A biker church in North Carolina wants to end hunger in its neighborhood by linking farmers directly with those in need.
A biker church in North Carolina wants to end hunger in its neighborhood by linking farmers directly with those in need.
I used to be a biker. Well, maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But I did own a motorcycle. In divinity school back in the late '90s, I rode a Honda Nighthawk. Back then I was a bad boy among the pious, a rebel in a black leather jacket who thought he was challenging the seminary status quo. My biking career was short-lived, though. I had a nasty wreck on a friend's motorcycle that left my right side Flayed, my ego bruised and my wallet empty. Eventually I sold the motorcycle. But my inner seminarian never entirely displaced my inner biker.
When I learned that a group of bikers from a nearby town—members of a "biker church" no less—were starting a feeding ministry called The Giving Table, a social enterprise model that joins local farmers, churches and the hungry, I knew I had to meet them. I called up Dwight "Bubba" Smith, an associate pastor at Crossfire United Methodist Church who manages the church's feeding ministries. Smith told me to come up for their big "Jesus Rocks" motorcycle rally. They would be doing a free barbecue lunch for the hungry that day, and maybe we could even visit one of their partner farms.
On the First Saturday in May last year, I got out my old leather jacket, pulled on my leather boots and, in a sad attempt to earn myself some street cred with the bikers, asked my 6-year-old son to paste a dinosaur tattoo on my left bicep. As I left the house on my way to Crossfire, however, I had a startling realization. Despite the year I spent pretending to be one, I had never actually met any real bikers. I wondered if they were really as bad as my mama said they were.
When I arrived at 10 in the morning the rally was in full swing. A number of people were already in line for the free chicken, baked beans and coleslaw; some were donating blood at the Red Cross station; a few tattoo covered bikers were giving slow rides to kids around the vast parking lot; others were practicing for the upcoming Biker Olympics.
Crossfire United Methodist Church is located outside North Wilkesboro, N.C., in what once was a refrigerated trucking terminal. On the phone Smith described the building's defining features: big warehouse, industrial, chain-link fence topped by razor wire. "Come to think of it," he said, "it looks kinda like a jail."
Which is oddly apropos. On a Sunday morning visit to Crossfire I met a guy who told me he'd just been released from prison. He had gold pirate hoops hanging from both ears. Strapped to his right boot was a giant bowie knife. During the service the congregation gave him a prodigal's welcome, with cheering and rounds of applause.
Since its inception eight years ago, Crossfire has become known for welcoming not only bikers but also former convicts and other outliers on the bounds of respectability. Here you'll find ex-gang members, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, recent returnees from the hinterlands of bad behavior. Not exactly the kind of folks you'd expect to start a church. Or a food ministry. Most have left behind their wild past, or are trying to do so in Celebrate Recovery, Crossfire's rehab program. Ask any one of them and they'll tell you that the transformation they've experienced at Crossfire—spiritual, physical, emotional—is real. One way they share that new life is to help their hungry neighbors. Feeding people is part of their calling.
Associate Pastor Duncan Overrein told me about his desire to feed those whom society overlooks. With his big beard, long gray ponytail and tattoos, Overrein can relate to those who've been ostracized because of their past or the way they look. One Thanksgiving a few years ago he and his wife invited to their home 60 people, folks he met on the street who had no place to go. "We invited people who are rejected, who most people consider worthless. People who've been kicked around, moved from state to state. I had all kinds of scriptures going through my head that day, like the parable of the banquet where the master goes out and finds all the unworthy to come and feast."
Crossfire's mission to feed people has assumed a variety of forms. Every Wednesday the church provides up to 50 families with enough food to last them the entire week. Three of the congregants put in a total of 50 hours per week in the church food pantry, with others helping distribute the food. For the past several years, with help from other Crossfire members, Pastor Overrein has organized an acre-sized community garden and donated the produce to the needy. Partnering with Wilkes County, they received a $358,365 grant to build a greenhouse on the former county land fill. Methane gas from the landfill will be captured and used to power the greenhouse, which will produce pesticide-free vegetables. Those vegetables will be stored in Wesley's Storehouse, the church's nonprofit entity that rents the building's 17,000 feet of cold storage space, then distributed to those in need.
The other part of Crossfire's building has been converted into a sanctuary. Sunday worship takes place in Cooler #1, where during the rally the Red Cross is holding its blood drive. I poke my head in and four bikers are laid out on gurneys, pumping their blood into bags. I look around the sanctuary. The heavy-duty altar is made of checker-plate aluminum that looks like chrome. Opposite the altar sits a full scale wooden model of a Harley Davidson chopper. On the wall hangs a giant banner that says, "Crossfire—Manning the Lifeboats One Foot From the Gates of Hell."
One of the first bikers I met at Crossfire looked like he might be rowing one of those lifeboats, or had just clambered over the gunwales. With his black leather vest, tattooed forearms and a do-rag wrapped around his head, Steve Whisnant looked like the kind of guy with whom you wouldn't want to tangle in a bar fight. But I soon learned that Whisnant was as warm and gregarious as could be. On his vest he wore a patch that said These Are My Church Clothes. We chatted over barbecue chicken. He wasn't too impressed by my dinosaur tattoo, but when I mentioned that I used to own a motorcycle, he took me for an equal. Let it be known here that I might have overstated my abilities and experience level just a wee bit, because Whisnant was soon offering to let me ride his Harley Davidson. I politely declined. I had never ridden a Harley before. My bluff had been called.
