At Sturgis, Alaskan grocer finds divine appointment
The veteran grocer had never been to a motorcycle rally, nor does he have a souped-up Harley-Davidson, but his determination wasn't about the debauchery at the seven-day Sturgis rally.
Cooper wanted to volunteer for evangelism at the Dakota Baptist Convention's Sturgis Bike Giveaway hospitality tent at the rally's 75th anniversary.
The odds were against Cooper, a member of First Baptist Church in the small town of Petersburg on Mitkof Island.
No one gets time off between May 1 and Oct. 16 during Alaska's long days of sunlight, which is the store's busiest season. Yet his supervisor -- who didn't like the mention of God -- granted Cooper time off due to his tenure and good work.
The 58-year-old Cooper took a 20-hour ferry ride from Mitkof Island with his 2001 Suzuki Intruder Volusia motorcycle before riding 2,040 miles to Sturgis in 56 hours, weathering cold torrential rain for 200 miles at about 6,000 feet elevation in Alberta, Canada.
"I was shaking from the cold so much it hurt," Cooper said.
Like many of the volunteers at the Sturgis Bike Giveaway tent, he arrived with no previous training in evangelism. But he quickly learned how to give a "three-minute testimony," which uses the outline of a person's life before Christ, how they became followers of Christ and their life since salvation.
Then Cooper met Dorian, a young man from Philadelphia, Pa.
Dorian had problems back home and had taken off without any particular destination before arriving in Sturgis. Cooper had experienced many of the same issues when he was young.
"We found common ground in our mutual problems and our enjoyment of motorcycles," Cooper said. But their long rides to Sturgis weren't the important thing. "I told him I rode that distance so that I could talk to him."
Cooper shared his three-minute testimony and invited Dorian to place his faith in Christ.
"A soul was added to the Kingdom of heaven," Cooper said. "I have never knowingly traveled that far for a divine appointment."
Dorian was one of 6,195 people who heard a personal testimony during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August and one of 607 who made a profession of faith in Christ. During the 87 hours the tent was open, volunteers averaged witnessing to 71 people per hour.
In the Dakota convention's 10 years of outreach at Sturgis, volunteers have witnessed to more than 38,000 people, of whom more than 7,300 made a profession of faith, said Buck Hill, a North American Mission Board missionary serving as the Dakota Baptist Convention's state missions director. During the 2015 rally, new believers came from 41 states, five provinces of Canada, and Australia, Cuba, Denmark and Germany.
The evangelism strategy entails volunteer "catchers" standing in front of the tent to invite Sturgis visitors to register for the Sturgis Bike Giveaway after they listen to a testimony from a "sharer." On Saturday morning at 10 a.m., a drawing determines who gets a new Harley-Davidson, which ministry donors help purchase.
This year's rally -- the 75th anniversary of the event -- was challenging given the enormous number of biker enthusiasts drawn to the milestone in this town of 6,000 in the South Dakota Black Hills.
"Within 500 yards there were five bars and a liquor store," Hill said.
People who pray to receive Christ at the Sturgis Bike Giveaway typically receive a Bible. "We had more than 4,000 Bibles," Hill said, "and we ran out of them."
The sheer number of people contributed to heightened challenges and frustrations among the visitors.
"The spiritual warfare battle was as high as I've seen it in the 10 years I've been doing it," Hill said.
Those challenges make Mike Cooper's story even more satisfying for Hill, who has many more to tell:
-- A visitor said to a catcher, "I need you to tell my son what you told me last year." After seeing the changes in his father, the son decided he wanted what his dad had -- a personal relationship with Jesus. So the father had brought his son to Sturgis.
-- A couple listened with their children as a sharer presented Christ. With tears flowing, they each prayed to receive Christ. Then the wife looked at her husband and said, "We need to go. We just prayed to start a new life. We need to go home and start our brand-new life."
Planning has begun for the Dakota Baptist Convention's 2016 Sturgis Bike Giveaway ministry, which will be Aug. 8-14, with volunteers arriving Aug. 5. They will minister through Aug. 12 at 10 a.m. when the motorcycle is given away.
Each volunteer will have to count the cost of his or her participation. Cooper's costs exceeded projections.
About 20 miles outside of Sturgis while starting the journey home, the engine blew on his motorcycle and needed a complete rebuild. He sent it to Omaha, Neb., where his daughter lives, then flew home. He estimates the trip ended up costing him about $4,000.
A friend asked Cooper, who now has relocated to Omaha, if he would do it again. The grocer's answer was simple and straight from Scripture: "Here am I. Send me."