Prison Bikers Gather for Prayer

On a crisp Sunday morning, Corky Toth fired up his Honda and set out for church.

Riding his loud, fast Magna four cylinder, he made the trip from Hudson to Palm Harbor in just 20 minutes.He didn't want to be late. The guest speaker was going to preach at the 10 a.m. service about a trouble-making outlaw.

The outlaw was Jesus, the speaker was a convicted murderer and the church is the Salvation Saloon, a Christian biker ministry that meets monthly at the Rock Harbor Club in Palm Harbor.

"We're trying to reach people who wouldn't normally go to church," said Suzanne White, whose husband, Paul, founded the outreach a year ago.

Suzanne White, 42, a property manager, and the Rev. Paul White, 44, an ordained minister and security coordinator for Skycrest Baptist Church in Clearwater, rent the bar for services. The ministry is supported by donations bikers put in a collection helmet.

White said he had a vision 20 years ago for the unusual ministry.

"I've been riding bikes for a long time," he said. "I could tell when I was talking to people they had faith, but didn't feel comfortable in a church."

So he designed a fun, casual service with a serious message of salvation.

On Sunday, about 200 bikers, almost all dressed in leather, roared up to the club for a bike show before the service began.

Inside, a rock band warmed the crowd, and "Bible Brother Bert" walked around the bar holding lighted incense and saying, "The Lord says our prayers are like sweet incense to his nostrils."

Bert of Daytona Beach said he started smuggling heroin and marijuana at 16, and has 47 felony arrests. He has done time in some of the most feared lockups in the United States, including Folsom Prison for armed robbery and attempted murder.

Still, "I never knew conviction until I met the Lord," Bert said.

When the service started, Bert offered his testimony.

"Have you ever ridden your bike without oil?" he asked the crowd. "No. It would lock up and burn. If you don't accept the Lord, you are going to lock up and burn. If you don't have him in your heart, you need a stinking checkup from the neck up."

Next to speak was Nelson "Buzzo" Kowalczyk who fatally shot a man during a drug deal gone bad in 1976. Kowalczyk, 57, who used to ride with the Devil's Disciples in Detroit, said he did "26 years, 10 days and 46 minutes" for the crime.

"I was one of the crazies," he said. "Now I ride with Jesus."

His mentor, Jack Murphy, known as "Murph the Surf," also is a convicted murderer, and served 21 years at various prisons before inviting Jesus into his heart.

In 1964, he and a friend broke into a New York City museum and stole the 563-carat Star of India diamond. Later, he was convicted of murder and sent to prison for life but was paroled in 1986.

"I was seriously into the darkness," said Murphy, whose story was turned into a movie, Murph the Surf, starring Robert Conrad.

"Buzzo and I went in for first-degree murder, but we don't jaywalk today because we're saved," Murphy said.

Murphy now runs an international prison ministry that uses Harleys to draw the inmates.

"Those guys in prison are hard core," he said. "They wouldn't go to the chapel if they were giving out pizza and parole. But you bring in a hog, and there they are."

After the service Sunday, there was a "scooter blessing" and fellowship.

Friends who hadn't seen each other for years shook hands and admired each other's hogs.

"Bikers have more fun than people," Bert said with a laugh.