The rumble of pavement heralds the arrival of a local motorcycle ministry that is bringing the light and breathing new life into the crusade against sin and evil.
Terry “Preacher Terry” Meiners, 58, of Sterling, founded the Holy Ghost Riders 15 years ago after discovering a need for spiritual outreach in the area.
“We’re street preachers,” Meiners said. “We’re training [members] to go out into the streets ... where a normal pastor would feel uncomfortable being around [people like] hardcore bikers.”
It’s the only group like it from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa, he added.
At a backyard barbecue on a warm Saturday afternoon, riders and their families gathered for fellowship and food, hosted at the home of a ministry elder. Parked out front were the group’s choppers, synchronized neatly in a line on the lawn.
Meiners’ gaze drifted away as he recalled a painful history, and like a poker tell, his piercing blue eyes, cradled by wrinkles, helped to reveal what was buried. After trips to jail, “too many to count,” and a third divorce, “That’s when I hit rock bottom.”
“There was a war going on inside of me, and I knew that I wasn’t living right.”
“Sons of Anarchy” is an FX Network TV series about an outlaw biker club that frequently uses extortion and other assorted crimes to make a living. Gratuitous violence, sex and drug use are its hallmarks.
That life hadn’t been fiction for Meiners; it’s similar to what he experienced. He didn’t want to say what clubs were involved, he didn’t want to “name names,” but “it happened right here in Sterling,” he said.
“I was tired of the drugs … the alcohol … looking over my shoulder for rival clubs,” he recalled. “I was done, and I wanted a new life.”
Holy Ghost Riders, who often ride clad in worn leather and colored patches, promise to refrain from tobacco, alcohol and drug use. They must carry a Bible and “courtesy cards” with them at all times, Meiners said.
“This isn’t a club; it’s a ministry,” he said. “We’re helping people, and trying to change lives just like our lives were changed by Jesus Christ.”
While a brick-and-mortar church might provide many of the same services that the group offers, like weddings, worship, and counseling, these self-described men of God also bless bikes, provide funeral escorts, and visit inmates.
“It’s been a great success,” he said.
Members sometimes use their tribulation-filled pasts to develop rapport with people who otherwise might not want to listen or take them seriously, Meiners said.
No one has “shed blood yet,” but they’ve come close, he admitted, citing several situations in which his members have almost been shot or knifed.
The most important part of their stories, though, is how their lives have changed for the better after serving with the ministry, he said.
Shawn “Skinny” McConnaughay, of Dixon, came from “a life of sin” that had left him full of questions and drunk with a kind of spiritual wanderlust. It took a high-speed motorcycle crash and subsequent 2-week coma to lead him to seek a new lifestyle, he said.
The 39-year-old got involved with the motorcycle ministry “as a youngster with a lot of problems.” Membership offered him a sense of family and belonging, purpose and brotherly camaraderie.
“I was an agnostic,” McConnaughay said. “I was selfish, self-centered, egotistical, and I lived for me.
“God doesn’t come to everybody the same way.”
Terry “T-bone” Hein, of Camanche, Iowa, also came from a life of trouble and violence. Now 9 years sober, he agrees that the ministry helps to keep members on the straight and narrow.
“It helps keep us in the light,” said the soft-spoken 62-year-old, who has been diagnosed with liver cancer. The Holy Ghost Riders are organizing a benefit Sept. 13 in Savanna to help him with expenses.
Hein spent hard time in federal prison for possession of dynamite and “a couple of machine guns,” he said. His hobby used to be making illegal fireworks, and bomb-making materials were found at his home after an explosion blew off an arm in August 2000. Police also found “several types of black gunpowder” and a “rare Russian rocket launcher without the rocket,” according Quad-City Times archives.
Hein “ran to the [Holy Ghost Riders]” and his local church after that prison stint because he didn’t want to go back, he said.
“It’s what God had to do to get my attention,” he said. “If I can keep one person from going where I went, it was worth it.”
The brotherhood has about 15 members from northern Illinois, Iowa and other neighboring states. They attend various community events, like parades and fundraisers, and when they do, they bring a 12-foot-tall cross to identify them.
They’re well-received most of the time, said Dan “Preacher Dan” Williams, also of Camanche, who at one point pursued a theology degree and ordination. The 52-year-old said that, although he “didn’t feel called” at the time, he still wanted to find a way to evangelize.
“Sometimes, you get people that spit on you, but for the most part, people are respectful.”
McConnaughay is not surprised by the occasional negative reaction.
“If they nailed Jesus on the cross,” he said, “why wouldn’t they throw stones at us?”
It’s not the “shock value” of their testimonies, but rather, how the Holy Ghost Riders live today that McConnaughay wants to emphasize.
“What we have here is a church on wheels.”
Holy Ghost Riders meets for worship service the first Sunday of the month on the third floor of the Iron Horse Social Club, 314 Main St., in Savanna.
For more information about the biker ministry, go to www.holyghostriders.com or find it on Facebook.
Contact Terry Meiners, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-440-0145 for informaion on the local team.