STURGIS, S.D. (BP)–Main Street in Sturgis, S.D., the first week of August each year becomes a sea of motorcycles parked row upon row, block upon block, restrained only by sidewalks lined with vendor booths selling everything from t-shirts to tattoos, and filled with people from around the world wearing “do-rags” (bandanas), ripped jeans, leather and Harley Davidson t-shirts.
It’s a massive “party” known worldwide as “Sturgis,” which brings up to a half-million people to the Black Hills for a week of motorcycle competitions –- a far bigger crowd than virtually any sporting event in the world. This year’s rally began Aug. 6 and runs through Aug. 12.
The rumbling procession of big bad Harleys and Harley wannabes entering one end of Main Street can be deafening, drowning out most conversations. At the other end of Main, volunteers at the Dakota Baptist Convention’s evangelism booth call out to people walking by, offering them a chance to win the gleaming black 2007 Harley Dyna Glide parked on the sidewalk.
“Have you guys signed up yet? Get a free ticket for the drawing,” a volunteer said to two burly bikers walking by. “Seriously, we’re giving this bike away on Friday.”
What do they have to do to get a free ticket? Give up three minutes of their time and listen to a person give his or her Christian testimony. In the first four days of Sturgis this year, 2,643 people listened to a three-minute Gospel presentation at Dakota’s evangelism booth. Of those, 404 made professions of faith.
Daniel Buie, 29, was one of those.
Buie and his fiancé rode their bike from Gardner, Kan., to Sturgis expecting, they said, to have a “good time, meet good people and see the beautiful country.” They did not expect to hear Russell Evitt tell his story.
As Daniel and his fiancée strolled down Main Street, looking at the bikes and the people, they passed the sign at the Dakota evangelism booth that said, “Bike Giveaway.” Giving it a cursory glance they walked on by. But something compelled Daniel to turn around and walk by the booth again.
As they passed the sign for the second time, a volunteer standing at the edge of the booth cried out, “Bike Giveaway! It will take just three minutes of your time!” Buie decided to do it.
At the booth, Buie and others like him listen to a volunteer share Christ for three minutes. At the end of that time the listener may ask more questions or they may simply say, “OK –- let me fill out that ticket!”
Daniel and Kelly allowed themselves to be drawn under a hot, noisy booth as volunteers shared testimonies with people from all across the country. They were introduced to Russell Evitt, a deacon at First Baptist Church in Williston, N.D.
As Evitt shared his testimony of how Jesus Christ makes a difference in his life, Evitt said later, he looked into Buie’s eyes and knew: “He got it!”
Evitt asked if they wanted to invite Jesus Christ into their lives, and Buie said yes.
“Russell didn’t tell me anything new,” Buie said with tears running down his cheeks. “Others have told me about the same thing, but today, today, he got to me; he connected with me. Today, I got it!”
For the past 67 years -– it started in 1938 but didn’t meet during two of the World War II years because of gasoline rationing -– Sturgis has been the site of the biggest motorcycle rally in the nation. Attendees nearly double the state’s population during the first week in August. By people coming early to secure accommodations, and staying on to enjoy the beauty of the area that includes Mount Rushmore, Sturgis has grown to encompass nearly a month.
In 2006, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally also became the site of the Sturgis Motorcycle Evangelism Ministry, a cooperative venture of the Dakota Baptist Convention, other state conventions — this year Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Florida participated — and the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. The Georgia Baptist Convention this year footed the bill for the booth space.
“We’re just thankful we have the funds to share in Dakota’s vision,” said Phil Pilgrim, a regional missionary with the Georgia Baptist Convention, and an 11-year-member of the Christian Motorcycle Association.
Pilgrim leads training of volunteers in “biker culture” at 8 a.m. each morning. Ronnie Hill, an evangelist from Texas, leads training in “sharing your testimony.”
“Bikers are sort of a forgotten or ignored segment of our society,” Pilgrim said. “We like to win pretty people. People with long straggly hair and tattoos … most church people are actually afraid of those kinds of people and will not go out in the field, but it’s a field that’s ready to harvest.”
The strategy of the evangelism ministry has been to train volunteers to give a three-minute testimony of how receiving Christ has changed their lives. Last year during the entire rally, 2,124 people listened to a Gospel presentation with 744 individuals praying to receive Christ.
“I always wanted to come to Sturgis when I used to ride [a motorcycle],” said volunteer Louise Griffith of Bakersfield, Calif. “I never thought I’d be here on behalf of Christ.”
Jedidiah Caldwell, a 17 year old from Purcellville, Va., led at least a dozen people to the Lord, and at midweek showed no signs of slowing down.
“I came out here to witness to other people, but I found out you get witnessed to,” Caldwell said.
One person who stopped at the booth was a pastor.
“He pointed out a Scripture to me that said go out and talk with strangers, because you might meet the face of an angel,” Caldwell said. “That verse has stuck with me; I’m going to carry that out with me.”
Stan Bricker, a member at Black Hills Baptist Church in Whitewood, S.D., where volunteers were trained each morning before going into Sturgis, participated in the Sturgis ministry for the first time this year.
“For 21 years, I’d never come to downtown Sturgis during the rally,” Bricker said. “This year God gave me a reason to be here. I’ve prayed with 17 people to receive Christ.
“It’s real,” he said. “You see guys I normally would have written off if I had seen them out on the street -– you see their eyes tearing up as you pray and then thanking you for telling them. You see the rebirth happen in front of your eyes in three minutes.”
Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention and a former hard-core biker, said the ministry booth changes both Christian and non-Christian alike.
“People never come to Sturgis thinking they’re going to meet Jesus,” Hamilton said. “But when they walk by the tent sometimes something just draws them in. They don’t understand what it is, but they get in here and hear someone’s story about how Jesus saved them, and He does the same for them, [the biker.]
“Often people never think about Jesus at Sturgis, but I guarantee you,” Hamilton said. “Jesus is here at Sturgis.”
Debra Hanson is a regional reporter for the Dakota Baptist newspaper. John Guillott contributed to this article.