"Jesus Christ goes fishing."
The words leave the speaker in a relaxed tone, rebound off the shadowed face of The Pyramid and echo back, booming with pious vehemence, like the voice of Oz. In the air, hundreds of starlings wheel back and forth and the smell of the river creeps up with the dusk.
In the lot, off Front Street and just across from The Pyramid, a group of motorcycles form a ring. Riders lean against their machines or stand nearby. Some pull Bibles from bike pouches; others raise their hands to testify. They, along with a dozen seated parishioners, are gathered for Motorcycle Church, which meets Thursday nights at 7 p.m. through September.
"This is a church where your bike is your pew, and you can come as you are," said Mike Griffin, drawing a laugh from the assembled crowd. In 2001, Griffin became one of the founding members of Kings Table Ministry, the organization behind Motorcycle Church. Kings Table has no home church and, like the riders in its congregation, travels around Memphis and the Mid-South.
The bikers who come to Motorcycle Church think it's the best of two worlds. Jeff "Catfish" Cowgill rides a red and black Kawasaki Vulcan. He leans against the back of his bike and follows along with his Bible.
"I like to be myself and I also like to know I'm riding with people who love God," he said. Like many of the church members, Cowgill is a member of the Christian Motorcycle Association (CMA). "The two worlds really feed into one another. Since I started riding, my pastor and the assistant pastor from my home church have taken up riding as well."
The Motorcycle Church draws a good deal of attention. Several cars honk in support, and a group of bicycle riders cruise into the parking lot to watch. Al Walker, who works across the street, comes over in his apron to join in one of the songs.
Sixty-four-year-old Dot Holland has been riding motorcycles since the '70s and attending Motorcycle Church for a couple of weeks. Dressed all in black with a metal studded belt and a visor, Holland says the informal atmosphere is a key part of why she attends.
"This is a great opportunity to meet strangers and offer them my testimony," she said. "There are definitely riders who will come to this who wouldn't come to a regular service."
As the evening draws to a close, the Motorcycle Church performs its most unusual ceremony. First comes the blessing of the bikes, a prayer offered to safe riding and mechanical longevity. Then there's the ritual known as "crank for Jesus." The riders gun their massive engines, letting loose a roar of sound that is equal parts awe-inspiring and apocalyptic.
"Motorcyclists are a unique breed of people," Griffin said. "They put their lives between their legs every day. If Christians would learn to live a little more radically, imagine what we could accomplish." n