The Rushing Wind Biker Church, in Middle Island, hosts several...

The Rushing Wind Biker Church, in Middle Island, hosts several services a week for Christian bikers. Pastor Joe Marchelewski sits on his bike before service with other bikers. (May 29, 2010) Credit: Bruce Gilbert

With his shaved head, tattoos and decided heft, Joe Marchelewski seems like the type of holy man who could easily crush any sinner in his path.

Instead, the 6-foot-2, 290- pound carpenter from Mastic Beach spreads the Gospel's message of love and forgiveness at motorcycle runs and praise-the-Lord gatherings. He has a welcome for everyone - even those who arrive drunk or stoned on drugs.

Late on a spring Sunday afternoon, he rolled into a parking space in front of his fledgling Rushing Wind Biker Church in Middle Island astride a royal blue Harley with chrome-plated exhaust pipes and a silver sticker announcing, "God Blessed My Bike!"

A week earlier in Hauppauge, he murmured a few words from Scripture, along with some of his own, to about 200 bikers in the vast parking lot of Suffolk County's H. Lee Dennison Building. Their helmets and bikes bearing such irreverent decals as "Ride Naked" and "Helmets suck," the bikers were preparing to ride to Patchogue to benefit the motorcycle safety awareness campaign of the Long Island chapter of American Bikers Aimed at Education (ABATE of New York).

"I asked God to bless them for safety in their journey with nature and to protect their vehicles," Marchelewski, chaplain of the Long Island ABATE chapter, told a reporter. "Wearing tattoos is part of my ministry. It's cool. It's all about the freedom of the road and being with the biker brotherhood."


Debunking stereotypes

Marchelewski, 54, started Rushing Wind last year. The born-again interdenominational church, affiliated with the California-based Bikers for Christ, is one of a handful of biker ministries and evangelical motorcycle groups on Long Island that operate independently of local houses of worship.

The largest appears to be Long Island Lights, a chapter of the American Christian Motorcycle Association, with about 35 members, most in Suffolk. Its president, Stephen Hodulick, 53, of Brentwood, a network engineer with the Long Island Rail Road, said he became born again in 1986 and considers the years since to be the happiest of his life.

Rushing Wind has about 30 members and 15 to 20 "revolving" visitors, Marchelewski says. It offers Bible-study groups, "rocked-out music worship" and a men's group. It recently added a women's ministry.

He decries the stereotyping of bikers as bad boys.

"We believe God gave motorcycles for man to enjoy, and having one doesn't make you a bad person," he said. "Not all bikers are outlaws."

Suffolk Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford) agrees. "They look big, but most of them are sweethearts," said Eddington, a member of ABATE who rides a Harley and helped put together the safety ride.

Yet, stereotypes persist, and many bikers shy away from institutional religious gatherings. "Probably 40 percent of Rushing Wind's congregation isn't comfortable in [traditional] church settings," Marchelewski said in a telephone interview, noting that none of his members belong to outlaw groups - "although I have friends in those groups." He called his church "an underground ministry," in part because bikers generally "keep to themselves, and it's hard to reach them."

Rushing Wind shares space in the Middle Island Baptist Church, set amid wooded terrain on Wading River Hollow Road. It takes its name from the New Testament story of the Pentecost - when "a sound from Heaven like the rush of a mighty wind" (Acts 2:2-4) came to the apostles 50 days after Jesus had risen from the dead and the Holy Spirit descended on them in tongues of fire.


Coming together

At the late-afternoon church gathering, Marchelewski gave bear hugs to seasoned bikers and wannabes decked out in leather, denim and skull caps, among them recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in 12-step programs. They drank coffee and sampled strawberries and cakes. Most were men.

Some wore Bikers for Christ patches bearing images of an open Bible, a sword, wings and flames, and mingled with the more low-key, including Regina Serrano, 47, a registered nurse from Middle Island. Serrano, who said she grew up attending a Methodist church and was "saved" at age 13 at a Baptist church, passed around cupcakes she had made.

