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Hog Heaven

Harley-riding Illinois pastor extends ministry to biker world

April 7, 2009

A pastor riding a motorcycle.

The Rev. John McFayden —John Welzenbach

LOUISVILLE

The stereotypical biker attire involves a lot of black and a lot of leather.

John McFayden follows part of that formula. He does often wear black, but it’s not usually leather. It’s his pulpit robe.

McFayden is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights, IL. He’s also a longtime motorcycle enthusiast and the subject of a two-page spread in HOG, a publication for the Harley Owners Group.

The photo was originally taken for the church directory by member and professional photographer John Welzenbach. McFayden forgot to wear a suit to church on the day the photos were being taken, so he donned his robe. After the formal photo, he climbed on his bike and sent the resulting photo to HOG, which often prints small photos sent in by readers.

But when the magazine came out, McFayden started getting calls and e-mails from friends and other bikers about his photo, which had been published as the centerfold.

He then heard from the Harley-Davidson Museum, which invited him to lead a blessing of the bikes ceremony. On May 9, the Milwaukee museum is hosting First Rumble 2009, a kickoff event celebrating the beginning of the riding season. McFayden will be there to deliver a brief homily about the blessings associated with motorcycles.

Blessings come from God and are given to people, not machines, McFayden said, adding that his role will be to call attention to the blessings already present.

“It’s the blessing of this beautiful world, which we enjoy with the wind in our face,” he said.

In addition to appreciation of nature, McFayden also plans to celebrate the blessing of relationships formed around a shared interest in motorcycles. He will also remind attendees to not “blow the blessing” by riding responsibly and to “share the blessing” through charity work and fundraisers, which the Harley-Davidson community is known for. 

Although he’s done a few blessings of the fleet ceremonies for boats, McFayden said this will be his first blessing of the bikes. He’s excited about the opportunity to share the good news with another group.

The chance to mingle outside a congregational setting is one benefit of his motorcycle hobby, McFayden said. He has spent most of his life dedicated to the church and enjoys giving a lot of his time to the church, but it’s important for him to meet with people in other contexts as well.

“I think it’s good for the health of pastors to have relationships outside their congregations,” he said.

Welzenbach echoed this sentiment, saying that pastors are real people with hobbies. This sense of personality helps bring McFayden closer to the people he ministers to.

“His calling is pastoral, but that doesn’t mean he can’t ride a motorcycle or sail a sailboat,” Welzenbach said.

And although the Harley-Davidson community might not be the obvious choice for a pastor to spend some free time, it’s liberating to knock down expectations, McFayden said.

That sense of freedom and independence is what initially attracted him to motorcycles. Although his parents forbade it, he began riding when he was 12, sneaking rides with friends. At 17, he got his first bike and is still riding strong more than 40 years later. 

“Riding a Harley Davidson does not fit most people’s stereotype of a Presbyterian pastor,” he said, adding that the stereotypes are found on both sides. “(The Harley-Davidson community is) a little surprised when they run into somebody riding a Harley who is a pastor.”

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