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Gregory A. Summers
KERSHAW – Preacher Kenny “Cotton” Pate has an unusual way of explaining what’s going on whenever tears of joy flow down his face and into his ZZ Top-looking beard.
“I always tell my folks that’s the good Lord washing the nasty out of me,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s words may be somewhat unusual, but he isn’t your typical preacher.
Wearing blue jeans, with his slightly graying hair pulled back in a ponytail and sunglasses propped on his head, along with blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a biker vest covered in patches, Cotton was living it up for Jesus on May 1 in a Bishopville Highway field on the outskirts of the town of Kershaw.
The congregation Cotton leads – Ridin’ the Frontline Biker Church – isn’t typical, either.
They carry Bibles in motorcycle saddlebags and worship each Sunday at Kershaw Shrine Club.
But that’s the way it is for a growing congregation whose mission statement is “Where God loves you for what you are, not what you wear.”
That mission statement is catching on. At a time when attendance of many traditional churches wanes, this motorcycle ministry is thriving. That’s why Cotton was crying.
The church of five that started meeting in Cotton and Shari Pate’s backyard almost a year ago has grown into a congregation of more than 70. They won’t be praying on their knees in a borrowed shrine club much longer.
They broke ground on 10.5 acres at a service on May 1 which could easily be mistaken for a biker rally by passing motorists who use S.C. 341.
Very soon, there will be a building on the property, which stuns Cotton.
“Ain’t God good?,” he shouted as his threw his hands over his head like they’re were gripping a set of Harley Davidson ape hangers. “I believe with all my heart God has his hand on this land and brought us here.”
There aren’t any many buttoned-up shirts and high heel shoes in the crowd, although anyone who chooses to dress like that is welcome.
Instead, you’ll see bandannas, biker boots, barbecue grills and ice coolers lids spray painted with initials. Owning a motorcycle isn’t a membership requirement either. You can come as you are, said music leader John “Fatboy” Stein.
However, “Fatboy” said coming as you are doesn’t mean you’ll leave that way.
“We are a by-the-book, Bible church in every way,” Stein said. “There ain’t a question in life that can’t be answered by that book. This is not traditional by no means. This is for folks who feel uncomfortable in a traditional sense.”
Franco Lengel, a cartoonist whose cartoon strip, “Church People, appears in the Baptist Courier, is senior pastor of the Biker Church USA network.
Biker Church USA is a Southern Baptist motorcycle ministry whose goal is discipleship.
Franco said biker ministries have taken root among biker enthusiasts, including Frontline, which survived several turns and twists and false starts.
“This isn’t just holy ground, it’s the promised land for Frontline,” Franco said.
Just like Cotton, “Bro Franco” isn’t you typical minister, either. The West Columbia native has a PhD. in career counseling and works around the country with career development professionals. He just happens to enjoy riding a motorcycle.
His background may be different than Cotton’s, but the love of Jesus Christ binds them together.
Franco urged the members of Frontline to be biblical gatekeepers and keep that in mind. Insurance salesmen, he said, never get the same reaction as a biker does when he walks into a building.
That reaction is an asset instead of a liability when it comes to sharing the gospel.
“Gatekeepers guide others,” he said. “You have to make sure you’re following Jesus Christ and take someone with you. Make others thirsty for the salt and light you have.”
Fatboy said that’s exactly what the members of Ridin’ the Frontline Biker Church plan to do on the 10.5 acres that God has made them stewards of.
“We welcome everybody,” Fatboy said. “You pull ’em in, and Jesus will take care of the rest.”