Whisnant's Harley was a 2009 Sportster model, deep marine blue with 1200 cc's of throaty power awaiting the slightest torque of the throttle. Were I to imagine the Platonic image of motorcycle, this is what I would conjure. A beautiful machine. It was tempting to take Whisnant up on his offer, but I didn't want to crash and have to buy another motorcycle. I wasn't here to look wistfully at Harleys. I was here to learn about The Giving Table, Crossfire's newest and most ambitious of all its feeding ministries.
I saw Pastor Smith and Senior Pastor Alan Rice across the parking lot, and walked over to ask them how The Giving Table started. When Crossfire was trying to figure out how to make use of the cold storage space in their new building, Rice explained, they hired an agricultural economic development consultant to do a feasibility study. Initially the consultant thought they might be able to buy vegetables from local farmers and market them.
But, they learned in the feasibility study, Wilkes County was 98th out of 100 counties in the state in vegetable production. It was fourth, however, in beef. Many of Wilkes' cattlemen, lacking a local market, were forced to sell their steers cheap to Midwestern feedlots. Through their Methodist connections, Rice and Smith knew that a growing number of churches in North Carolina were seeking hormone-free, pasture-raised beef.
And then there was the fact of hunger. North Carolina ties with Arkansas for sixth place among states with the greatest food insecurity, and among North Carolina counties Wilkes is one of the poorest. Hunger even among parishioners at Crossfire is a real issue. Of the 120 regular attendees, at least 30 are unemployed. For food pantries, it is especially challenging to find affordable sources of beef.
With these facts before them, it soon became clear to the bikers of Crossfire that they could serve as a hub, connecting local farmers with consumers for the benefit of the hungry, creating jobs for unemployed church members, and thus forming a circular relationship in which every participant benefits. They would buy finished steers from local farmers, start a community-supported agriculture venture to market the beef and greenhouse veggies and donate 10 percent of every cow to the Second Harvest food pantry. The Giving Table's mission is to "provide local, high-quality grass-fed beef to our consumers while promoting sustainable economic development in rural North Carolina and fighting to stop hunger in our community through beef and produce donations."
They have received several grants and are finalizing the arrangements with a local slaughterhouse before they begin. Combined with their greenhouse project, their food pantry and the high unemployment in their congregation, it's a lot for a small church to take on. But Pastor Rice believes Crossfire is well suited to the challenge. "Many of the mainline denominations become so risk-averse that they spend the majority of their time calculating the risks. But here we've said, 'So what if we fail? We'll learn from that and move ahead.' At least we're moving ahead in faith."
I asked Smith if we could see one of the farms that would supply their beef. It was early afternoon now, and the rally was in a bit of a lull. Smith rounded up a group to escort us. I asked Whisnant if I could ride on the back with him, but he wouldn't hear of it.
"Take my bike, man. I can ride Amy's."
"Really, I can't. It's been 11 years since I've ridden a motorcycle."
"Naw, take it man. Once you learn how to ride, you never forget."
"But I don't have my motorcycle permit," I pleaded. I was running out of excuses.
"That's OK. For years I didn't either, and I never got busted."
My inner biker was now in serious conflict with my inner law abiding citizen. I already had my leather jacket and boots. Whisnant held out a pair of gloves and a helmet. Peer pressure won out. Soon my inner biker found himself astride a Harley amid a half-dozen other Harleys, a phalanx of chrome and ¬ flesh and steel roaring through the North Carolina hill country at 55 miles per hour.
After an exhilarating 20 minutes we arrived at Apple Brandy Farms, a pastured-beef operation Smith hopes will supply some of the cows for The Giving Table. The farmer, Seth Church, was down in Georgia buying cows, so we were met by Church's mother. We parked the bikes near the pasture gate and walked over to see the steers, mostly Black Angus with a few Herefords, while Smith and Whisnant provided a running commentary.
"Man," Whisnant said, "whenever I see a cow I think: steak."
"Yeah, me too," Smith said. He hollered at the steers.
"Come here, T-bone! Look this way, Sirloin!"
"Hey, A-1; hey, Bar-b-que!"
We headed over to the large open-air feeding shed where we learned about Church's operation: They are not certified organic, but they use many organic practices, eschewing hormones or antibiotics. They raise the steers primarily on grass, moving them to fresh pasture every two or three days, then finish them on locally grown corn. Church spreads the cow manure back on his fields to increase fertility. The cows do a pretty good job of spreading manure on the fields, too. As we walked, Whisnant started playing hopscotch over the patties. Everybody laughed when he nearly stepped in one. I pointed admiringly to the large pile of cow manure in the shed and said I wished I had it for my garden. "Around here," Whisnant said, "most people put that on their marijuana crop." He explained that Wilkes County used to be known for moonshiners; now marijuana is a major cash crop. As I looked out at the cows munching away on their pasture, it occurred to me that maybe The Giving Table will help Wilkes County become better known for growing the legal kind of grass.
It was time to ride back, and we bid our goodbyes to the cows and the farmer's mom. As I cruised down the road with my newfound biker brethren, I thought about the beautiful paradox at the heart of Crossfire: bikers and beef, Harleys and hunger. I remembered something Pastor Overrein had told me earlier. "Man, all this time, bikers just want people to know that we're people, too.
"We just want to feed people."