Help wanted at Sturgis biker rally

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Wednesday, May 23, 2007 (12 years ago)

STURGIS, S.D. (BP)--Dangle the possibility of winning a high-dollar Harley in front of people decked in black leather and strapped with an abundance of clanking chain, and what do you get?

New Christians, Dakota Baptists found out last year.

In a first-ever venture for the state convention, Dakota Baptists rented booth space on a busy street at the massive Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in 2006 and offered the 400,000-plus visitors a chance to win a new Harley-Davidson limited-edition motorcycle. All they had to do was to listen to a three-minute Gospel presentation and they could put in their name for a chance to win a pristine white Harley.

When the dust settled, about 2,500 people had been willing to listen to the Gospel, and 744 of them made a profession of faith.

"The Dakotas never saw this kind of harvest in one week before," said Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention, which includes both North and South Dakota. "Few places in the United States see that kind of harvest. God really blessed the effort."

Dakota Baptists sent to each person who made a profession of faith a Bible, discipleship book for new believers and a letter encouraging them to immediately connect with a church home. They also followed up with those who lived in North and South Dakota. Names and contact information from people in other states were sent to the North American Mission Board's evangelism response center to pass on to churches near the new believers' homes.

To do it again this year, Dakota Baptists need at least 60 volunteers a day from Aug. 4-10 to share the three-minute Gospel presentation and at least one prayer team each day in Sturgis for the 30 days before the rally, said Garvon Golden, evangelism team leader for the Dakota convention.

"Our booth this year is going to be on historic Main Street," Golden said. "We're anticipating 100,000 people a day coming by our booth."

To put this in context, the Kentucky Derby draws maybe 160,000 people. NASCAR races? Maybe 150,000. And the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia? Not quite 200,000.

With an attendance expected to approach a half-million, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is the world's largest motorcycle event. What started in 1938 as spirited competition between the owner of an Indian motorcycle franchise in Sturgis and a rival in Rapid City some 25 miles south grew by the mid-1960s into the late summer destination of Hell's Angels, Brotherhood, Crips and various other gangs.

That element is still evident in Sturgis during the rally, but, Golden said, they are called "One-Percenters" because in the 1980s and '90s they became outnumbered by professionals and middle-class Americans -– doctors, lawyers, white-collar workers and tradesmen to whom a motorcycle is the modern-day version of a horse.

"It's probably a more family friendly place than it has been in the past, but I think you have to be kind of careful," said Golden, who lived in Sturgis for five years when he was an area director of missions. "Mostly the people come here to party. There are certain times of the day you wouldn't want to be downtown."

Ten blocks of the town's main street and a block to either side are blocked off during "Sturgis," as the seven-day event is known. Nearly 900 vendors pay $13,000 or more for space on Main Street; half that on side streets. It's a week of bikes, racing, liquor, music and mayhem, with 443 people jailed, five rally related deaths, 448 emergency hospital visits and nearly a quarter-million dollars in stolen motorcycles reported in 2006, according to official Meade County records.

Golden said he does not want youth groups to come to Sturgis. He's looking for adults unruffled by swarming motorcyclists, many of whom may smell of beer or marijuana and who will use words not usually heard in church.

But behind their swagger, Hamilton said, bikers often are covering up deep hurts in their lives that make them more approachable than most people realize.

"[Bikers] are looking for answers to life's tough questions, just like everyone else," Hamilton said. "Talking to bikers on their own turf is what makes the difference. They feel more comfortable opening up and talking about the baggage that keeps them in bondage.

"Honesty, transparency and compassion defuse their hostility," Hamilton continued. "Once their heart is open, the Holy Spirit pierces the darkness and speaks truth into their life."

Hamilton should know. He lived a liquor-crazed biker's life before he made a profession of faith at age 23, some time after his high school sweetheart wife of five years recommitted her life to Christ.

"I still have a soft spot for ministry to people in that kind of lifestyle," Hamilton said. "When I moved to Dakota I saw the acts of kindness Baptists had done at Sturgis for 16 years -– things like handing out bottled water and checking blood pressure -– and after prayerwalking Sturgis for two years, knew it was time to go to the next level: intentional, direct evangelism."

Noting the need to organize the outreach for greater effectiveness and better stewardship of financial and people resources, Hamilton said, "This is a different kind of ministry than has been done before at Sturgis. I decided God was calling Southern Baptists to step up to this, and that we -– Dakota Baptists -– would take the lead since it's in our backyard."

Training in three-minute Gospel presentations will take place at 8 a.m. every day during Sturgis, to be led by Texas evangelist Ronnie Hill. The 20-by-30-foot booth will open at 10 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., while it's still broad daylight. Housing is available at area churches.

"So far we've got volunteers coming from Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and the Dakotas," Golden said. "We need at least 60 a day, and probably more than that."

Equally important to Golden are the volunteers who will commit to prayerwalk, prayerdrive or prayer-ride (on motorcycles) through the Main Street area for each of 30 days prior to the rally. After June 24, people will be able to log onto the Dakota Baptist Convention website -– www.dakotabaptist.com -– and do virtual prayer walks on their computer at home.

"We also hope to have a live webcam in our booth in August," Hamilton said. If all goes as planned it also will be accessible through the convention's website.

"We want a presence at Sturgis because it is the one time a year that the world literally comes to South Dakota," Golden said. "We just feel if the world if going to come to us, we need to take the opportunity to present the Gospel during the event.

"It's an opportunity for us to share the light of Jesus with people who sometimes are in a really dark place," Golden continued. "The main thing is just being faithful to share Jesus with everyone in every place using every method."

The Georgia Baptist Convention is paying for the substantial booth rental. The Oklahoma, South Carolina and Florida Baptist conventions also are partnering with Dakota Baptists, as is the North American Mission Board’s special evangelism projects section. Additional funding still is needed to help cover costs.

"This is a great example of cooperating to do Kingdom work," Hamilton said. "I'm not sure how, but I know God is going to provide the funds to make this a sustainable ministry for years to come."

The Dakota convention has started a foundation account to help provide financial sustainability for the future, Hamilton added. Donations can be made through the state convention.

The bike to be given away this year is a 2007 black Harley-Davidson DynaGlide.

"One person is going to win this bike, but hundreds are going to win an even bigger prize -– eternal life," Hamilton said. "Thank God for those who are willing to give, go, share and pray for this Kingdom effort."


For more information about ministry needs for the outreach at the 2007 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, contact the Dakota Baptist Convention's Sharing Christ team leader, Garvon Golden, at garvon@dakotabaptist.com, or Executive Director Jim Hamilton at jim@dakotabaptist.com.

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