At the end of a decade characterized by culture wars -- the self-anointed righteous vs. the "celebrate diversity" crowd -- it might well be that the foremost exemplar of diversity in Colorado Springs nowadays is a motorcycle club -- not a gang, they are quick to point out -- called Soldiers for Jesus.
Soldiers for Jesus are not I-be-hip, midlife-crisis investment brokers (or U.S. senators from Colorado) out weekend slumming in their Abercrombie & Fitch leathers and $25,000 factory Harley Davidsons.
We're talking colors-wearing, heavily tattooed, heavy-vibe members of the biker community who live by the biker motto -- "Live to ride, ride to live" and whose lovingly chopped hogs are fundamental to their identity.
These are guys who hold weekly Bible study but loathe the Religious Right; who wear patches touting "Satan sucks big-time" and "100% for Jesus" but have little use and much disdain for conventional religion.
They ride monster Harleys but don't swear, drink or do drugs.
Walking, talking (and riding) oxymorons who don't fit into any mold, the Soldiers for Jesus will not be uniformly pleasing to either the Religious Right or the secular left, to your hard-line feminist or your average white American, to your True Republican or your Hell's Angel.
They aren't out to piss anybody off, though. They have no desire to smite (or correct) the foe. They aren't on a mission to save Colorado Springs.
In lieu of Hell's Angels or Sons of Silence emblems on the back, these guys sport a double golden banner with "SOLDIERS FOR" on top and "JESUS" on the bottom, with a center patch featuring a red cross atop a star of David, crossed sabers at the fore.
The club colors are topaz (gold) and onyx (black), commemorating the colors chosen by God for the ceremonial breastplate of Aaron, high priest of Israel. The club name is taken from the II Timothy 2:3 pronouncement: "We are called to be good soldiers for Christ." The crossed swords represent "the sharpening of one Christian by another, as iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17).
These guys, in short, are as serious about their Christian beliefs as they are about their biking lifestyle.
Most of us have at one time or another crossed paths, however fleetingly, with a member of this group. The most identifiable member is co-founder and sole remaining original member Dave "Eggo" Adamson, who rides a three-wheeler (he calls it a trike) pulling a covered wagon in back declaiming "Heaven or Bust."
"The reason for this club," said club president Al Leopizei, owner of a westside VW repair shop, "is to spread the word of Jesus Christ in the biker community."
It is an odd sensation, listening to longhaired, tattoo-splotched, big-booted and chain-smoking bikers saying, "the Bible tells us" this, and "in the eyes of the Lord" that.
It's Edgar Allan Poe by way of Norman Rockwell.
Ironies sprout like weird blooms. Two guys who wouldn't be caught dead in such a room, and wouldn't be welcome anyway, riff off sentiments that would excite a roomful of born-agains into Amen choruses.
Eggo and Al look like your typical Hell's Angel, and talk like your typical Bible Belter.
"We are part of the biker community," said Al without hesitation, Eggo nodding. "Our lifestyle is based on motorcycles. We live the biker way of life."
But surely a bike does not a biker make. What is it about the biker community and way of life that these guys value so highly?
"The biker community," Al replied, "stands for brotherhood, brotherly love, being honest with each other, showing respect, caring, and making that love and respect the basis of your community.
"Like it says in the Bible -- there's no better man than he who would lay down his life for his brother."
For most people, the term "brotherly love" suggests Quakers more readily than bikers. But the motorcycle is central to this brotherhood.
"The Harley Davidson is the common denominator," said Al. "Everyone loves to ride."
"My bike means everything to me," said Eggo, scooting to his seat edge in snuggly earnestness. "My wife knows that God comes first, then my bike, and then her. And I'm not joking.
"As my wife has put it, a woman with PMS is a pussycat compared to a man with PMS: Parked Motorcycle Syndrome. There's nothing deadlier for a biker than having his bike down.
