Riders for God: The Story of a Christian Motorcycle Gang

Riders for God: The Story of a Christian Motorcycle Gang

by Rich Remsberg

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Riders for God takes us into a world generally inaccessible to outsiders, one situated at the crossroads of two seemingly incongruous realms: motorcycle gangs and Spirit-filled Christianity.

Founded by a former biker and located in southern Indiana, the Unchained Gang is a group of former outlaw bikers, ex-convicts, and recovering addicts who are now

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Riders for God takes us into a world generally inaccessible to outsiders, one situated at the crossroads of two seemingly incongruous realms: motorcycle gangs and Spirit-filled Christianity.

Founded by a former biker and located in southern Indiana, the Unchained Gang is a group of former outlaw bikers, ex-convicts, and recovering addicts who are now born-again Christians. While they have given up drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and violence, they have kept their motorcycles--which they consider to be anointed--and use them as a tool in their witness of the word of God as they understand it. The Unchained Gang is an outreach ministry, going into prisons and jails, biker rallies, and other places where people on the fringe are often ignored by other churches and the rest of society.

Combining powerful photographic images with gang members' first-person testimonies, Rich Remsberg shows the ironic juxtaposition of tattoos, leather vests, and the iconography of the biker world with the Christian practices of Bible study, speaking in tongues, and praying at the altar. In an unobtrusive manner he explores the lives of these men and women who have redirected the extreme nature of their former ways. Through their own powerful stories, they explain how the addictions and uncontrollable violence that once shaped their lives have given way to dramatic worship and a zealous ministry.

An afterword by Colleen McDannell situates the Unchained Gang's interpretation of Christian living in the larger constellation of pentecostal, born-again, fundamentalist, and mainstream churches.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This intriguing though unpolished book collects the personal histories of members of the Unchained Gang, a Christian motorcycle gang based in Indiana in a largely biker Pentecostal church. In interviews with Remsberg, a former photo lab supervisor at the Indiana University School of Journalism, members tell of their secular lives, often recounting addictions, violence and self-destruction, and then detail their spiritual conversions and the subsequent difference God has made in their worlds. Illustrated by black-and-white photographs, the book offers a look at the two countercultural worlds of "outlaw bikers" and "Spirit-filled Christianity." It is most powerful in giving full voice to its subjects, who thus become real--people like Pastor Larry, who, after years of drug trafficking and alcohol abuse, is now president of the Unchained Gang. The book is weak, however, in connecting these voices to each other or to other significant questions. It is a series of vignettes, not a sociological study of motorcycle gangs or of Pentecostal Christianity. Only the afterword by Colleen McDannell, professor of religious studies at the University of Utah, contextualizes the Unchained Gang within the American religious landscape as a whole. While the narratives include Remsberg's interview questions as well as the engaging responses, it is never clear why he is asking these questions, why particular interviews are grouped together, or what their import might be. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Remsberg's story revolves around his experiences with the Unchained Gang, a Christian motorcycle group that does its missionary work at Indiana prisons and jails, biker rallies, and other places where people on the fringe are often ignored by church and society. Because Remsberg is neither a motorcyclist nor a Christian, his interest is journalistic. His perceptive skills enable him to fit inconspicuously into the group, and the reader benefits by feeling like a part of this gang--a unique world of bikers and zealous religious belief. In this interesting and accessible portrayal, Remsberg scrutinizes both the inside workings of the gang (combining 62 photographic images with interviews of gang members) and the people it encounters. The stories of those struggling to make sense of their lives offer great opportunities for reflection. Recommended for libraries staying current on American religions and human-interest stories.--Leroy Hommerding, Fort Myers Beach P.L. Dist., FL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
8.50(w) x 10.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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The question everyone asks is if I ride a motorcycle. No one asks if I am a Christian. The answer to both is no. My interest in this story was journalistic.

I had been peripherally aware of the Unchained Gang for a few years, noticing the patches on their vests at concerts, in traffic, and among the protesters at Planned Parenthood. Like many people in town, I became more aware of the gang in the summer of 1995 when they stepped into the heart of a controversy.

People's Park is on Kirkwood Avenue, the main drag through Bloomington, Indiana. It is a block west of the campus of Indiana University and one of the few places for teenagers to hang out in a town that revolves around college students. In the past few years there have been more homeless people, more drugs, and, if you believe the police, an explosion of gang activity.

The police maintained a presence, parking a squad car in the alley, sometimes stationing officers in the park. The park denizens didn't like it, although there was not much they could do about it. And there was some concern in the community about what was happening to downtown at night.

It was a manageable tension until the night of March 24, when the police came into the park, lined the approximately thirty people present against a wall, and conducted a pat-down search. The town quickly became polarized. Accusations were hurled in both directions, lawsuits were filed, and the letters to the editor column became a fire storm of emotion and constitutional principals.

