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Sturgis bike rally volunteers move into ‘devil’s playground’

STURGIS, S.D. (BP) — Closer to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally’s bar scene and with an extra three-hour nightly shift, Baptist volunteers nearly tripled the professions of faith recorded last year.

The Dakota Baptist Convention-led outreach — with its popular giveaway of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle — gave 120 volunteers from at least 20 states and Canada 3,654 opportunities to share three-minute testimonies, up from 2,141 last year, leading to professions of faith by 513 people, up from 178 in 2013.

“It was a wise decision that Garvon [Golden, DBC executive director] had, to move locations,” said Buck Hill, the convention’s missions director. “It put us deeper into the jungle, into the devil’s playground.”

This was the ninth year for the intentional evangelism ministry in which “catchers” encourage passers-by to enter an oversized venue to listen to one of the “witnesses” tell about how life changed since the volunteer came to know Jesus Christ personally. The pivotal question: “Has anything like this ever happened to you?”

The reward for listening: a chance to win a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

In previous years, the DBC’s evangelism tent was on a corner lot on Main Street across from the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and about four blocks from the center of the bar scene. This year it was indoors, one of several “vendors” under one roof. The others: a tattoo parlor, leather goods sales and the like.

Its location was strategic — across the street from a liquor store and adjacent to a bowling alley that becomes a party hub when the small town of about 6,600 residents hosts nearly a half-million bikers, wannabes and gawkers for what this year was the 74th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Less than two blocks from the evangelism venue were two of the biggest drinking establishments in Sturgis.

The majority of the rally activity extends about six blocks down each of three streets in the center of Sturgis.

“Just to show the impact we have, one guy came to us showing a faded and wrinkled playing card that we hand out, with the plan of salvation on one side and a prayer asking Jesus to be the boss of their life,” Hill said. “He asked for a new card, saying he prayed that prayer every day, and one of the volunteers asked him if he had ever made the decision to put his life in Jesus’ hands. This year he didn’t just pray the prayer; he prayed to receive Christ.

“Another guy came in with a worn-out token,” Hill continued, referring to a round token about the size of a half-dollar that had Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2011 on one side and two websites on the other for follow up, www.sturgosbikegiveaway and www.whatsnext.com. We haven’t given them out for a couple of years. It was so faded from him rubbing it that you could hardly read the words on it anymore. That token was so important to him that he found us in the new location, just to get a fresh one.”

The stories ticked off Hill’s tongue.

“A guy who got saved early in the week brought his brother back later in the week,” the DBC missions leader recounted. “But the best story happened three times. We did a 7-10 p.m. shift this year because we knew we’d be more in the bar scene. One night nothing was happening, and about 10 minutes to 10 I said to Morgan [Medford, Dakota’s church planting catalyst], ‘Let’s wrap it up.’ But Morgan said, ‘Let’s wait a few minutes.’

“At straight-up 10 p.m., three people prayed to receive Christ,” Hill said. “The next night, the situation was reversed. It was raining and no one was out at 9 p.m., and Morgan said, ‘Let’s go.’ We were exhausted. We [Hill, Medford and volunteer Bob Clardy of South Carolina] hadn’t had more than six hours’ sleep for 10 nights in a row, and most nights it was four or five.

“But I said, ‘No, let’s wait a few minutes,’ and literally we were shutting up the tent and people were still coming in. One got saved at 5 after 10. Each night it seemed like right at 10 p.m., people were getting saved,” Hill said. “Friday night, it was 10 after 10. The catcher had told the guy we were closed but Bob [Clardy] said, ‘Let him come in.’ After he prayed to receive Christ, Bob was in tears. ‘What if I’d said no, that we were closed,’ Bob said.

“Ultimately we realized we were trying to dictate the time God could work, instead of letting God dictate it,” Hill reflected. “It was more of a spiritual battle this year than I’ve experienced the last couple of years.”

In addition to the “catchers” and “witnesses,” other volunteers assist in a variety of related tasks, including chaplains who minister to the nearly 1,000 vendors, city employees who handle the daily 55 tons of trash collected, police and fire personnel; shuttle bus drivers who transport volunteers to and from area churches where they bunk for the week and; church site workers who minister to the volunteers; and those who keep ice on hand to keep water cold for the volunteers.

Chris Riddick of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia convention, which partners with the Dakota Baptist Convention was one who served in a support role, writing a database program that will enable Southern Baptists across the nation to follow up with the names of those who made professions of faith in Sturgis.

“Each evening I was logging in around 65 names — names that were forever changed; names that would go back to their friends and family and share how God’s love was changing them,” Riddick wrote on his personal blog. “Some names would bring back their children and others to the tent so that they could hear the stories of how Christ changes lives and gives purpose.

“I heard that one stopped caring about the bike giveaway altogether and walked away saying he had received so much more than the value of a free Harley,” Riddick continued. “We made sure he was still entered.

“The stories I heard each day of people being connected to a volunteer who had been through very similar tragedies were nothing short of miraculous,” Riddick blogged. “Cancer survivors. Substance abusers. Broken homes. The abused. Military veterans who’d served in the same regiments. I sat back and watched a beautiful puzzle being assembled with pieces that were created and distributed around the globe decades ago.”

Among those who made professions of faith were people from 41 states, five provinces in Canada and one from Australia.

Two volunteers returning to Virginia — Dallas Mills and Norman Booze — were in the midst of a pack of motorcycles in West Virginia when Mills’ bike went down and Booze’s bike hit it. Mills had torn rib cartilage, broken bones and a totaled motorcycle. Booze, meanwhile, was uninjured and his bike was not seriously damaged.

It was only the second accident involving volunteers over the nine years of the evangelism ministry at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Larry Gibson of Wilsonville, Ala., was killed on a road trip in Wyoming on his way home from the rally in 2011.

Plans are already being made for the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally during the first week of August 2015 and the 10th annual intentional evangelism ministry.

A million or more attendees are anticipated, according to various news reports. At least 200 volunteers will be needed for the evangelism outreach, Hill said. Registration forms are available on the ministry’s website: www.sturgisbikegiveaway.com after January 2015, but check out the Sturgis Bike Giveaway Facebook page for updates during the rest of this year.
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).