"There's no way you can understand the biker life until you've lived it," he continued, upshifting a gear. "It's something so-o- o-o special. These guys are the best people on the face of the earth. If I'm broken down, the only person that's going to stop to help me is another biker, because he knows how much that bike means to me."
"It's a very close-knit community that very few people can come near," added Al. "When you see somebody with a patch that says 'one percenter,' it means he's one of the brothers."
As Soldiers of Jesus, Eggo and Al say the strongly identify with Hell's Angels and Sons of Silence as "the brothers," but they are quick to identify the fundamental difference between their clubs.
"We serve the Lord Jesus Christ," said Eggo.
Both Eggo and Al came to Jesus and the club out of desperate-straits, last-ditch, dead-end impasses.
Al was born in Italy in 1946, the son of a lawyer.
He moved with his family to Providence, R. I. in the early '50s when Dad was appointed Italian vice-consul for the state of Rhode Island. Dad also taught Italian and Renaissance art at Providence College.
"We grew up hobnobbing with the upper echelon of society," said Al. "We attended parties thrown by Ted Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller." After attending Providence College for a year, Al rebelled against the family expectations and joined the Air Force with the idea of becoming a jet mechanic.
Engines and motorcycles have dominated his life since. He managed an auto dealership service department and an antique car restoration shop before becoming co-owner and mechanic at Alkim's Bug Shop, which specializes in VW repair.
His first cycle was a Vespa scooter, but it didn't take long to graduate to a '64 Harley. He found himself vastly preferring the company of bikers over that of the kind of people he grew up with.
"They didn't put on airs, they didn't play games," said Al of his fellow riders. "They were straight-up. If they didn't like you, they told you, and their friendship was genuine. They had honor, they stood for truth amongst each other."
Declining to go into specifics other than that he "got into the drug scene, but wasn't a dealer," Al said that eight years ago he was a victim of a drug bust.
"I was 45 years old and facing a possible 27 years in prison," he said. "I was really scared. That was the Lord waking me up, saying, 'Hey, when are you going to stop leaning into the punches?'"
In desperate straits, Al "turned his life over to the Lord. The first thing I asked for in jail was a Bible."
He escaped with two years probation and spent the entire next year working during the day and staying home every night "looking inward" and "reading the Word."
"I read in Psalms and Proverbs a lot," he said. "I started learning who I was, why I was doing what I did. The Word taught me what the wise man does, what choices he makes.
"Life is full of choices, but none of us went to college and got a degree in How To Live Life. Life is a whole lot better, though, when you make good choices, and God's Word is an instruction manual on how to make better choices and stop leaning into the punches.
"I've been clean for nine years now," he said, "and I've never been so happy. I don't have to keep an eye on the rearview mirror to see who is behind me, or wonder why someone has been sitting in a car up the street for a half-hour, or wonder when I wake up who the woman beside me is, or where my shoes are, or where my bike is."
Eggo shakes not only his head, but his entire upper torso in vigorous assent).
"Now," said Al, "I enjoy life more than ever."
He continues, meanwhile, to live "the biker way of life," but through Soldiers for Jesus.
Eggo is a retired computer programmer and analyst. He was born in Colorado Springs in 1938, the youngest of four boys in a strict Quaker family, Mom having decided early on that all four of her sons were going to be Quaker ministers.
He attended Lowell Elementary, South Junior High, and then Colorado Springs High (now Palmer) for a year-and-a-half.
He first fell in with the biker community when, at age 11, he began hanging around a Harley shop. "I fell in love with that life," he said. "I've worn black leathers ever since."
When, midway through his junior year, he stopped going to school, his mother packed him off to Friends Bible Academy in Havern, Kansas, where he was enough of a star in football, basketball and baseball to be offered an athletic scholarship to Friends Bible College.
Eggo, though, vowed never to have anything to do with organized religion again and, in violation of his Quaker upbringing, signed on with the Navy in '57. He was sent to the Naval Training Center in San Diego, where he played sports for the base teams and "got into what they called 'machine accountants,' which was a kind of prelude to computer stuff."
