Highway to heaven: Couple discovers ministries to bikers - Word&Way

Highway to heaven: Couple discovers ministries to bikers

By Vicki Brown, Word&Way Associate Editor

Although he now cuts his hair a little shorter, Mel Callahan of Henley might best be described as a "Baptist hippie" who has turned a lifelong desire to ride "Hogs" into ministry.

As a teen, Callahan always had wanted to ride motorcycles, but his father repeatedly nixed the idea. He accepted his father's refusal, although the desire never died.

He met and married his wife, Rose, while the two worked at the Baptist Building in Jefferson City. He broached the motorcycle idea with her.

"I love you too much. You can't," Rose replied.

Still the idea remained.

While Callahan served with the U.S. Army in Okinawa in 1968, an opportunity arrived that was just too good for him to pass up. A soldier with orders to return home had a 125 Honda Dream he wanted to sell.

Callahan convinced Rose that the machine would be an economical way to get around the island. And he would operate it safely since the speed limit stood at 35. Rose agreed.

When his tour ended and they returned to Missouri, Callahan was ready to move up. Rose agreed to allow him to purchase a Honda SL175 "just for riding on the farm."

Rose usually balked at riding the vehicle. But one day, she changed her mind and agreed to ride behind him from the house to the barn. She also rode with him from the barn to the house, and then out to a field. "And she was hooked," Callahan said.

Although she finally learned to drive the four-wheeler the couple later purchased, she prefers to ride with Mel.

In 1982, the couple heard about a meeting to discuss the possibility of establishing a Christian motorcycle club in Mid-Missouri. They attended the session and have been riding with the Son-Rise Riders, the local chapter of the Christian Motorcycle Association, since then.

They are the only charter members who remain with the group. The Callahans are numbers 7312 and 7313 of the association's more than 120,000 members worldwide.

The CMA began when a Baptist pastor in Arkansas went to a secular motorcycle rally with his son in an effort to strengthen the relationship between them. He saw a need for a Christian witness among riders.

Evangelism remains the CMA's focus. "It's always been evangelistic in nature. It's always kept its focus on Christ," Callahan said.

"It's lifestyle evangelism pure and simple, carrying the lifestyle of Jesus Christ into the places churches sometimes will not go."

Rather than establishing separate ministries, CMA "looks where God is working" and develops partnerships with others, he added. The association sponsors a fundraiser each spring to benefit those ministries.

Each chapter hosts a 100-mile Run for the Son ride in its geographic area on the same date each May. Members collect pledges before riding.

Twenty percent benefits Missionary Ventures, an organization that provides transportation for South American pastors. Open Door, a ministry that distributes Bibles in closed countries, receives 20 percent, and another 20 percent helps support showing the "Jesus" film.

CMA uses the remaining 40 percent for tracts and other supplies for its evangelists who minister to motorcyclists.

The Run for the Son ride also features a coordinated prayer time across the country at noon, Central Time.

The Callahans have served as leaders in the local chapter — Rose as secretary/treasurer and Mel as president and chaplain.

Although they had never participated in a secular motorcycle rally, about 15 years ago the Callahans responded to an invitation to participate in a motorcycle expo and Freedom Rally on Memorial Day. Organizers asked Mel to lead a worship service.

From that invitation, Mel and Rose became members of Local 10 of the Freedom of the Road Riders, a motorcycle rights advocacy group.

At their first rally experience, they set up camp directly across from the bandstand for visibility. They set up a water fountain and posted John 4:13-14 about the water of life. They also placed tracts nearby. And they held the worship service in a tattoo parlor.

The couple described their first experience as a little uncomfortable. "We had no idea what to expect," Callahan said.

"And we had been sheltered," Rose added.

Rose was in tears by the time that first rally ended because the band kept playing the most popular song at the time, "Highway to Hell."

She said she cried at the CMA rally that followed on the heels of the secular experience because the Christian bikers had the answers the Freedom of the Road Riders needed to hear.

The Callahans have attended the Freedom Rallies every year. "It's a different kind of enjoyment because of the ministry. Our colors identify us as Christians and that gives us an opportunity to serve," Mel said.

For a number of years, the Callahans had one of the few battery-powered pumps available in the campsite. He went tent to tent, volunteering to pump air mattresses and meeting people. "Now I help erect tents," he said.

Rose often distributes bags of toiletry items to the women. Or she cleans the ladies bathroom and places a basket of supplies there from which the women can choose what they need.

They distribute flyers around the camp on Saturday night to invite cyclists to the Sunday service. They also participate in motorcycle games. Last year, Mel served as emcee.

Motorcycling attracts people from a wide variety of backgrounds, the Callahans explained. "There are painters, carpenters, state workers. They have responsible jobs and they like the freedom of motorcycling," Callahan said.

"But you have to earn the right to speak. There are no magic bullets, no special wand," he added.

"You have to earn their respect," Rose added, "and I think Mel's done that."

In 2000, Mel asked the church where the Callahans are members, Pleasant Hill in Brazito, to license him to the ministry so that he could conduct weddings for motorcycle couples and could counsel with them.

In his licensing sermon, he tried to show the congregation how sometimes people judge others by outward appearances. To reach bikers, he said, "I won't wear a sport coat." He removed the coat.

"I won't wear a tie," he added, removing the item.

"I won't wear a sport shirt," he said and took it off, exposing a colored t-shirt underneath.

Then he donned a do-rag and his leather vest.

He reminded them that while he is dressed like a biker and sporting the Son-Rise Riders insignia, motorcyclists see him as a Christian and church people see him as a biker.

For Mel and Rose, life is evangelism whether at home, at church or in an associational function (Mel is president for Concord Baptist Association).

"What you do makes more of an impact than what you say. I ride motorcycles and I take Jesus with me. No matter what you do, you need to do lifestyle evangelism."