Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Leather and grace: A biker church thrives

Bikers in leather jackets cluster in a circle outside Coconuts Comedy Club. Heads bent, eyes closed, they stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer as a flock of motorcycles fills the parking lot. The prayer ends, and each extends an arm toward the center of the circle, their tattoos blending into a patch of blue ink. "One, two, three, saloon," they cry, raising their hands to the heavens. Then they head inside the comedy club to join the rest of Salvation Saloon's congregation for church services. The Salvation Saloon, a mainly biker church that gathers for fellowship each Sunday in Clearwater, shatters the bad-boy biker stereotype, proving that religious services don't always need to be traditional. Paul White of Palm Harbor believes the Salvation Saloon was a vision God sent him at a young age. The 47-year-old founder and pastor of the ministry never felt he fit in at conventional, mainstream churches. In 2004 White, a biker himself, started traveling to bars across Florida on Sunday mornings to spread the Gospel to bikers searching for a place to belong.

"If they weren't going to go to a traditional church, then we felt like, well, we'll take it to them," White said.

A comedian joined the outreach, breaking the ice for even the most apprehensive bikers. It wasn't long before the ministry took root. Two years later, the Salvation Saloon began holding weekly services.

Shelly Robinson of Largo has been riding her Yamaha motorcycle to the services for about a year. A friend handed her a church flier when she was going through a divorce. Robinson, 49, enjoys the non-denominational, nontraditional services.

"The word is the same," she said, "but the delivery system is different."

On a recent Sunday morning at Coconuts Comedy Club, the Salvation Saloon is packed. People in leather vests and blue jeans hug one another warmly and slide behind the bar tables facing the wooden stage where a worship band, the Posse, is warming up.

The Posse kicks off the service with a handful of songs. White strums on an electric guitar next to a beefy man in a leather vest puffing into a harmonica. People wave their arms in the air as rock and blues fill the room.

White understands not everyone is accepting of the church. He has heard of other churches that criticize the Salvation Saloon, yet have never been to a service.

"I think they just look at the name sometimes and assume that we're this creepy church that meets in a bar and that we're drinking as we're worshiping God," he said. "That's a misconception. There's no drinking allowed at our services."

The Saloonatics, as they call themselves, have expanded to nearly 150 members. The oldest is nearing her 100th birthday; the youngest is in diapers.

Through word of mouth, more nonbikers have joined the Salvation Saloon. White estimates that the church is composed of 60 percent bikers and 40 percent nonbikers.

"It's really turned into something that appeals to everybody," White said.

Carl DiVito, 58, doesn't own a motorcycle but joins his fellow Saloonatics for service each Sunday.

"They believe in take you as you are," said the Clearwater resident.

Halfway through the service a motorcycle helmet is passed around for the collection.

All eyes are on White as he hops onto a bar stool to preach.

"We're kind of like the Blues Brothers," he says to the congregation in a thick Boston accent. "We're all on a mission from God."

Bill Walch of New Port Richey is just one of Salvation Saloon's staff members on a mission. The tattooed 54-year-old travels with the church's prison ministry, telling his story of redemption to inmates. Walch, like many of the staff, has done prison time and found a home at Salvation Saloon.

"The love I felt when I walked in was so thick I could cut it with a knife," Walch said.

The service ends with a prayer. Some Saloonatics mingle over coffee. Others, seated on their Harleys, embrace before they part ways for the week.

"I think they just look at the name sometimes and assume that we're this creepy church that meets in a bar and that we're drinking as we're worshipping God. That's a misconception. There's no drinking allowed at our services."

Pastor Paul White

Leather and grace: A biker church thrives 10/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 2:36pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Taste of Tampa Bay: Pam's Roti Shop and Caribbean Market in St. Petersburg

    Food & Dining

    Pam Prasad, who is originally from Guyana, runs Pam's Roti Shop and Caribbean Market on 38th Avenue N in St. Petersburg with her two sons. Prasad loves to educate her customers about her food, customs and culture. The place is known for its variety of roti combinations, goat dishes and spices.

    Pam Prasad makes roti at Pam's Roti Shop at 2800 38th Ave N. in St. Petersburg. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  2. Tampa Pig Jig lineup: Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Justin Moore, more

    Blogs

    This year's Tampa Pig Jig will have a little bit of country and a little bit of soul.

    Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
  3. March opening planned for renovated Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park

    News

    TAMPA — Dirt, wood and concrete filling the 24-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park will become lawns, athletic facilities and dog parks by March, city officials say.

    A view from the Laurel Street bridge observation deck of the River Center that's being built at the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. Construction is underway for the renovation of the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  4. In Hillsborough, a social worker tasked with helping kids has troubles of her own

    K12

    CLEARWATER — As a social worker for Hillsborough County schools, Marissa Mitchell holds one of the system's most sensitive jobs, helping children navigate deeply personal family problems.

    Marissa Mitchell, recently released from Pinellas County Jail, is a social worker for the Hillsborough County public school system.
  5. Buccaneers defense was among NFL's best when its pressure got to the QB

    Bucs

    It doesn't matter how many times they've thrown a football. It doesn't matter how many seasons they've played. It doesn't matter whether they have a degree from Harvard or Central Florida.

    Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded 6.5 sacks last season, but many of his other contributions didn't show up in the box scores. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]