Seminarian goes to fellow bikers with 'smell-your-breath evangelism'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Perhaps in no single place can one find more helmets, Harleys and heathens. Converging on the "Biker Boogie" festival in Bean Blossom, Ind., thousands of motorcyclists from across the country annually transform a simple field into a sea of dirt, beer and exhaust.

"It's like walking into Sodom and Gomorrah. Nothing is not happening," said Jeff Washburn, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Yet even surrounded by the leather and lawlessness, Washburn and other members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association seek to share the good news of Christ with the bikers in their own element.

"We call it one-on-one, in-your-face, smell-your-breath evangelism," said Washburn, a native of Danville, Va., with his latter reference to breath that "often smells like stale whiskey, beer and pot smoke."

With nearly 70,000 members worldwide, CMA trains Christian bikers to attend secular motorcyclists' events like the Biker Boogie where they meet needs, mix, mingle and evangelize.

"All of us are dedicated to taking the message of hope in Christ out to bikers right where they are," Washburn said, "because they are not likely to walk through the doors of a church.

"They feel abandoned by God, abandoned by Christians and definitely mad at the world. These people really need somebody to minister to them."

The bikers also need somebody who can connect with them and their experiences. Enter Washburn.

"When I'm talking to them, I can see the pain that's deep inside them that they're trying to cover up and not let anyone see," he said. "I can see it in them because I was there."

Washburn was there not long ago.

The son of an independent evangelist, Washburn admits he has not always ridden in the right direction in life. His early childhood nurtured him spiritually. But following his parents' divorce, the 20-year-old Washburn rebelled.

"I got to the point where I was consuming enough alcohol and drugs that I didn't stay more than two or three hours sober for more than a year and a half," Washburn said.

Finally he cleaned up and found a college to attend. And with the help of several college professors -- including John Dever, now Southern's professor of church and society -- Washburn also found God.

Following graduation in 1986, Washburn enrolled at Southern Seminary. But financial problems forced him to withdraw after a semester.

"Having to leave tore me up," recalled Washburn, who lost 27 pounds in three weeks after leaving. "I think if I'd have been diagnosed, they might have said I had a nervous breakdown."

He started drinking heavily again. He hit rock bottom emotionally and spiritually. And the next few years, Washburn said, produced a "pretty fair amount of backsliding."

However, recent personal events and his involvement in the CMA led him to give his life completely to Christ.

"I was sitting at this crossroads," Washburn said. "I thought, 'I can either get really bad. Or I can not do that.'"

Washburn chose the latter.

"The only way to do that was to totally and fully give the whole shooting match to God," he said. "I was tired of driving this train which was wrecking."

With God as conductor, Washburn returned to Southern Seminary this fall. Both CMA and Washburn have benefited through his reentrance into seminary.

"The Lord has blessed me with an opportunity to be here and study," Washburn said. "Other people in CMA would never have the opportunity. But through me, they have access to the resources and everything that the seminary has to offer.

"More than the grade is that I have the knowledge and the resources here and share it over there. That's an incredible feeling."

Southern has also provided new ministry opportunities. Working as a carpenter while going to school, Washburn has used even the biblical languages to open doors of ministry.

"At work on my lunch break, we're all sitting around and talking about whatever, and I'm going through Greek vocabulary cards," Washburn recounted. "They don't do it around everybody else, but people will come and talk to me -- just alone.

"I think it kind of fascinates them that one of them is over here [at the seminary]. They think, 'Wait a minute, maybe we're not a forgotten bunch.'"

And Washburn shares with his fellow workers and bikers out of gratitude to God for not forgetting him.

"God is a forgiving God," he said. "That's the beauty of it."

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