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Interview: Sean Stillman, founder of Zac’s Place and God’s Squad

05 October 2018

‘I like silence. Alternatively, the thunderous sound of a dozen Harleys riding through a tunnel takes some beating’

It was a reluctant step: Zac’s Place never had a big plan. It still doesn’t. At its core is a simple desire to lead others in following Jesus.

Originally, I was a draughtsman in civil engineering, working on roads, airports, and bridges; but I was supported as a minister by my Baptist church in Reading.

People were saying: “We want to know more, but we’re not going anywhere near a church.” I was heartbroken by the number of times I’d seen new believers not finding their place in existing church communities. Sometimes, too much was expected, or they were treated like a sideshow. So I started Zac’s Place in a pub in Swansea, in 1998. It still welcomes the outcast, and offers Bible teaching and discipleship in serving others, particularly the most marginalised.

In my teens, I met a guy who taught me how to ride and got me into motorcycles; but it was only once I felt a mission-call to the margins, and specifically the biker subculture, that I chose to embed myself in it. This was more than 30 years ago. I was the least obvious candidate: a small, lightweight, shy, nervous, squeaky-clean preacher’s son.

God’s Squad isn’t a social club for Christians to ride together. It’s seriously committed to mission, chaplaincy, discipleship, proclamation, and advocacy for the outcast among motorcycle clubs. It takes three to four years to join us.

It began in Australia in the late ’60s, and, since the early ’90s, the club has grown throughout Europe. It’s broadly well-accepted within the biker subculture as a tangible, welcome expression of Christian community.

There’s a subset of motorcycle clubs for whom loyalty, brotherhood, and lifestyle is paramount. Their colours — their club patch on their back — symbolises everything they believe. Membership is very select. It’s a challenge to Christians, because, if we don’t live out our faith fully and with the level of commitment, honour, respect, and service that they do theirs, they won’t take us seriously.

For some, it’s a surrogate family. For some, it’s cost them their family. The vast majority are in work, because membership costs money, but they may be in flexible employment: academic and highly paid careers, as well as traditional working-class trades.

In many ways, these clubs are one of the few remaining attempts in Western culture to belong to a tribe. As God’s Squad, we function as a mission tribe, taking on familiar symbols and shapes, but putting our own Christ-centred meaning and foundations to them. Once you’ve earned the right to speak, and proved yourself trustworthy and true to what you stand for, you’ll be accepted.

A wedding blessing on a festival stage in front of a few thousand bikers. . . You have 60 seconds to earn the right to everyone’s attention, or face a torrent of abuse. Most funerals have been in tragic circumstances, and pious platitudes won’t do. Similarly, guys in jail won’t just sit and listen to nonsense: my biker mates can see right through any masquerade.

I can be a cultural chameleon when it’s appropriate: my language and turn of phrase may vary. But always in my mind is the question: Who is the weakest brother or sister here right now? When you realise you may be talking to someone who has been raped, abused, betrayed, bullied, hurt by the Church, killed someone, caught in silent addiction, convinced they’ve committed the unforgiveable sin, or tormented by depression, you soon learn to change how you communicate.

Transparency, honesty, and integrity are the biggest factors in communication. Christ included people, not alienated them. I’m hopeful we’re getting back to a gospel that’s comfortable in the dirt at the feet of the woman caught in adultery, and not on a stage putting on a performance.

The culture is very male-dominated. Women can be treated as objects. But, recently, a lot of women have been attracted to the motorcycle scene, searching for their own place and identity. Our Christian values are different. We choose to only have male members because otherwise clubs’ doors would be closed to us — but that doesn’t mean we don’t challenge that attitude, particularly in how we treat our wives and children. People ask where all the men are in the Church, and God’s Squad provides some with a stretching mission. Women and some families are actively involved in key pastoral roles.

Clubs travel big distances to party for the weekend at their clubhouses. We get invited to these closed gatherings and make connections within Europe. I could ride to Ukraine and return via Finland and Sweden, and find hospitable welcomes at every required stop, either in our God’s Squad chapters or other clubhouses. Relationships are built at the bar and around meals.

It’s essentially an on-the-road mission; but we’re organised in regional chapters which take up invites to visit other clubs. We build relationships, find a pastoral ministry, and we’ll often be asked to take funerals, weddings, or visit the sick or jailed. Some of our chapters will have planted a church community, such as Zac’s Place, which provides a place for discipleship for any that want to take the way of Christ with us.

Funerals can be huge gatherings, and these invitations come only after years of clubs sussing us out. Today, I had a surprise call from someone whose friend I’d buried 15 years ago. He’s just been diagnosed with a terminal lung problem, and he asked if I’d take his funeral.

After 30 years, there’s been a shift. If you’d asked these bikers what they thought of Christianity then, the answer would be very different to now. Some of the anger and disdain still exists, but, to be honest, those are sentiments we may share on certain issues.

I’m the son of an itinerant evangelist. The gospel was modelled in quiet, faithful service by my parents. Perhaps my radical transformational experience was when I began to grasp the enormity of the Beatitudes.

Growing up in rural Berkshire was happy, but my growth was two years behind, and some teachers would humiliate me in front of the school, which crushed any joy in books or reading. I’ve been surprised at how much I’m enjoying writing now.

I’ve been married to Jayne for 26 years, and we have four children between the ages of 11 and 23. It’s a busy, creative, crazy household.

Over the years, I’ve learned to manage the balance between home and being on the road better. I’m not prepared to let my family pay the price for my ministry. I don’t want people just out of jail to be knocking on my door when I’m not around. My children got involved in the soup kitchen and meeting some of the chaotic people we support, but only when they were old enough.

One of the homeless men insisted on giving my seven-year-old daughter £1 to go and buy some sweets, and she’s never forgotten that.

My MA studies came out of the blue. I’d experienced a painful betrayal of trust, and relinquished some responsibility, which gave me some unexpected time. I was also very tired from 30 years of front-line pastoral ministry. Studying has come like fresh water on a hot weary day. I’m more surprised than anyone at how much I’ve enjoyed it.

I’m an introvert who needs time to recover from intense time around lots of people. Fresh air in the countryside, solo time on the bike, getting lost in my favourite music are good for me, though I happily spend most of my down-time with my family.

I like silence. Alternatively, there’s the crack of a perfectly-tuned snare drum on a rock-and-roll track. The thunderous sound of a dozen Harleys riding through a tunnel takes some beating.

The so-called prosperity gospel — and anything where the Church is manipulating the teachings of Jesus to further its own agenda — makes me sick to the core.

Knowing I’ve made a contribution to someone’s life, however small, makes me happy.

Probably I pray most for my own sanity. There’s a fine line between a fearless faith and complete madness, I’m sure. Being able to do the right thing on the worst kind of day, when I’ve nothing left to give, calls me to prayer.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Judas Iscariot. I’d want to look into his eyes, half hoping to see the devil, but, in reality, I’d probably see a reflection of myself set against the crucifix in front of us.

Sean Stillman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

God’s Biker is published by SPCK at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69).


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