Picture 100-plus bikers, many of them wearing leather and tattoos, roaring around a circle on their motorcycles as the band plays “Born to be Wild.”
Hell’s Angels? The opposite: The bikers circled a statue of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who wore a crown of roses. And as they passed by, a Catholic priest sprinkled them and their Harleys, Yamahas and Hondas with holy water.
The Sunday gathering, in the parking lot of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ballantyne, was advertised as Charlotte’s first Blessing of the Bikes.
It was Monsignor John McSweeney, pastor of the megachurch, who stood on a step ladder and wielded the aspergillum, a liturgical implement used to sprinkle the blessed water.
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The bikers – including three Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office deputies – showed up in hopes that the blessing will keep them safe on the road and committed to serving others.
Among the bikers was Rick Stutts, 60, of Concord, who has been riding motorcycles for 37 years. He raises money for bone marrow transplant patients by making rides to Minneapolis-St. Paul, with sponsors donating money per mile. He and Patricia Youngerman, 56, are about to hightail it to Daytona on his Honda 1100 Shadow to visit his daughter and grandson.
“As long as we’ve got God with us, we know we’ll be safe,” said Stutts, who wore a T-shirt that spelled out part of Psalm 45 – “In your majesty, ride out to victory … to perform awe-inspiring deeds.”
Sunday’s blessing was open to bikers of all faiths, though organizer Vincent Esposito, who rides a 1983 Suzuki GS 450, is a member of St. Matthew.
He was looking for an event that would unite Charlotte’s motorcycle community and stress the need to stay safe during the summer riding season. He found his inspiration while surfing the Internet: He discovered that the Sunday after Father’s Day is National Blessing of the Bikes Day and that bikers even have a patron saint – St. Columbanus, an Irish monk born in the sixth century who was known for his love of the open road.
“Oftentimes the motorcycle community can be divided, based on what bike you ride, what club you’re in or your faith group,” said Esposito, 37, whose club is the Patriot Guard, a group that rides for fallen soldiers. “We wanted to break down those barriers and have a blessing for all.”
Tommy Horchler, 35, a tattooed bartender in Charlotte who grew up Catholic but now attends Elevation Church, said he came Sunday to return to his roots – he was an altar boy growing up – and to get blessed for safety’s sake. One of his Charlotte motorcycle friends died in a wreck this month.
Horchler rides a Yamaha Raider and a Honda CBR 1000: “There’s a real sense of freedom and individualism when you’re on the open road. They say you never see a motorcycle outside a psychiatrist’s office.”
Many of the bikers blessed Sunday are military veterans.
Marcus Jackson, 36, of Charlotte just got out of the 8th Army Airborne in March, after surviving four tours in Iraq. Staying safe was still on his mind Sunday.
“Hopefully the blessing of my bike will mean safe riding this summer,” said Jackson, a member of Victory Christian Center who rides a Harley-Davidson Street Glide.
Before the bikers mounted up for the blessing, McSweeney called on them to form a circle and join hands. Then he read the 23rd Psalm, which says that God is always along for the ride of life.