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Motorbike pastor journeys with 'ragamuffins'

 Sean Stillman tells Linda McTurk how he has ridden with motorcyclists on some of the darkest roads of their lives

I felt called to connect with my mates in the biking community

SOME people might be surprised by the idea of Christians gathering in motorcycle clubhouses. Bikers are often perceived as rough, tough people who may ride on the wrong side of the law. But Sean Stillman, who carries out a Christian ministry in motorcycle clubhouses, believes that their reputation with the public is not always justified.

‘The negative public perception of bikers is real, but I don’t know that the bike subculture is worse than any other, particularly in terms of its behaviour,’ he says. ‘But people choose to belong to motorcycle clubs because they want to belong somewhere.

‘There’s something very tribal about sharing the road with a bunch of your mates. If a disaster happens during a lengthy journey, the process of getting to your destination almost becomes secondary. You actually become closer as a community as a result.’

Sean’s journey to becoming a pastor for bikers began as a teenager when a brotherly figure at his church introduced him to motorcycling. He then picked up a copy of On the Side of Angels, an autobiography by John Smith who in the late 1960s in Australia established a motorcycle club called God’s Squad. Similar to other clubs, God’s Squad had its own symbols and colours and its own vetting process to determine who could join. But, unlike other clubs, its mission was based on the teachings of Jesus.

Inspired by John’s story, in 1995 Sean hit the road with three other Christian bikers to establish the first God’s Squad chapter in the UK. Since then, they have developed a reputation in the motorcycling community as people who care. Through their time on the road, God’s Squad members befriend bikers and offer them compassion and support in tough periods of their lives.

Sean recalls: ‘During one funeral event, a guy who I’d known for 20 years, but never really had any interaction with before that point, put his arm around me at the graveside and said: “Thank you so much for what you’ve done for my [bike club] brother.” He valued what we had brought to his community in the moments leading up to his friend’s death and in supporting him and his family.’

There are five regional chapters of God’s Squad in the UK and their members are well respected among the motorcycling community. But Sean explains that such respect was not easily earned.

‘For a long time we were ignored. It was a matter of turning up and being there. We already had existing relationships with clubs where people would hang out. Then we’d get invited to their clubhouses and we’d go to public bike shows, sometimes events with 15,000 people or small events in the back of a pub car park.’

At the start of their ministry, there were times when Sean and his fellow God’s Squad members even faced outright hostility.

‘One time about 20 years ago, some guys had been drinking and were really angry about a news story that week where some priests had been exposed as paedophiles,’ Sean recalls. ‘A couple of us took a really bad beating for that. Afterwards I weighed it up and wondered whether this was a price worth paying. I decided that the only way we were going to change people’s attitudes towards Christians was to prove that there was a different way.

‘It probably took about ten years, and after that we started to be asked to take funerals, to hang out with different clubs and we became an accepted part of the furniture. And if we’re not at an event, people want to know why, which is terrific.’

Many people who encounter Sean today might think that he always intended to be a pastor for motorcyclists. But as a pastor’s son, the young Sean dreaded the idea of doing the same job as his father. And he admits that when he first felt compelled to take his ministry on the road, he didn’t quite fit the biker mould.

‘I was the squeaky clean preacher’s kid who weighed nine stone soaking wet,’ he explains. ‘I was not the obvious choice to go marching into the environment of motorcycle clubs. But I felt called to connect with my mates in the biking community.’

Sean also ministers to other people he describes as outcasts, or people ‘at the end of negative judgment’. Today Sean primarily works as a full-time pastor at Zac’s Place, a church in Swansea with the tagline, ‘A church for ragamuffins’.

‘Zac’s Place began 20 years ago,’ Sean says. ‘We were responding to a need from bikers, musicians and artists who wanted to discuss more about the Christian faith but weren’t going anywhere near a church. We began holding regular Sunday night sessions in a bar in Swansea city centre, not knowing where it would lead.

‘After about six years of gathering almost every Sunday night, people were asking for the sacraments of Communion and baptism, and there were people who had made a commitment to follow Christ. There were also people who were in recovery from alcohol addiction or needed to be, so the pub was not the best place for them to be. So we bought an old chapel and breathed some new life into it. Then we decided to serve people who we considered to be most vulnerable in the cit

Some 50 people are part of the Zac’s Place church community. The church holds weekly worship services and reaches out to the wider community through the arts. It also provides practical support for people in crisis through its relationships with various charities.

Throughout the week, Zac’s Place provides food for people who need it. During the winter months, it runs a night shelter for rough sleepers. On certain occasions, the church has also held health events to offer multiple medical screenings in one place for marginalised people.

‘Zac’s Place is about ordinary people working out what it is to follow Christ,’ Sean says. ‘And because we use the same space for feeding people and treating people at different times in the week, people feel quite comfortable just falling through the door as they are, in whatever state.’

Throughout his decades of ministry, Sean has taken encouragement from Jesus.

‘I like the comparison with Jesus on the road with his mates,’ he says. ‘I think that whatever state of repair or disrepair we consider ourselves to be in, Jesus is not going to be the one who walks away and leaves us. He’s still going to be alongside us, whatever the road brings.

‘Where others may judge us, leave us or make decisions on whether we’re worth it or not, these are non-negotiables in the presence of Jesus. With Jesus, we are loved and accepted despite what others say and what we think of ourselves.’

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