Motorcycle club motifs decorate the rough-sawn pine walls of a former cider mill barn, set in a grove of pine trees outside a small town west of Flint. The décor even includes a working Harley-Davidson with plenty of chrome.
A crowd is gathering — some riding in on bikes, some in cars due to iffy weather or extra passengers. The favored fashions: leather, jeans, bandanas and boots.
What you don't notice right away is the simple, 8-foot wooden cross front and center against the pine paneling. Or that the black motorcycle vests so many are wearing read "Victory Biker Church" on the back. Or that a handful of them have brought their own well-thumbed Bibles.
"Grab your owner's manual," Brian McKay said. He founded the church in 2010, but prefers the title Apostle to Pastor.
Some church members pulled out well-thumbed Bibles and flipped to the verse in question.
This is the Christian faith, presented by bikers, for bikers, a unique amalgam of Christ, chrome and outreach to outcasts. Besides the Sunday service, there is a Wednesday night "pit stop" Bible study and the weekly "Ironhead Teens Group."
"I have not had church worship like this anywhere I've been. It's inspiring," said Dennis Riggs of Owosso as he sat in the front row waiting for the 11 a.m. service to start.
He's a Vietnam vet who rides a 2014 Harley-Davidson Road King. He came to Victory Biker Church nearly six years ago after looking for a church for several years.
"This one felt like home," he told the Lansing State Journal (http://on.lsj.com/2rTpIeT ).
A church home where a pair of motorcycle saddlebags hang on the wall with a sign above them reading, "Don't be jive, cough up your tithe," the U.S. flag is prominently displayed and clear patio lights are strung festively across the back of the room.
At 33, Kristy Grooms of Flint Township is less than half of Riggs' age, but she feels the same way.
She and her husband, Jonathon, known as "Huck," have been attending Victory Biker Church for about five years.
As Kristy tends the coffee bar, their sons, Rayne, 7, and Gabriel, 4, who is carrying a plastic ukulele, dart back and forth greeting newcomers.
"At all of the other churches, we were the outcast and never welcome because we weren't dressed like everyone else," Huck Grooms said. He's burly and blue-jeaned and currently works the night shift as a repo man.
"We had tried several different churches, and we just didn't feel welcome like we did at this one," Kristy Grooms said.
Making people who don't necessarily live in the mainstream feel welcome is exactly the point, said McKay. Blue-eyed and bald, he keeps his beard in check with an elastic band near its tip.
"We want to make it comfortable, so when our unsaved biker friends come to church, their walls come down," he said.
McKay rides a 2009 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic, and he's been working in motorcycle ministry since 1995, filling his free time reaching out to other bikers while working an IT job by day.
He talks about trying to reach the "one percent," in this case, the small number of bikers who are drug addicts or involved in criminal activity.
He said he first felt the call to establish a church in August of 2006. The voice inside him was clear, he says: "I called you to be a biker preacher and start a biker church."
But like many a good apostle, he resisted at first.
"It took me about two years to get over it," he said. "Then I said, "All right, Lord, how do you want me to do this thing?'"
So for several years he prayed and laid the groundwork. The church opened its doors in the former cider mill in January 2010.
Victory Biker Church has spun off two new congregations — one in Ohio and one in Florida —but McKay said both churches are under reorganization at the moment.
Although it is presented biker-style, the message is familiar from any Christian church in the country: "People need Jesus," McKay said.
One of McKay's sermons titled "Blessed are the Persecuted," draws from the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew.
But first, there's music, with a praise band led by music minister Floyd "Crow" Brady of Flint with McKay on bass and Brady's wife, Kim, who also is the children's minister, singing.
The music ministers at Victory Biker Church don't mind praise music — they play some of it — but they love classic rock. Their version of "Amazing Grace" uses the words of the traditional hymn set to the melody of "House of the Rising Sun," Animals-style. They've reworked songs from Lynyrd Skynyrd and other classic bands, too.
As church members line up to receive blessings from Apostle Mark Smith, who is wearing a blue-and-white prayer scarf along with a T-shirt, cargo shorts and sandals, the band switches modes, pumping out a Grateful Dead-style instrumental jam while Smith lays hands on each person who approaches.
Finally, it's McKay's turn to clip on a microphone.
He talks about the persecution of Christians around the world — underground churches in China, Coptic Christians killed by extremists in Egypt, Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Let's look at this reward for holding strong under persecution," he said. "Holding strong, that means perseverance. That's one of those fruits of the spirit, long-suffering. That's what many of us don't like to do is suffer long or be patient."
He reminds the 70 or so people in the group that faith and patience will pay off.
"I don't know about you, but kingdoms of men suck, but the kingdom of God is glorious," he said.
He said he believes the kingdom of God has already come, but "It is coming in greater measure as the children of God, Christians, press in."
"Don't just get comfy on Sunday mornings. 'Oh, I went to church today! Check!' 'Oh, I put some money in the saddlebags! Check!' Yes, do that, but it's about more than that. It's about your relationship with Christ Jesus."
He urges the crowd, simply, to repent and "accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior who gives us the peace that we are all working for, that we are all looking for."
"It can't be found in a bottle, it can't be found in a spike in the arm, it can't be found in a left-handed twisted cigarette, you know what I mean. It can't be found snorting it up your nose. It can only be found in Christ Jesus, the Lord. Amen? That was for somebody, because somebody needed to hear that today," he said. "Hallelujah."
"Preach it!" called out someone from the chairs.
"I'm gonna," McKay replied.
After the service ended, Terri Lipovsky of Durand stayed in her seat for a moment, chatting with friends and enjoying the atmosphere.
She met McKay and other church members at a blessing of the bikes event last year, she said. She liked them, and she liked the vibe.
"It's more about the comfort of church than the bikes for me," she said, sitting in one of the gray upholstered stacking chairs as people filtered out the door or stood and talked. "The biker part is a blessing."
She thought for another moment.
"It has brought me a lot of peace," she said.
Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Lansing State Journal.