John Smith: I asked God to raise up a minister to the bikers - and he told me to do it
What happened when the skinheads attacked the Hell’s Angels
Rev Dr John Smith went to be with God this week. He was an international speaker, author and founder of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club International, Concern Australia and St Martin’s Community Church in Melbourne. This piece has been adapted for John by Coral Chamberlain from his book On the Side of the Angels by John Smith and Malcolm Doney, revised edition (K John and Glena Smith: 2015).
Early in 1972, my wife Glena, myself and a few others attended the Sunbury Rock Festival as an informal “mission” group. Some Christians were scandalised — that was no place for a minister!
There, among that drugged-up, hedonistic crowd of around 35,000, we found people willing to chat with us. Many responded to the gospel and wanted to be baptised.
One was a biker, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting member of an outlaw club, now transformed through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He stood knee deep in the muddy river that flowed slowly through the site to be baptised, while onlookers who had been skinny-dipping lounged around on the banks adding their colourful comments.
After his baptism the biker, standing in midstream, explained exactly what the gospel of Jesus meant, using simple, non-religious words. The audience was silenced by his sincerity and passion.
The audience was silenced by his sincerity and passion.
Bikers, hippies and anti-war activists had first grabbed my attention a year or two earlier. I was then an “orthodox” minister on the outside, although beginning to feel drawn towards people on the fringes of society.
While driving towards Bendigo, I passed a bunch of menacing-looking outlaw bikers parked by the side of the road. Oddly, I felt a surge of compassion for these guys who no one really wanted to know. I couldn’t see the local minister making much headway with people like that.
I was far too straight for the job.
So I began to pray that God would raise up someone able to get alongside such outsiders and show them something of the love of Christ. I sensed a reply, “Why don’t you answer your own prayer?”, but initially doubted the call. I was far too straight for the job.
Soon afterwards at a Christian family camp, I met Eddie Pye, a youth worker and first-rate stunt motorcyclist. He said, “If you really want to grab the attention of teenagers, you should get yourself a motorbike.” He persisted until, hesitantly, I took his advice.
I then began to chat with a few bikers, some of whom became believers. Despite their apparent toughness, I found they were often vulnerable and lost but searching for a better life. Also the more I dug into Jesus’s life, the more I was challenged by the way he ministered to the outcasts of his day. I reckoned the bikers had to be the “lepers” of our society. I was becoming increasingly convinced of God’s call to be “the answer to my own prayer”.
Despite their apparent toughness, I found they were often vulnerable and lost but searching for a better life.
Before long, with the support of Eddie Pye and five others committed to a ministry to bikers, I established a reshaped God’s Squad Christian Motor Cycle Club in Melbourne in 1972, adding to our emerging ministry to people who felt alienated from conventional church.
In the early days, it was important for us just to be seen around. We went to places where bikers and other non-conformists met and began to strike up friendships with individuals. Eventually we began to blend into such scenes. We had good bikes and good riders and wore leathers emblazoned with our club insignia. We varied our language so they could understand and, while we made no secret of the fact that our values and attitudes were different, we didn’t set ourselves up to attack them for who they were or the way they behaved. Nevertheless, as a ministry, we were still outsiders trying to get in.
At the 1975 Sunbury Rock Festival, where diverse subcultures gathered for alternative countercultural activities, that changed. The atmosphere there was tainted by uneasiness and threatened violence: skinheads and bikers were at loggerheads.
They had baseball bats, metal bars and chains, and they were ready for action.
After a few early skirmishes between the two, the police tried to solve the problem by booting the bikers out — except for God’s Squad and, strangely, the Hell’s Angels, a tough, aggressive club who had set themselves up as warlords at the festival. We had only recently begun to make contact with them. Some of us had struck up a good relationship with one of their better-known members, who introduced me, as Squad president, to their president. Later they asked us to look after their camp while they went for a swim and we readily agreed.
Word came through that a large group of skinheads were massing for an attack on the bikers. They had baseball bats, metal bars and chains, and they were ready for action. There were two or three hundred skinheads and only 60 remaining bikers, including us. One of the Angels approached me and asked, “You guys going to fight with us? They don’t give a stuff that you’re Christians. As bikers, you’re going to get it as well.”
“When the skinheads turn up, we’re just going to confront them and ask them to lay down their weapons.”
We went away to talk and pray and decide what to do. Our reply to the Angels was this: “We’re not gutless wonders. We’ll stand with you. But our egos don’t depend on winning a fight. Our security rests in our belief that the God of the universe loves all of us. So when the skinheads turn up, we’re just going to confront them and ask them to lay down their weapons.”
The Angels were shaking their heads in disbelief at this madness. They warned us we’d be ridiculed then beaten to a pulp. Moved by Scripture — “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov 16:7) — I said, “I don’t think it’s going to work out that way. We believe God’s with us and that somehow he’s going to sort this out.”
This had the ring of Old Testament times when the Israelites asked God to deliver them from their enemies.
It was getting dark when we joined the well-armed Angels to await the arrival of the skinheads. To save face, they had to turn up. We sat there for four hours and, to our amazement, nothing happened. I can’t prove it, but it is my belief that God heard our prayers and intervened in some miraculous way. This had the ring of Old Testament times when the Israelites asked God to deliver them from their enemies.
A lot of bloodshed was avoided that night. Also it was an excellent opportunity for God’s Squad to show we weren’t wimps, yet neither were we prepared to compromise our beliefs, even in the face of physical risk. So as “peacemakers” we were “blessed”. I think our stand made a real difference to the way we were viewed in the biker scene generally and among Hell’s Angels in particular. They said, “Look, we don’t buy what you’re selling, but we respect you. You blokes are fair dinkum.”
We knew we had to earn the right to speak through relationship.
Countless bikers have since “bought” our gospel message and many have joined us in our ministry. It was never our way to go around Bible-bashing people, handing out religious leaflets or asking them to come to church. Fear of being beaten up wasn’t the reason; rather it would have prevented communication. We knew we had to earn the right to speak through relationship. Nor did we deliver immediate directives about how people should behave when they became Christians. The leaves on some trees don’t fall off in the autumn; they’re pushed off later by the budding of the new shoot. No point in running around pulling the old leaves off to speed up the process. If the tree’s alive it will happen. We just accepted people where they were, nurtured them and saw that principle work out in many lives in due course.
The challenges we face as Christians in today’s increasingly secular society are similar to those we faced in God’s Squad. Whatever our sphere of influence, we all need courage to identify ourselves as Christians and wisdom to share the good news of Jesus’ saving, transforming power in ways that are suited to that situation.
Rev Dr John Smith was an international speaker, author and founder of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club International, Concern Australia and St Martin’s Community Church in Melbourne.
Adapted for John Smith by Coral Chamberlain from On the Side of the Angels by John Smith and Malcolm Doney, revised edition (K John and Glena Smith: 2015).
John Smith’s most recent book is “Beyond the Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Fulfilment” written with co-author Coral Chamberlain, is available at Koorong.