Heaven on Wheels

One by one, they arrive on their Harleys. Young to middle-aged men wearing ponytails, beards, Sturgis T-shirts, bandannas, black leather vests and matching chaps. Women in fringed leather jackets and denim. Those who don't ride much anymore come by car, but they still dress the part.

If they were pulling up outside of a bar, they'd be an intimidating bunch. But they're heading to church, former black sheep in the Lord's flock. Inside, they'll raise their hands, lean their heads back and sway to a Christian rock band. All glory and honor to my Savior. All glory to my King. All glory and honor to my Savior. Master of everything.

Every Friday night, anywhere from forty to a hundred bikers, many with kids in tow, make the pilgrimage to Church in the Wind. This is where they've found salvation -- and not just in the religious sense.

This evening, Pastor Gary Davis is talking about being content with who you are. Don't compare yourself to other people based on the way you dress, the job you hold or the possessions you own. Invoking one of his favorite refrains, he reminds the congregation: "Don't put me on a pedestal, because when I fall off, you'll get hurt."

After the sermon, the bikers wander outside Riverside Baptist Church, where Church in the Wind holds its services, to smoke and chat. When Riverside Baptist members who attend church on Sunday started complaining about Friday night's leftovers, Gary introduced a "butt patrol."

While Riverside is a Southern Baptist church, the pastor's group is non-denominational. "Since we don't tout any one doctrine, we've been accused of being Bapticostal," he jokes.

Riverside's congregation accepts the bikers for the most part, although a few people still stare at them when they attend regular services. "When we go on Sundays, we have a loud leather section," says one Church in the Wind member. "Some people think that because we're Christian, we should start dressing differently and give up everything, including smoking."

At Church in the Wind, they didn't have to give up anything to get something they'd been seeking much of their lives: acceptance.

The man who made this unique fellowship possible was Rick Ferguson, senior pastor at Riverside Baptist Church, which is perched just off I-25 above Invesco Field at Mile High. Ferguson's death in a car accident four months ago stunned his followers, bikers included.

But Church in the Wind didn't give up, and this month it celebrates its sixth anniversary. What started as one little ministry in Denver is multiplying, with seven sister churches across the country and several more in the works. It's just like the loaves and fishes in the New Testament, expanding to accommodate everyone.

Peggy Papineau was the classic biker bitch. She'd fight anyone, man or woman. All you had to do was look at her wrong and she'd be in your face. And if you flirted with her man...well, you'd better jump on your bike and speed off.

When Peggy was five months pregnant, a customer in the bar where she was working stole her purse. Peggy saw the woman running off and confronted her. "I grabbed hold of her hair and said, 'What do you want to lose, your hair or my purse?' She dropped my purse, but I still had her hair in my hand," she remembers. The bartender finally had to pull Peggy off the woman and remind her that an expectant mother shouldn't be picking fights.

Peggy didn't start out mean. She came from a stable Catholic family, and with her parents and two younger brothers, moved from Missouri to Colorado when she was a junior in high school. Then Peggy, now 38, met a man and fell in love. He was a drug dealer turned police informant who appeared to be coming clean. They'd been dating for a year and were going to get married when, one day, Peggy was talking to him on the phone and heard a gunshot. Then silence. Someone -- probably a drug dealer who'd discovered the boyfriend was a snitch -- had come into his apartment and shot him in the back of the head.

"I was just devastated," Peggy says. "After that, things went downhill. I started drinking and spending lots of time in bars."

It was at a bar that she met the man who would become her first husband -- a guy ten years her senior who was a dead ringer for Alabama crooner Randy Owens. "That's when I got into drugs. He was a heroin addict," recalls Peggy, who did speed, pot and mushrooms and became addicted to cocaine herself.

Her new husband also belonged to a now-defunct biker club out of Las Vegas. "He beat me constantly," she says. "I couldn't cook right, clean right, do anything right. And he wouldn't let me see my family."