That summer, as the town grew farther from any kind of reconciliation, the members of the Unchained Gang rodetheir motorcycles to the park. It was a Friday night, and they talked to the kids; more important, they were the first adults to listen to them.

"When we first got there, they thought that we were narcs and that we were there to rat them out," said Larry Mitchell, president of the Unchained Gang. "Then they thought that we were there to fight the police and that we were on their side. Then they thought that we were there to stamp out the wannabe gang members, that we were gonna come down there and bust some heads. Then they just decided that, well, they really are Jesus freaks!"

Made up primarily of former bikers and drug dealers, ex-convicts and recovering addicts, the Unchained Gang is an outreach ministry, going into Indiana prisons and jails, biker rallies, and other places where people on the fringe are ignored by other churches and the rest of society. Although they have given up alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and violence, they have kept their motorcycles and use them as a tool in the witness of the word of God.

I talked with Larry Mitchell on the telephone about taking photographs at the Ellettsville House of Prayer, a church affiliated with the Unchained Gang, where he is the pastor. He gave me directions, and when I asked what was appropriate dress he told me, "Come as you are."

* * *

When I began this project, I had a limited knowledge of bikers and their world. Growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of the usual mythology surrounding outlaw bikers. They were figures admired as the last true American rebels exiled on the literal and symbolic highways and feared as legions of savage animals fueled by violence, racism, and misogyny.

The legends were made up, I am sure, of a combination of truth, half-truths, exaggerations, generalizations, and lies. There were stories of initiation ceremonies where inductees were doused in buckets of urine and feces, as well as accounts of bar fights, gang rapes, white slavery, and fierce patriotism. Bikers were said to line their jeans with fishhooks in anticipation of police pat-downs, and they wore motorcycle drive-chains for belts. Doing so was consistent with their un bathed aesthetic; more important, the chains could quickly be unhooked and used as weapons. A strict code of behavior required unquestioning loyalty among their own, politeness and helpfulness to stranded motorists, and unspeakable retaliation to outsiders who deigned to offend bikers' sensibilities, especially by insulting a club's patch or "colors."

I remember a tavern in Virginia that had barred windows and a crudely hand-lettered cardboard sign on the door that read

No colors
No foul language
Limit two rings
on each hand.

Had I gone in, it probably would have been a disappointment. But I never did, and my imagination reeled. The Wagnerian possibilities that lay on the other side of that door grew in my mind over the years. "Heard melodies are sweet," the poet says. "Those unheard are sweeter still."

When I began hitchhiking around the country I encountered sonic real bikers, and I learned more about that world from two important books: Danny Lyon's The Bikeriders and Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels.

Photographing this relatively new phenomenon, Lyon sought to make a "personal record" of motorcycle riders he knew. He also was interested in the power and freedom central to the tragic-biker image. "If anything has guided this work beyond the facts of the worlds presented," he wrote in the introduction to his 1968 book, "it is what I have come to believe is the spirit of the bikeriders: the spirit of the hand that twists open the throttle on the crackling engines of the big bikes and rides them on racetracks or through traffic or, on occasion, into oblivion."

In Hell's Angels, Hunter Thompson confirms many of the widely held beliefs and fears about bikers and distinguishes them from paranoia. He describes that particular club as riding "with a fine unwashed arrogance, secure in their reputation as the rottenest motorcycle gang in the whole history of Christendom." He also clarifies some important distinctions in the biker world, such as the differences among the archetypal Hell's Angels, the more law-abiding and sportsmanlike American Motorcycle Association, other one-percenters (the baddest of the bad, the "1 percent" of motorcyclists shunned by the AMA), some less menacing outlaw clubs, and plain old biker trash.

When I began this project, I knew even less about Christianity than I did about bikers. When I was a child, my family was not observant of any faith. The bulk of my minimal religious experience came through my extended family—Jewish on my mother's side, Methodist and Presbyterian on my father's—and television evangelists in whom I found a horrid and immature fascination in high school. In college, and again through hitchhiking, I met a number of born-again Christians, but my interactions with them did not add up to much more than a vague notion of what being born again meant.

More than anything, what attracted me to this topic was Russell Lee's Farm Security Administration photograph of three hymn-singing women in Pie Town, New Mexico. It is one of the better known photos from that era, and it has always affected me emotionally and deeply. Perhaps it is because I could not explain why the image moved me so strongly that I set out to do a project on Christianity.

* * *

The fundamental purpose of social-documentary photography, since its beginnings, has been to bear witness to what is otherwise inaccessible. Entering the domain of the Unchained Gang, I found two such hidden worlds, that of outlaw bikers and Spirit-filled Christianity.

Gaining entree to the Unchained Gang's world was occasionally difficult; for the most part, it required patience and respect and sometimes a shared sense of humor.

Much of the first three months of the project was spent getting used to each other. These are people who believe that actions are caused either by God or by the devil, and they needed time to discern which was responsible for my presence.

