Leather and Grace

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