A church parking lot isn’t the most common spot for a motorcycle rally, and neither is an apartment complex swimming pool the most traditional place for baptisms.
But on Sunday, the unmistaken pop-pop of Harley-Davidson engines are blending with fervent prayers and blessings for the bikes and riders in what is an annual tradition at Bethany United Methodist Church in East Terrell Hills. And if this day is like the one seven days before, the crowd will head over to a nearby pool to save some souls.
Leading the way will be a San Antonio man who almost 20 years ago reached for his pistol, then watched his life spin from one of crime and despair to faith and healing.
Albert “Gonzo” Gonzales wears many hats these days, as pastor of Bethany United Methodist and leader of several outreach ministries. But it’s the helmet he wears as president of the San Antonio chapter of the Barbarian Motorcycle Ministry, dedicated to serving “outlaw” motorcycle clubs, that makes him a “full throttle” preacher.
Gonzales grew up in San Antonio and began selling drugs at 15. He joined the military, and while stationed in California he was arrested for manufacturing methamphetamine,
Today, he keeps Polaroids of the crash tucked in his Bible. They are the images he uses to tell the story of how his lung collapsed in the accident and he lost his ability to speak, how he half-heartedly moved in with his mother to recover, and reluctantly attended an in-home prayer session for Spanish speakers.
“This may sound crazy, but it’s my story,” Gonzales said.
“I told God, ‘If you’re so big, heal me and I will serve you for the rest of my life.’” Then, unnerved by the prayers of the others, Gonzales ran to his truck for his gun, threatening to shoot them all. A pastor followed, Gonzales dropped the weapon and suddenly was able to speak again. “Ha, you gotta watch what you tell God,” he said.
He soon joined a local church and was guided to a full religious conversion by “a little old white lady” he sat next to in a pew every Sunday for three years. He eventually enrolled in nursing school and went to work at Southeast Baptist Hospital and later Methodist Texsan Hospital. On Fridays, he fed the homeless and poor at sites on Palo Alto Road and on Gillette Street. He called it Rev Ministries.
That path led him to Bethany United Methodist Church on Eisenhauer Road – the site of the eighth annual bike blessing on Sunday. He was named senior pastor at the church March 1, though he is not ordained yet, and last week baptized 11 churchgoers. He’s arranged with the Savannah Ridge Apartments nearby to use the swimming pool for baptisms.
Gonzales is also director of the Rivercity Outreach Center, which is based at the church and provides food and clothing to the needy as well as free showers.
Inside his church office, in opposite corners of the small room, is a leather biker vest stitched in red and gold and a sign that spells out “amazing grace” in white swirly letters. Photos of his daughter line the shelves and her image is tattooed on his forearm to remind him of why he wants to watch his diet. Gonzales had quadruple bypass surgery in 2006.
The Barbarian Motorcycle Ministry, which began in Houston, is named after a Christian self-help book titled The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within. The group’s goal is to provide outreach to members of outlaw motorcycle clubs, such as the Bandidos, Gonzales said, and to bring them to God.
The notorious Bandidos Motorcycle Club is a worldwide organization founded in Texas in 1966. With the motto “we are the people our parents warned us about,” the Bandidos are an outlaw motorcycle club known for living by its own rules.
Before leading the Barbarians, Gonzales was a member of the evangelical Christian group Tribe of Judah Motorcycle Ministries, then went “patchless,” unaffiliated with any club, for three years before donning the red and gold as a Barbarian. “For a ministry to fly the same color without any attachment to the club is a big deal,” Gonzales said. “It shows we have a lot of favor with them.”
In addition to serving the group with prayer support, especially at hospitals and funerals, Gonzales holds monthly men’s meetings for the ministry and attends motorcycle club events, reminding them, “God loves us, and he loves bikers, too,” he said. The Barbarians hold an annual toy drive during the holidays and deliver hundreds of gifts to needy children.
On the day the Rivard Report met Gonzales, he was in and out of his small office responding to questions about a food program the church organizes, signing volunteer service forms for probationers, and assisting a homeless man who had come for a fresh set of clothes. One of two bikes Gonzales proudly owns, a 2002 Dyna CVO Wide Glide, is parked behind the office.
“When people see the things that have happened in my life, that’s all I want to show people,” Gonzales said. “If they could just see the type of person I was to the person I am now, and everything that has transpired over the past 20 years, it’s no hand of mine.”
He pulls out a plastic bag, like the ones he once used for dope, he said, and pulls out tiny mustard seeds. “The Bible said that’s all the amount of faith you need to move mountains.”