I took relatively few pictures during this time, although I always carried my camera to be honest about my reasons for being there. When I did take pictures, I tried to learn where the boundaries were. How close could I photograph someone while he or she was praying at the altar? How close when people were "slain in the Spirit"? Who was more uncomfortable being photographed and why? On the several occasions that I was asked to stop photographing—before they knew me or when there were guests at the church—I complied.

The bikers and others in the church had a lot of questions for me. Most had to do with my spiritual beliefs and religious background, and I was often asked what I thought of the church. The resulting discussions ranged from brief pleasantries in church to deeper and more intimate late-night conversations around the campfire when we were on the road.

Although my salvation was, and remains, a serious concern for all of them, they were seldom heavy-handed or belligerent about the matter the way evangelizing Christians can often be. There were exceptions to be sure, and awkward ones at that, but these people remember where they came from and know what it's like to be on the other end of the witnessing. "Our job isn't to clean the fish," Paul told me over a cup of coffee. "Our job is to catch the fish. God can take care of the rest."

Another important means of gaining their trust was conducting interviews. This provided me with a better understanding of the bikers' lives as well as an opportunity for them to see that I was not there to ridicule them and that I was genuinely interested in what they had to say.

Most of the text that appears in this book is taken from transcriptions of these taped interviews. While I have removed most of my questions for literary impact, the bikers' words are direct quotes, although they have been edited for length. The interviews were conducted in their homes, at restaurants, at the church, and while driving. I usually tried to speak only when necessary and asked questions that grew from my curiosity or from questions that others had asked me about the gang. When a comment was made that I thought to be incredible, I sometimes challenged it; at other times I let it pass, feeling the statement reflected a worldview or an idea more important than factual accuracy.

A number of interviewees made serious accusations, including parental negligence and being raped by another member of the gang. Some implicated others in criminal situations that were impossible to verify. In many of these cases, some statements have been excluded, as have identifying characteristics, and sometimes names have been changed.

After the first few months, the Unchained Gang and the congregation at the House of Prayer grew more comfortable with me, I with them, and the photographing moved with greater facility. Still, there were always obstacles: new people joining the group, the presence of people outside the group (especially bikers who might have pretty good reason for not wanting to have their pictures taken), the legalities of photographing at a prison, and so forth.

I found photographing their worship to be extremely difficult, particularly at the altar. Even when i was filled with energy, concentration, and purpose, I almost always felt clumsy and intrusive, although the worshippers had a variety of reactions to my presence. Some, after particularly powerful prayer, asked me for photos of the experience. Others disliked being photographed but felt it was important to allow God to be glorified in that way. A few asked me, sometimes through tears, to stop photographing and said that I had gone too far, gotten too close. The very hardest aspect of this project was to face someone whose worship I had interrupted after the service, apologize, and return to the same situation the following Sunday.

I am sometimes asked if there were circumstances when I felt it was more appropriate to put my camera away and not take pictures. Such occasions do occur, but I didn't experience them during this project, which is not to say I didn't sometimes go too far. In a difficult situation it is a great temptation to not take a photograph, and although I always tried to be sensitive to potential delicacy, I made a tremendous effort not to fall back on this as an excuse.

There were other instances that were tough to shoot. Certainly one of them was photographing Paul visiting the shell of his father in the nursing home. Another time, the gang met and talked for a while with a woman in a restaurant parking lot who sobbed uncontrollably as she explained, essentially, how God had told her to kill her dogs. It was obviously a very serious and personal matter for this woman. I thought she was crazy and vulnerable, and she recognized me as a foreigner. I wasn't sure I had any place there at all, let alone walking around the circle of Christians and getting shots from different angles, however respectful I might have been.

At Bike Week in Daytona, Chris and Sparky got into a number of verbal fights, the most explosive of which was several yards away from me. When Chris asked me afterward if I had photographed the altercation, I acknowledged that I had. He seemed upset for only a moment. Then, I believe, he understood what has guided me through this story all along.

The bikers place a tremendous importance on their "witness." The notion of a witness resonates beautifully for photography, and, like that of the Christians, it is a matter of telling the truth as one sees it. Truth is truth, even when it is difficult or not immediately understood. Perhaps I should say especially when it is difficult or not immediately understood. It should never be necessary to misrepresent or pull back, only to give consideration to how and when and where to tell an important story.

The structure of this book reflects the structure of my getting to know the group. At first I saw only the ironic juxtaposition of outlaw bikers and Christianity and their startlingly dramatic worship. To my eyes, it was strange and without context.

Every foreign world has its own depth and integrity. But where does one start to understand the unfamiliar? In this case I started with curiosity and showing up. After spending time with the group and the individuals in it, and by observing and asking questions, I learned more about the bikers' pasts, recognized the importance of the group dynamic, and saw how they incorporated their beliefs into the world outside the church. In short, I grew to understand their world and started to make connections that the people had made and integrated in their lives.

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