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Baltimore Co. church members revved up for biker outreach effort

After a traditional Christian service Sunday, the Rev. Terrence Alspaugh stepped outside his historic stone church and faced a collection of motorcycles.

The congregation of this little church by the Baltimore County woods formed a circle. They bowed their heads. "May your bike be free from mechanical failure," Alspaugh prayed.

Wait. What?

Alspaugh, pastor at Granite Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, was holding a service he calls the Biker Blessings & Bread Sunday, an effort to minister to motorcyclists nearby and throughout the state. The preacher invited bikers to the church — about a half-dozen attended — and afterward, the congregation passed out bread at a local bar where a biker party was planned.

"I told the congregation, 'You all need to understand something,'" Alspaugh said. "Out there in the world nowadays, Christians are seen as being every bit as strange or alien as bikers might be. ... This is to let bikers see that we're regular people, that we're welcoming, ordinary people, too."

Christians have long been called upon to spread church teachings to various pockets of society, he noted. Jesus ministered to the prostitutes and tax-collectors. But bikers? With their leather jackets and skull patches, they don't seem to be church-going types, right?

Not so, Alspaugh said. There are dozens of Christian motorcycle clubs across the U.S. The Christian Motorcyclists Association, for instance, has 11 chapters in Maryland. Some members of the Redeemed Riders, of Gaithersburg, made the trip to Granite for Sunday's service.

One biker, Val Tourtlotte, said she was glad to be invited. Bikers, even non-church-goers, welcome blessings on their bikes. Too many dangerous things can happen on the roads not to want a little help out there, she said.

She and her husband, Al, smiled and shook hands with members of the Granite church. Al wore patches on his jacket that said, "Legalize Freedom" and "Jesus."

"There is a stereotype" about bike gangs, Val Tourtlotte acknowledged. "There's a little bit of preconceived notions. We try to allay their fears. We say, 'Hey, look. We're Christians who happen to love riding.'"

In recent decades, churches across America have carried out Blessings of the Bikes ceremonies. One church in Colebrook, N.H., has held such an event for more than 30 years. There are regular blessings in Ohio, Illinois, Louisiana and Chicago.

In June, 35,000 bikers descended on the Vatican in Rome to mark the 110th anniversary of the Harley-Davidson Co. and received a blessing from the Pope.

Alspaugh said he ran the idea of inviting bikers to worship past church elders and it was met with nothing but enthusiasm. "I've had no pushback whatsoever," he said.

One congregant, Jackie Brown, an information technology manager from Granite, said it was "fantastic" that motorcyclists traveled from different counties to attend the service.

"I was a little skeptical that some would come," she said. "I'm really impressed."

Brown said she understands the desire to bless the bikes, because a family friend recently died in a motorcycle crash. "You just don't know what going to happen," she said.

At the nearby Woodstock Inn, which was hosting a bike festival, church members were instructed to pass out free bread, inviting bikers to the church. Alspaugh said he wanted no formal evangelizing.

"It's throwing out seeds of faith, hoping some will take root," Alspaugh said. "We'll put the situation in God's hands. If there's any growing to be done, he'll do it."

One biker, George Harvey — a 52-year-old member of the Christian Motorcyclists Association from Montgomery County — said he's learned a lot through his years of riding.

"When I was 24, I was one of those kids you see doing 100 mph on the beltway," he said. "I've gotten a little bit wiser now."

So for Harvey and his younger compatriots, Alspaugh's prayer had significance.

"May the highways and byways be clear and free from debris, potholes, slippery surfaces and other dangerous road, traffic, and weather conditions," the pastor said. "May you be visible to all drivers, and may motorists and motorcyclists share the road safely and courteously, respecting the rights and privileges of all on the road."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.

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