Dennis King preaches in a converted blues bar to motorcycle riders and others who like his brand of everyone-is-welcome worship.
It doesn't look like a church. At the moment, it doesn't even sound like a church. The Pigeon Hole used to be a bar, and for all some people here know, it still is.
Motorcycles clog the sidewalk outside, engines idling. Children play tag while burly, tattooed men sit on the front porch, trading stories. If you poke your head inside and peer into the dark recesses, you may still be confused. Chinese lanterns strung from the ceiling cast a soft glow on card tables below. Mothers dole Cheerios to chubby-fisted toddlers. Adults buy soft drinks from "Moose," a man with Samson biceps.
But looks can be deceiving, and stereotypes don't fly too well at the Hope Fellowship Church, anyway. In fact, it's that one quality – an inclusive, nonthreatening atmosphere – that draws more than 200 people here each Sunday to worship, eschewing the megachurches so prominent throughout the Dallas area for what they say is a deeper, more spiritual connection.
Biker churches have become so popular in recent years they're almost mainstream, but if you discount this ragtag assortment as just another symbol of a growing trend, you'd be wrong again. Most attendees have never sat on a bike, and the Rev. Dennis King, who does glide into the parking lot on a Harley, once wore a suit and tie to church every Sunday, preaching from the pulpit of a fundamentalist Baptist church.
Still, Pastor King admits, some stereotypes are true. Many of his parishioners have served time. Almost all – King included – have a background of hard drinking and hard living. But those are the very people who need to be in church, he says. It's not for the saints, it's for the sinners.
King was on a rocky road until he met his wife, Cindy. He started riding motorcycles when he was 10 and started drinking at 18. For a while, she lived the life with him, but when they had two children, it lost its appeal for her. She wanted to go to church and get right with God, but he told her to go alone.
"Every week she'd ask, and every week I'd say, 'I'll go when I'm good and ready,' " King recalls. "My heart wasn't in it."
Then one night, Cindy had a dream – God had taken their children. She woke up terrified, inconsolable, and once more, she asked him to go to church. This time, he said yes.
Soon, he was in church every week. He'd stopped drinking and was doing everything they'd let him, from sweeping floors to driving the church van. He started teaching Sunday School, but still felt called to do more. One day, watching a group of children at the altar, tears rolled down his cheeks. God was calling him to preach, and though he tried to ignore it, he was ready to accept the call.
He worked as a salesman by day and took ministry courses at night. Then one day he graduated and waited to be snapped up by a church in need of a newly minted preacher. It didn't happen. Four years passed before King found a church, and after four and a half years there, he realized he was being led in a different direction again.
His children were grown and he was resuming his love for motorcycles, hanging out at the local pawn shop with a group of Christian bikers who gathered for weekly Bible study.
Still, even after his stint at Northview Baptist Church, he found his quest to form a new church difficult. Every week, the struggling ministry met in homes and local businesses, garnering only a handful of worshipers. And once again, King felt his faith tested. "I wondered why other churches were growing and we weren't," he says. "Some Sundays there weren't but three people there: me, Cindy, and one other person."
In December 2005, his prayers were answered. While preaching to a crowd of 10, he was interrupted by a familiar rumble outside – motorcycles. Forty-five leather-clad bikers poured in, bringing family and friends. The next day, King learned the news. The men were so moved by the service that space was being offered in a local blues-bar venue, The Pigeon Hole. Hope Fellowship finally had a home.
"I realized God had been answering my prayers all along," King says. "He wasn't bringing the men to me. He was bringing me to them."
Initially, Saturday nights meant blues jams at The Pigeon Hole, with a quick cleanup for Sunday church. Though it didn't begin as a biker church, word spread quickly. This was a place where everyone was welcome, even bikers. And though King wasn't a hard-core biker, he knew if he wanted to minister to this flock, he had to ride. Suddenly the former Baptist preacher shed his tie. He got a tattoo while church members stood around, some teasing, all impressed by his dedication to become one with them. The Pigeon Hole became a full-time church.
"A lot of churches expect you to change before you come in, but change doesn't take place until you're in the presence of Jesus," King says. "People will stick their heads in here and say this isn't a church, but the people are the church."
Roger Brown says the open attitude is what drew him and his wife, Lindy. "I've gone to churches where no one would speak to you," he says. "You were an outsider, and you'd wonder why you were there. Here, you're not gonna get in and out without somebody hugging you."
Vee Miller agrees. She was initially suspicious of the church when her son joined, but King quickly put her fears to rest. "I was really impressed with the sincerity of the men that went there, how they worshiped," Ms. Miller says. "You have these men who come from very rough backgrounds, and I watch these tough-looking men praying, raising their hands in worship, and singing, and I know it's sincere."
She thinks that King is uniquely fitted to understand the needs of his congregation because he has walked in their shoes – and that empathy has worked a miracle in her family.
That, in fact, may be the biggest value of "niche" churches like Hope Fellowship: They can take the Gospel to segments of society that traditional churches often eschew. "If we look at the ministry of Jesus, he associated with those the religious establishment had no time for," says Eddie Gibbs, a senior professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "He was at ease with the outcasts of society."
Yet in catering to special groups – there are now cowboy churches, Goth churches, even NASCAR churches – ministers need to avoid adopting the same exclusivity they fled. "We all feel most comfortable with our own," says David Wells, a theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. "But what the church is about is giving us something in Christ that is greater than any of the things that typically, and naturally, divide us."
Church is over at The Pigeon Hole for the day, but the ministry continues. As the men tromp down the wooden steps, slinging on denim jackets with patches proclaiming "Real Men Love Jesus," they stop to fashion a game plan.
The mission for the day is to visit a sick parishioner, part of the group's weekly "Ridin' 'n Prayn' " ministry. Sometimes their visits are routine, sometimes not. King recalls one house call where they'd driven away and were scarcely a mile down the road before they received a phone call – the woman they'd just seen had passed away peacefully right after they left.
One by one, the motorcycles file out of the parking lot, chrome flashing in the afternoon sun as they head down West Irving Boulevard. Outlaws. Sinners. Believers.