He re-entered civilian life by moving to L.A. where he married, had a couple kids, worked as a computer programmer, rode his Harley, got into "scrapes" and developed what he calls "a bad alcoholic habit."
In '74, he moved back to Colorado Springs with his wife and two kids, went to work as a programmer for Walter Drake, and embarked "on a long, downward spiral of trying to drink the bars dry, doing drugs and hanging out in biker bars."
Eggo said he was a flat-out alcoholic and "mushroom freak."
"Give me a few grays," he said, "and I could make things grow out of the wall."
It was one particularly psychedelic experience which catalyzed his "return to Jesus."
Never one for moderation, on this occasion, Eggo ate an entire "quarter bag" of mushrooms and a half-hour later "felt something wild coming on." He knew he was in trouble.
He reports blacking out and "going into the spirit mode, spiraling downward, floating through the ugliest, weirdest, most horrific-colored things you could imagine. It started getting hot. I could see flames."
Upon returning to consciousness 20 minutes later, he found himself freaked out, his hands trembling uncontrollably. To his horror, he felt another blackout coming, but this time, Eggo said, "I began spiraling upward, through the most beautiful, peaceful, tranquil place I've ever been. It was a day-and-a-half, before I got all the way back to planet Earth."
A couple weeks later, he was driving home from the now defunct Jim & I's Star Bar when he was pulled over by the cops and arrested for a DUI.
"I was so drunk I couldn't stand straight," he said. "I'd finished off two-and-a-half cases of beer that afternoon and night, and I tried to punch out the arresting cop because he was keeping me from getting home to my 12-pack."
Waking up in detox the next morning, it hit him like a revelation what that mushroom trip had been all about.
"You idiot," he chastised himself. "That was God talking to you, asking whether you wanted heaven or hell. It's your choice. Which do you want?"
Sufficiently shaken by his mushroom sojourn to know he didn't want hell, facing jail for trying to punch out a cop, no longer the driver of his own bus -- realizing, in short, that it had come down to either "get sober or get dead" -- Eggo dropped out of the biker community, avoided his biker friends and stayed out of the bars.
He wanted to "get back with God," he said, but "there was no way I was going to go to church. Every time I've done that, the first thing they do is tell me I need to cut my hair, get rid of my beard, and cover my tattoos. Who needs that?"
His solution, like Al's, was to seek out some Christian biker clubs.
First, he looked into the Christian Motorcycle Association but nixed them when he found the leader had the abominable taste to ride a Gold Wing Honda.
Next was Christian Cruisers. He gave them the thumbs down because they had a female president and vice president.
Then, he got word that a couple of old bikers -- Davey Snyder and a well-known local tattoo artist named Mario "Penguin" Estrada -- were starting a local chapter of the Christian biker club called Soldiers for Jesus.
"I looked them up and saw that I fit right in with these guys," he said. "They really loved and served God, but we still had a ball going on runs and doing the regular things."
A member of Soldiers for Jesus ever since, Eggo is the last original member of the Colorado Springs chapter.
"I've been clean and serving the Lord for eight years now, and they've been the best of my life," he said, taking a draw on his cigarette.
Soldiers for Jesus
However else they characterize themselves, Soldiers for Jesus would seem to be a refuge for bikers who, having reached some kind of desperate, dead-end impasse, have no choice but to abandon destructive habits, but don't want to abandon the biker way of life altogether.
Members tend to be in their late 40s and 50s -- guys who've been around the block a few times and then some. They have pasts.
They are, in short, very much like Al and Eggo.
Al rides a '56 Harley panhead chopper, "But I also ride a VW trike," he said, "because I'm getting old and my body won't let me ride the chopper."
Eggo, of course, rides his covered wagon VW trike. "My hard-tailin' days are over," he said. "I've got a disc out in my back, and my left knee and hip have to be replaced."
