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Sturgis motorcycle rally brings harvest to small S.D. church

STURGIS, S.D. (BP)–While other churches were returning from summer mission trips to third-world countries in August, First Baptist Church in Sturgis, S.D., was just beginning to reach the world in its own backyard.

The 63rd-annual Black Hills Motorcycle Rally, held Aug. 4-10, brought in about half a million people to the small community, which has a population of about 6,000.

The overwhelming flux in population each August brings just as many ministry needs with it. This year, about 450,000 bikers and tourists from across the globe descended on the community for a week of bikes, racing, beer, music, gambling, food and frenzy. The weeklong event also rakes in about $13.1 million in taxable sales, as reported for 2002 on the rally’s website.

First Baptist Church pastor Roger Crowhurst said the event is a Mardi Gras for motorcyclists.

“It’s not for the squeamish,” he said, laughing, although soberly adding that the need for ministry is real.

“There are things that go on and sights that you have to be prayed up for,” he added, having participated in the event for 11 years. “I can’t imagine that Sodom and Gomorrah were worse in the evening hours.”

Each year, the 80 members of First Baptist reach out to the hurting and lost people who arrive on their doorstep. Last year, event organizers reported eight rally-related deaths, eight felony drug arrests, 111 misdemeanor drug arrests, 292 hospital visits, 250 arrests, and 1,119 calls to the county sheriff’s office. Figures for 2003 are not yet available.

“During this time of year, we’re given the Great Commission and told to go out to the highways and the hedge, but the mission field comes to us,” Crowhurst said. “You get a multitude of people here from all over the world. This year we ministered to people from the Middle East, the Far East and Europe. This is my 11th rally, and I’m still in awe of it.”

In previous years, the church distributed cups of water to the bikers with the plan of salvation written on a card in a ministry called Jacob’s Well. Because a city ordinance prohibits the distribution of Bibles or tracts in the street, the congregation handed out literature from the confines of their booth on the main street.

Realizing that more one-on-one interaction was needed with rally participants, Crowhurst set up a second booth for medical attention and counseling services. Church members who are registered nurses check bikers’ blood pressure and tend to minor cuts and sunburns. While being attended by church members, bikers are presented the plan of salvation and given spiritual help through counseling.

Church member Al Colton has attended First Baptist for almost 40 years. For the past 18 years, he has donated booth space to the church for Jacob’s Well and the counseling center.

“We got such a crowd [at the booth] that you don’t get to witness, so we’re in the process of changing so we can have an opportunity to sit down and counselors can share the Word with them,” Colton, 80, said, adding that bikers crowd the booth wanting the free water. “People come with all sorts of troubles and problems. We feel like our mission here is to share the Word and encourage them to get involved in their local church.”

Over the past 40 years, Colton said the demographic of rally participants has evolved from the stereotype of a Hells Angel biker.

“It’s a changing situation,” he said. “In the early 80s we had the hardcore bikers. Now we’re going more toward the ‘uppitys’ — the middle class people with $15,000-$20,000 bikes, compared to the old $300-$400 ones. We’re reaching a broader spectrum of the U.S. and the world.”

Although the face of a motorcyclist has changed throughout the years, the need for Jesus Christ in the life of the lost remains the same.

During a previous rally, an associate minister at First Baptist attempted to share the Gospel with a biker who was a member of an outlaw biker gang. The man was extremely hostile toward the minister and told him that “Christians were the weakest of people.”

A year later, the same man attended the rally, bringing with him a younger biker who was being initiated into the outlaw gang, Crowhurst said.

“During the week they were involved in a motorcycle accident and the kid was killed. His motorcycle slid under an oncoming van driven by a woman helping in Jacob’s Well,” Crowhurst recounted. “[The biker] was so bereaved that they were able to begin ministering to him, and he eventually made a profession of faith.”

As in the case of the outlaw biker, Crowhurst said the key challenge in presenting the Gospel to rally participants is “getting the door open to their hearts and not taking things personal.

“You may be trying to love someone to the Lord, and they may be resisting it to the point where they’ll blaspheme the Lord — in other words the door doesn’t seem very open,” he said.

Sharing the plan of salvation through one-on-one interaction with bikers is a key element in the church’s outreach strategy, Crowhurst said. Although beginning conversations with bikers can be intimidating, Crowhurst said finding common ground with the person helps to reveal an entry point.

“I like to use ‘Wow, that is a unique tattoo.’ Then they’ll start talking about that, and it usually opens a door to a spiritual conversation. Then they’ll ask you ‘What do you do?’ and I get to say ‘Well. I’m a pastor.'”

This year, about five professions of faith were recorded by First Baptist. The numbers, Crowhurst said, are not an emphasis at the church.

“We really emphasize not too much pressure on expecting people to accept everything you tell them or share with them,” Crowhurst said. “The last thing people who come to the rally are expecting is to find Jesus Christ.”

Another difficulty of the church’s outreach ministry is discipling new believers. Rally participants come from all corners of the earth, but all who make professions of faith are given Bibles and encouraged to find a local church.

While the church attempts to record contact information from those helped during the week, one segment of the rally demographic is assisted in secrecy. Women bikers who are involved in motorcycle gangs are often abused and abandoned in the frenzy of the weeklong merriment. Because they are considered the “property” of the gang, Crowhurst said, providing the emotionally and physically hurting women with safe lodging, medical care and a way home, poses a threat to the woman and the church.

“When we seek to help them, we have to cover up behind the scenes what we are doing,” Crowhurst said. “We hide them and house them until we can get them home — often there are people looking for these women.”

This year, a woman named Jane found herself on the doorstep of the church after being abandoned in the street by a gang.

“She had a horrid life story of sexual abuse in her own home and getting in this group with these guys considered to be an outlaw biker gang,” Crowhurst said. “She was beaten up and left behind when somebody brought her to us. Her needs were to get someplace safe.”

Jane was placed in a home and Crowhurst said “the people were just loving her to Christ — just going out of their way to show her Christ’s love.”

Before Jane left she made a profession of faith.

“To us that makes everything worth it if we get one case like that,” Crowhurst said. “She was delivered at our door.”

Jane’s story exemplifies the need for permanent outreach by a church during the rally event, Crowhurst said.

“A Christian can’t help but be burdened for what they see — a person that is hurting so badly that they have no respect for themselves or anyone else,” he said. “I think it might force a person to recognize that but for the grace of God, there go I. They’ve been blinded and have no one except you to share Jesus with them. A lot of Christians are really repulsed that this event takes place, and I can understand that. But I also recognize that if no one ministers to them, who will?”

In the coming years, Crowhurst hopes to expand the medical booth into a mini-triage center.

“We feel like Jacob’s Well has gone as far as it can go. We want to expand to another ministry of having a place where we can bring people in and they can sit down and get [increased] medical attention,” Crowhurst said, describing a “soul-care unit.”

Although First Baptist continues to minister to thousands each year, it’s own size remains relatively unaffected by the numbers that come to Christ.

“For us, the ultimate goal is to increase the kingdom,” Crowhurst said. “The idea is have a bigger perspective than increasing the church, but instead the overall church.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MISSION FIELD ON WHEELS.

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  • Melissa Deming