She doesn't ride but said she has known Marchelewski and his wife, Kathleen, for years and attended Bible studies at their home before Rushing Wind started.

A newcomer, a 40-year-old Mastic biker who declined to give his name, said he had recently "gotten out of jail" on drug charges, but "God is now working in my life."

"I haven't even been to a service, but I'm already hooked," he said.

When the service got under way a half-hour later, about 35 worshipers clapped their hands and tapped their feet to recorded music, and several rose from their chairs and raised their arms over their heads. Then music minister, Keith Nieves, 42, a black-clad biker who works as a nurse and as an artist with Great Spirit Records in Patchogue, began to sing.

Serrano swayed and jumped to the rhythms of the Christian rock songs. Others joined in with shouts of "Hallelujah!" and "Thank you, Jesus!" During the swell of joyful noises, one older man broke into a dance.

The congregants laughed often and said "Amen!" during a commonsense sermon delivered by George Autz, 38, a ponytailed Bay Shore carpenter. Autz is not a rider but proclaimed that, "Bikers and freedom go hand and hand." He stood at the altar near an illuminated cross and a poster reading, "Jesus loves bikers too!"


Roads to religion

When it was time to collect the offering, Chris Littler, one of Rushing Wind's original members, passed around a motorcycle helmet. An usher, who identified himself as Uncle Bob, 70, a retired truck mechanic from Eastport who said he has been riding motorcycles since the 1950s, appeared to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings.

During an interview earlier, he spoke of a low time in his life 35 years ago: "I was going through a divorce, and I didn't want to live anymore."

He said he cried out to God: " 'If you're there, show me,' and He did. The pressure I felt in my head, the pressure I felt in my face, were gone. I was converted. Jesus filled a hole in my life, and I felt love."

Others echoed his experience:

Serrano said at the time she became born again, her "heart had been broken. I didn't feel good about myself. . . . I felt I wasn't worthy no matter what I did. But I was healed by God. Getting saved changed my life."

Melody Elias, 47, a paralegal who lives in Bethpage, was an agnostic who now believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and describes herself as a "completed Jew" - one who believes Christ is the Messiah "as foretold in the Old Testament." She is a leader in Rushing Wind's new women's ministry.

Marchelewski came to religion after having spent time trying drugs - mescaline and cocaine - when he was studying biochemistry at the University of Southern California. "God helped me kick my habit," he said.

He bought a motorcycle about seven years ago and attended a Pentecostal Assembly of God congregation in Shirley before joining Bikers for Christ in 2004.

Last year Marchelewski underwent a year and half of home Bible study under Fred Zariczny, who 20 years ago in California founded Bikers for Christ, which has grown into an international fellowship. Zariczny signed Marchelewski's ordination certificate after his ordination last year in a Greensboro, N.C. church.

Marchelewski regards Zariczny as a "pioneer who put all the systems in place that made it easier to get into biker ministries."

Zariczny, who talks openly of his former addiction to, and sale of, illegal drugs, converted to born-again Christianity after a near-fatal 1973 motorcycle crash. In 2003 he founded the nationwide Rushing Wind Biker Ministries.

At Rushing Wind Biker Church in Middle Island, Marchelewski and his associates lay healing hands on the believers and anoint them with oil. Those who seek baptism as born-again Christians undergo immersion - "a symbolic gesture to show their faith to the public," Marchelewski says - in an 8-foot-long horse trough he bought at the Agway in Riverhead. Members carry it into the church and place it at the altar.

Those attending the recent service appeared to find sanctuary, removed from the sound and fury of the world outside.

Steve Lewis, 34, a landscaper from Nevada, was wearing motorcycle-style duds with a back patch identifying him as a supporter of Bikers Against Child Abuse. "It's a family place," Lewis said, "and everyone helps everyone."

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