The Soldiers of Jesus pamphlet (printed in club colors topaz and onyx, replete with grammatical errors and Random Capitalizations) explains: "We are a bunch of Rascals and Rascalettes, who, by the Grace and Mercy of God, have been delivered from very colorful lifestyles. Some or most of us were bikers in the old world, some were drug addicts and alcoholics, some were convicts..."
The Soldiers, it is clear, envision Jesus as one of their own: an outcast who, for associating with and ministering to outlaws, was despised and persecuted by "the mainstream churches and leaders."
"Jesus," reads the pamphlet, "was an Outcast! His thoughts and perceptions of bringing forth the Gospel to Outlaws, Scalliwags and Rascals, was ridiculed by the mainstream churches and leaders. So much in fact, that He was branded an outcast Himself, by his own. They did not accept his disciples, his teachings, his doctrine, claiming that it was of the devil. He wasn't clean cut, never wore a suit, ate and lived with straight up sinners. Yeah, Bikers, Drug Addicts, Prostitutes and Convicts. They killed him because he was different."
The Soldiers identify closely with Matthew 9:10-13 where, upon being criticized by the Pharisees for hanging out and eating with "tax collectors and sinners," Jesus replies: "It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.'"
In this context, the pamphlet explains, "We, as a group, are committed, dedicated believers in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have committed our lives, our time, our finances and talents to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who would not otherwise enter a church setting. We meet them where they are at, on their ground, with their speech, their culture, their looks. And since we have been there, who more capable of bringing forth the gospel to them than us?"
Soldiers for Jesus is, meanwhile, a bonafide motorcycle club. They have a president (presently Al), a vice president (presently Eggo) and a secretary. They pay dues, hold weekly meetings -- during which they conduct Bible study -- and participate in a variety of community service projects. For a while, they even had a clubhouse.
They are one of nine chapters nationally, and one of two in Colorado (the other is in Grand Junction).
Soldiers participate in a number of community service projects, many of them fund-raising runs. Among them are the Toy Run, which collects toys for needy kids at Christmas; the Silver Key Run, which each year produces a pickup truck full of canned goods for donation; the Sudden Infant Death Run, which raises funds for research; the Kids for Kamp Run each June in Durango, which raises funds to send kids of imprisoned parents to camp.
They also do the Fallen Brothers Run, a ceremonial biker event commemorating the brothers who died over the past year.
The club's premier event is the national Soldiers for Jesus run and rendezvous each Labor Day weekend in the Four Corners area near Ignacio. Participation is mandatory of all club members nationally.
The national president, Pablo, is a former pro wrestler who was left a paraplegic when he broke his neck in a match.
He has to be helped on and off his Harley and has to use his hands to lift his legs onto and off the footrest pegs.
Last year, he rode in the national run hitched to a sidecar to provide balance and support. This year, though ("Praise the Lord!" said Al), he confounded the doctors by driving his Harley all the way from his home in Florida to Colorado to ride in the Four Corners run -- sans sidecar.
"It's things I've seen on this run," said Al, "that convinced me that people can change. We're all from the old-style background, and you should see these big, burly guys with tattoos and scarred faces standing around together singing Sunday School songs and enjoying themselves."
It's not the practice of Soldiers for Jesus to proselytize, condemn, ask anyone whether he's saved, or tell the brothers to be more like them.
As their pamphlet makes clear, they identify a lot more with the biker community than with the straight religious community, and feel antipathy toward the proselytizing Religious Right.
"Let me give you a story on that," said Al, sitting back and lighting up another cig.
"There was this homeless person walking down the street one Sunday morning. Walking past this church, he felt a sudden need within himself to meet God.
"So the guy walked into the church and sat down in a pew. He wasn't dressed well, and his hair wasn't cut, and he probably didn't smell all that great. He annoyed a lot of people. They got up and moved away.
"After a few minutes, an usher came up to him and asked him to come with him, and the guy followed the usher to the back, who asked: 'What are you doing here?'
" 'I came to meet God,' the guy replied.
" 'Well, you're upsetting people,' said the usher. 'Why don't you go home, take a shower, shave, trim your hair, put on some nice clothes, and then we'll help you meet God.'
