tenn., pierced a shallow layer of commercial development, and entered a mystical land, part retreat but mostly a 206-bed hospital that treats children.

Among the riders who contributed a flatbed of toys for the children was petite but tough Michele Newsome, 45, a 5’6″ detective from Lakeland, Fla. She was in town to participate in Crossover Nashville and other evangelistic activities held in conjunction with the June 21-22 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. She rides a Harley Road King, the special edition available only to peace officers, which can include a bangle here and a doodad there.

It’s her third bike in less than a year. She took to motorcycling and traded up to the comfort of a big bike with the enthusiasm that comes with the passion of a new sport and a ministry that puts the wind in your face and a psalm in your heart.

Newsome slides off her blue bike and removes her black helmet, decorated with a halo of FAITH Riders emblems. She’s not wearing much make-up, her hair is cut in a bit of a shag, two silver earrings adorn her face and a ring with a series of crosses flashes on her right hand. Like the other riders, she’s in blue jeans, black boots and a metal-studded Harley-Davidson belt — but her T-shirt is unlike the others. Hers is pink and sports the ministry’s Harley-shaped winged logo with a cross blazing from an American flag.

Nearly 100 FAITH Riders visited the hospital to donate toys and ate lunch in the food court. They didn’t meet any patients but had a chance to see the undulating ceiling fixtures and spinning butterflies and feel the calm of a water motif that architects work so hard to make real. The stress the riders felt from the long ride from several states, including their headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., eased as a curly-haired poet played a classical guitar. The group heard the stories of children in pain and knew gifts of Spiderman replicas, Etch-O-Sketches and stuffed animals may help ease the suffering.

“This donation of toys was the first one made by bikers for 2005,” said Stephanie Vandyke, director of volunteer services at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. “Gifts come in almost daily and include toys, blankets and food.”

The hospital uses the toys to help patients celebrate birthdays. In some cases, the gifts help a child capture normal childhood moments that are often lost by being in a hospital. Vandyke told of a time when her crew simulated a kindergarten graduation for a child who had to miss hers.

During a tour of the building, the group took turns holding the banisters on a circular staircase with banisters built at different heights, one for tiny children, one for taller children and the conventional rail for adults.

At one point Newsome grew pale sitting in a garden near a Koi fishpond decorated with Jane DeDecker’s life-size bronze sculpture, “Cutouts,” of a carefree girl making paper dolls.

“I was thinking about my sweetie, Brandy, my daughter, 19,” Newsome sighed, listing facts like the veteran police officer she is. She also thought of the child abuse she investigates and those who hurt little children who end up in a hospital.

“Vanderbilt is so child-friendly,” Newsome said, the color already back in her face and her brown eyes ready to share her journey to ministry she began with her husband, Buddy at Lakeland’s First Baptist Church at the Mall. On July 4, Buddy will celebrate his birthday and the Newsomes will celebrate nine years of marriage.

The marriage is Buddy’s fourth, Michele’s third. Even when they went to counseling in the early stages of their union, the hope that the relationship would last seemed dim.

“But God had a plan,” Michele said. Before long, both Newsomes found redemption, and Michele was baptized in December 1999. Then Dave McClamma, associate pastor at FBC at the Mall and a Harley enthusiast, encouraged the Newsomes to ride with a small group of motorcyclists on outings. FAITH Riders was launched in February 2002, and now the Newsomes are responsible for a group spanning several states.

“If we hadn’t had those problems, God wouldn’t have gotten our attention,” Michele said. “Through it, He birthed this motorcycle ministry.”

On the first day of the two-day SBC annual meeting, FAITH Riders had a busy day. First they witnessed to representatives of Soul Force, a homosexual advocacy group protesting the event, and by late afternoon, they hopped on their bikes for a ride to a children’s home to distribute about 200 more toys.

About 20 FAITH Riders rode to the Brentwood campus of the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, where they quickly unloaded a trailer full of toys and balloons.

Fourteen shiny, chrome-laden bikes stood at attention a few yards away from 17 children who were clustered around an orange-shirted rider giving out stickers proclaiming Jesus as the only way to God.

With shiny brown eyes sparkling in anticipation, a redheaded girl clasped her hands in excitement.

“I love motorcycles,” Sylena whispered. “Are we going to get to ride?”

Inside, the FAITH Riders created a menagerie of balloon animals and handed them to excited children zipping around one of 10 cottages that house 35 children on 45 acres.

“It’s just really good to put a smile on their faces, at least for a day, because they probably don’t have much joy in their lives,” said Debbie Jacobs, a FAITH Rider from FBC at the Mall.

Later, children raced through the linoleum-floored clubhouse, dodging metal folding chairs and tossing beach balls to the bikers in a chaotic swarm while Mary Ann Cupples, a houseparent, watched.

Cupples, a long-time employee of the home, said the ministry is important to her because it allows her to share Christ with children who would otherwise be shuffled aside.

The children eventually quieted down to listen as David Burton, director of the evangelism division for the Florida Baptist Convention, entertained them with a number-guessing game and a card trick.

Pulling out an EvangeCube the size of a soccer ball, Burton shared the Gospel message. With every eye closed and every head bowed, Burton asked if anyone wanted to receive Christ. Two children, Caitlin and Tyler, stood up to announce their decision.

“To reach kids sometimes you have to act like a kid,” said Mike Jacobs, who rode in with his wife, Debbie.

Children like Candace, who appeared disinterested at first, grew animated at the prospect of riding one of the big Hondas or Harleys.

Tyler, 8, who stood earlier at Burton’s invitation, brought out his own pint-sized, electric “motorcycle,” with which he wore a helmet. Then he got to ride the bigger bike.

“This is great!” Tyler yelled as he got off after his first ride. “I love it!”

Most of the children, like Tyler, were on tiptoes waiting to ride with one of the FAITH Riders, but Natasha had tears running down her cheeks. Her houseparents said she was afraid of nearly everything, including the noise and hot pipes on the bikes.

Natasha finally hopped on the back of a bike with a FAITH Rider after she saw how much fun her friends were having. Burton called out names like a “Motocross” announcer over his truck’s PA system.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Natasha said, even before the bike started moving. “You can’t go more than three miles an hour, because that’s the speed limit.”

From the crowd of children on the sidelines, someone yelled: “No it’s not, it’s 15!”

But once she started riding, Natasha didn’t care how fast she went. Three rounds later she was dancing in her seat to the music coming from her helmet, eager for another go-round.

“The children at that home … had an adult let them down [at some point in life],” Debbie Jacobs said. “… [T]hey were put on a motorcycle and they had to trust that adult to bring them back safe … It was a little step forward.”

Danny Moats, FAITH Riders’ chaplain, said motorcycles made it easy to connect with and build trust between the children and adults.

“Before it was over, a good part of them came up and hugged us and thanked us,” Moats said. “It was good for them to have people, total strangers, come in and not only show them love, but to tell them they loved them too.”

Later, standing beside Burton’s “Fat Boy” in the exhibition hall at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, the FAITH Riders guarding the display where SBC President Bobby Welch’s “Everyone Can” tour bus sat were still excited about their visit to the home.

“That was probably the highlight of my whole experience [at the SBC], working with those young kids,” Mike Jacobs said. “… You don’t ever get over that soft spot for young ones, especially those like that, with no mother or father.”

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  • Michael Ray Smith & Eva Wolever