Faith+Values: Hog Heaven in Apple Valley

Photo by Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Robbie Wissler of Isanti, Minn., second from left, was emotional after a Sunday evening service as he confided in the three clergymen, from left, Pastors Chuck, Rick and Paul.

Biker ministers go full throttle in sharing their message of brotherhood at Tabernacle in Christ's Church.

Last update: September 28, 2007 – 1:32 PM

The ministers at Tabernacle in Christ's Church are known as White Owl, Big Bear and the Beave. For those with a more formal inclination, they'll also answer to the names Pastor Rick, Pastor Chuck and Pastor Paul. But if you call them by their last names, they'll be quick to tell you to knock it off.

Then again, that's not really much of a problem because most of the worshipers don't know the ministers' last names. They just know them as three lifelong motorcyclists who have been through a lot of the same problems they're going through and want to help.

"We believe that family takes care of family," said Pastor Rick Schnarr, who, as the church's senior minister, is the only one who makes his last name public but who sends the church e-mail under his road name, White Owl.

"It's all about brotherhood," added Pastor Chuck, aka Big Bear. If a group of bikers are out for a ride and "a brother breaks down, we don't just leave him on the side of the road. We go back and get him."We sum it up in three words: love, loyalty and respect," added Pastor Paul, the Beave. "That's not just the only thing; it's everything."

The church is not big on pomp and circumstance. The weekly service, which is held at 6 p.m. Sundays in space donated by Christ's Church, 12925 Johnny Cake Ridge Rd., Apple Valley, is relaxed and free-flowing. The ministers don't wear robes; they wear their biking leathers.

"We're just real people trying to help people with real problems," Pastor Rick said. "We want people to be relaxed, and we want the service to be fun."

Sermons based in real life

The ministers are ordained "and all that stuff," he said. In fact, he's closing in on getting his Ph.D., which means that soon he's going to become Dr. Rev. White Owl. But while his thesis might offer esoteric musings on theological theories, you're not going to hear any of that in his sermons. He talks about "life and the bumps life throws at you."I can give you some funny stuff and maybe a little wisdom, but after 10 minutes, I'd be done," he said. "I'm really better equipped to tell you what not to do. I could preach for another 40 years using examples from my life of what not to do. I've pretty much made every mistake you can name."

Pastor Chuck added with a chuckle: "Between the three of us [ministers], we've broken all 10 commandments and probably a couple more that we made up."

Pastors Rick and Chuck fought their way back from drug addictions. Pastor Paul battled depression that led him close to suicide. Now they are united in a single cause.

"We want to give hope to people who might not have any," Pastor Paul said.

When Pastor Rick, 50, announced that he was becoming a minister, people didn't believe him.

"My parents thought it was a scam," he said. "And I can't blame them. I was a con man on the street."

But he hasn't touched drugs for more than 20 years. And he launched two other churches before starting his current one 18 months ago. Emotionally, it was the biggest challenge of the three.

"I had a church in Burnsville but resigned to take care of my brother, who had gotten Lou Gehrig's disease," he said. "I took care of him the last two years of his life. When he died, God and I wrestled with that for a while. And when God started pressing me to start another church, I argued with Him. But, as you can see, I lost."

None of the ministers are paid, which means that they all have full-time jobs in addition to their church duties. Pastor Rick drives a bus, Pastor Chuck owns a concrete business and Pastor Paul is a carpenter. On top of that, all three do volunteer work for other churches and causes.

Not a 'rent-a-seat' operation

The irony of his parents thinking that going into the ministry was a scam "is that I'm really bad about the money thing," Pastor Rick said. "Some Sundays I forget to put out the [offering] basket in the back of the church."

Then again, he expects more from worshipers than just their money.

"We're not a rent-a-seat church," he said in an interview before a recent service. "If someone wants to sit there quietly for the first few weeks, I'll let them. But then I start to nudge them. We believe that the role of the church is to reach out and help people. We believe in an active God."

Later, during the service, he put it another way: "Be Christ to someone this week," he exhorted the congregation. "We are the hand of God in the world today."

For the record, worshipers don't have to come on motorcycles. On a recent Sunday evening, the parking lot held more cars, vans and SUVs than motorcycles.

"We didn't set out to call ourselves a biker church," Pastor Rick said. "Other people started calling us that, and, well, look at us: That's what we are. We're bikers. But everyone is welcome."

Nick Thibodeau, one of the worshipers at a recent service, appreciated that the ministers don't try to be something they're not.

"They keep it real," he said. "It's a very welcoming environment. There isn't a bad vibe in the house."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

Jeff Strickler • jstrickler@startribune.com