"But the homeless guy says, 'Hell, I want to meet God now.'
"And the usher says, 'I'm sorry, you can't stay here like you are now. Come back after you've cleaned up.'
"The guy walked outside the church, sat down on the steps and started crying, because he wanted to meet God. Then Jesus Christ himself happened to walked by. Seeing the man crying, he sat down and asked what was wrong.
" 'I really wanted to meet God today,' said the homeless man, 'but they won't let me in the church.'
"'Well,' don't feel too bad,' said Christ. 'I've been trying to get inside that church for 33 years, and they haven't let me in yet, either.' They walked off arm in arm to the sounds of hymn-singing from the church."
"A lot of people," said Al, riffing off that parable in his best Bible-study biker fashion, "think that God sits up there with a baseball bat and every time you make a mistake he's going to smack you on the head with it. I don't think that's the case at all. All he's trying to say is, 'Hey, make the right choices, because you suffer when you don't.'
"That's what we're about. We don't judge what everyone else does around us; we don't carry baseball bats. All we do is say that life is full of choices, and we've found a way to make better choices. We don't push ourselves off on anyone, but we're always available to anyone needing to talk to someone he can trust."
Asked if they attend church, Al and Eggo both say they do every Sunday that they're not out doing a ride, at Calvary Chapel Eastside, on the south side of the 3100 block of East Platte Avenue.
The pastor, Jim Ethridge, is a former motorcyle racer.
On a summer Sunday, with probably 200 in attendance -- the place is packed -- the only person wearing a tie is the pastor. The crowd is ethnically mixed, what appears to be mostly lower-middle income, with a surprisingly large number of youths, many sporting spiked hair and an array of nose, lip and eyebrow jewelry. A burly, gnarly-faced biker type wearing a knife on his hip holds hands with his wife, both of them singing away.
Onstage is a band fronted by five singers. A guy at the back of the church mans a kind of studio sound booth. Music, obviously, is central to this particular brand of worship.
Pastor Jim plays lead guitar (an electric 12-string), interlacing the six or seven songs in a row with prayers and upbeat exhortations. Backing him are a bass player, a keyboardist and a drummer. The bass player would look at home in a biker bar house band, and one of the frontline singers looks straight out of a Haight-Ashbury time warp, flowing red hair past his shoulders, a wispy goatee.
The music is infectiously joyous and surprisingly good.
In the first ten minutes of the sermon, Pastor Jim discourses on the Psalms, noting them to be of two kinds -- psalms of praise and psalms of imprecation -- the latter being the type where David exhorts God "to dash the heads of his enemies' children on the rocks" and to "break all the teeth in the heads" of his foes.
"Come on, David, get with it!" shouted Pastor Jim.
"That isn't what God is about. God is about encouragement, joy, hope and praise -- not vengeance and breaking teeth."
Soldiers for Jesus are humble about their place in the scheme of things.
"It's not an easy way of life that we live," noted Eggo of his life in Soldiers. "We're all from the old-style background. We've fallen in every mud puddle and hole in the pavement, and Satan doesn't give us a moment's slack. He sends every weird person on the face of the earth to derail us and make us give up this lifestyle and go back to the old ways.
"But I won't. No way. I'd never go back into it again. There's no way I'd trade my life now for that life."
That is the whole point of the Soldiers for Christ ministry.
"It's precisely because most of our pasts are like the lives most bikers live now," said Al of Soldiers, "that we're able to reach parts of that community no outsider could touch."
"In the places we go," said Eggo, "there's not a soul would listen to a Christian in a three-piece suit and wingtips. The outlaw community respects us and what we stand for, though."
"The authorities didn't like Him," notes a Soldiers mini-pamphlet of the Jesus they follow. "The religious leaders condemned Him. Police were looking for Him. He had very few friends, some denied Him. He hung around with sinners and rascals like you and me.
"You know he would of rode a Harley!"