MILWAUKEE -- It’s sometimes a strange mix of bikes, beer and God, but for thousands of motorcyclists, annual bike blessings are a rite of spring and a start to the riding season.
One of the oldest and biggest events takes place every year in Oak Creek, Wis., where, one at a time, about 4,000 bikers share a brief spiritual moment with one of three Christian pastors.
As they roll up on their bikes to be blessed, some riders wear crucifixes and treat the moment with reverence. Others barely turn down the music that’s blasting from their motorcycle’s stereo.
“Some are the salt of the earth, and others need a little more salt. But it’s been a good experience,” said one of the pastors, the Rev. Allen Bramstadt of Divine Savior Lutheran Church in North Fond du Lac, Wis.
Wisconsin is motorcycle country. Harley-Davidson has its headquarters in Milwaukee.
There was free beer at the biker rally and blessing in Oak Creek, held at the VFW Post last Sunday.
Some Christians would have viewed that as disrespectful, especially if there was a lot of drinking going on while bikers were asking God for protection before hitting the road.
The pastors said they didn’t mind, as long as the drinking didn’t get out of control.
Without the beer, some bikers might not have shown up, blessing or not.
“Many times a few adult beverages help people to relax. Sometimes it makes them more amenable to the message we’re trying to get across,” Bramstadt said.
That message, delivered over the handlebars of each rider in a minute or so, went something like this:
“May the good Lord watch over you, and may he give you his guidance, protection and care. May God ride by your side and bring you home safe to your loved ones.”
Some riders take the message to heart and return to the same pastor, year after year, for their annual blessing.
“I work with all kinds of people and have never found a group more appreciative or more loving than the bikers. They are really good folks,” said the Rev. Marvin Ahlborn, retired from Trinity Lutheran Church in Oshkosh.
Many bikers are rugged individualists, but they have big hearts, said the Rev. Greg Koepsell with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oshkosh.
“Some of the nicest people you meet are covered in leather and tattoos. They would have your back no matter what,” Koepsell said.
Ahlborn has been doing bike blessings in Oak Creek for nearly 30 years, almost since the event was started by the Roadrunners motorcycle club in the 1980s.
Even if they don’t remember his name, bikers easily recognize him as the big guy, dressed in black, wearing a straw hat.
Over the years, he’s prayed for people on the spot, listened to their deepest concerns and has forged relationships that have lasted decades.
The bike blessings, he said, are an opportunity to connect with some people who might never set foot in a church building.
“It’s like going out to where the people are, which is what the early Christian church did,” Ahlborn said.
He’s there to spread the Gospel as well as ask God for protection over the riders.
“I tell them that everybody needs Jesus. I am a Christian, and I make no bones about that,” he said.
Bikers have thanked the pastors for the blessing that they believe has kept them safe.
Some have walked away from horrible crashes where it seemed almost certain they would have been killed.
“I say drop to your knees and thank God,” Ahlborn said.
There’s something spiritual about riding a motorcycle on the open highway, soaking up things around you that would be blocked from your senses in a car.
“It draws you closer to God’s creation. You are much more sensitive to it,” said the Rev. Lee Downey, with Six Seasons Motorcycle Ministry in northern Wisconsin.
Downey has done many bike blessings over the years.
“But from God’s point of view, it’s just a mode of transportation. He’s interested in the individuals riding, and we are also,” Downey said.
For centuries there have been blessing events for everything from fishing fleets to soldiers headed into battle.
Father Fred Zagone at Marquette University said he's blessed cars, boats and bicycles, but never a motorcycle.
“We pray that people may travel in safety, that they may care for others and be respectful of other riders and drivers, and that they always have Christ as their companion on their journey,” Zagone said.