Like many cities in Maine, Bangor has seen a growing number of people who are homeless. The city has limited shelter beds, and the problem is of particular concern during the cold winter months. There are local community and religious organizations that have stepped in to help out, including an unusual church that has grown from a small bible study into a social service hub in the city.
On any given Sunday, if the weather is warm enough, some congregants of this Christian Church in Bangor will conclude their service with a group ride. For most who attend the church, called Biker Church USA, it has been too cold to ride this winter. But Rick Day still arrives for Sunday service in classic biker gear: black vest, jeans and a long white beard.
“Some churches I went in, and people were standoffish and stuff,” Day says. “Bikers get a bad reputation and stuff, even though they know we've given our lives to the Lord. But you've still got that biker image.”
Day found the church a few years ago, when it was operating out of a small hotel in nearby Brewer.
“I walked in, and everyone was greeting, and it was like, 'Yeah, this feels like home. Feels like home.’"
Today, Biker Church USA is housed inside a towering, old brick building in downtown Bangor.
The pastor, wearing a flannel shirt and sunglasses, delivers an hour-long sermon about God, rebellion and authority then closes with a prayer: "Thank you for all your do for us. We pray this in Jesus' loving name, Amen."
About half the parishioners, including Sunday school teacher Roxanne Lent, are not bikers. Lent says she first came to volunteer and now visits the church six days a week. She likes that she can come as is, dressed in her flannel and jeans.
“Everybody gets up after church, it's a hug, it's a slap on the back,” Lent says. “In the warm weather, they get on their bikes and leave. In the cold weather, they got in their trucks and we all go home. Like I said, it's just more laid back. More comfortable.”
Founding pastor Chris Marley says bikers have long been connected to Christianity through motorcycle ministries, and several other biker churches have popped up nationwide. But the public image of bikers, he says, has been shaped by other forces.
“The stereotype has come in place from, back in the early 1970s, they made all these movies about bikers coming in and pillaging towns and all of this stuff. And, unfortunately, that stuck,” Marley says. “And it kind of followed up through the years. And it's not at all what it's about.”
He says the Bangor church began as a way to reach bikers, but it has expanded its focus to help people in need.
About five years ago, Marley took over a national organization called the Biker Bible Institute. The group provides a loose connection between biker-friendly churches and offers chaplain training.
“Our mission vision behind that was to, originally, have 10,000 bikers in the Bible every week. And God said, 'Well, that's great. We can do that.' But we've far exceeded any of those numbers,” he says. “I can't even tell you what they are today. But we are in New Zealand. Now we're in Africa. We're in Canada. We're all over.”
“And I can see biker churches being a very welcome sight to a lot of bikers. And a lot of regular folks, as well,” says Will Dulaney, a retired professor who has studied motorcycle clubs.
Dulaney says the culture can at times be xenophobic or racist. But Dulaney says he's known many bikers to be generous and in search of connection.
"In my 22 years doing scholarly research, bikers are generally kind of loners. A lot of them have come from broken homes," he says. "So, yeah, I can see a biker church being a beacon to lost souls of all stripes."
And in Bangor, Biker Church USA has stepped in to help people who don't have a place to stay during the colder months. Through donations and volunteers, the church opened an overnight warming center this winter inside its building downtown. The building also offers clothing and classes in cooking and crafts.
Justin Norton says he found the church last year when he was on the street. He says due to mental health problems, he often feels like an outsider in the city. But at an art class at the church on a recent morning, Norton says he now feels accepted.
“I can come in every day and be welcome. Instead of, 'What's this person gonna think of me?'”
And though Norton himself doesn't ride a Harley, he does wear a leather vest to the church.