Local man starts church congregation ministering to motorcycle riders

November 18, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • When he was younger, Bill Kleckner rode with a motorcycle gang in Texas. Now a born-again Christian, Kleckner still feels a connection to the biking community. He is organizing a church for bikers in Hagerstown.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Bill Kleckner knows the value of family. He's learned the hard way.

"I don't know what a real father is. My father was in the penitentiary when I was young. Mom was involved in an affair and married a younger man. So my grandma pretty much raised my siblings and I," he said. "And I wasn't a good father, because I didn't know how to be a good father."

But Kleckner has seen good examples of family, too — in churches, such as Bridge of Life, the congregation in which he's active now.

And in the motorcycle gang he used to ride with.

"I was a member of a 1-percenter biker group," he said. "The 99 percent were good people — recreational (motorcycle) riders. The 1 percent were the ones that never fit in society. A lot of those groups have done some really bad things, but when you get to the individuals themselves, they are benevolent. They'd take the shirt off their back to give it to you. Within the community, it's a brotherhood. It's a family."

Now, Kleckner, 54, of Hagerstown, is close to realizing a long-held dream of his — to develop a church for area bikers. He has seen first-hand the unmet needs among the biker community.

"My true heart is to start a biker church," he said. "I don't have to preach. I could care less if I never stand in a pulpit. I like the one on one."

Light in the darkness

Kleckner and his wife, Diane, moved to Hagerstown a dozen years ago. They grew up in Perry County, Pa., and, after moving around the country while Kleckner pursued his career in the auto-repair industry, decided to settle close to home and to be closer to her parents.

Right away, the Kleckners joined Life House Church Bethel in Hagerstown, and Bill got involved in a group that wanted to minister to area bikers. The group joined Honorbound Motor Ministries, a national Christian biker group, and started attending biker rallies.

Kleckner said the group realized he was a former biker, and looked to his guidance. But when Kleckner wanted to meet bikers on their turf, some group members balked.

"We would go to bars, because that's where bikers hang out," he said. "But the first time I took the group to a bar, they were like, 'We can't be here.'"

Kleckner said the Christian message is for everybody, even people in bars. After all, the Bible says Jesus was criticized by religious leaders for spending time with drunkards and prostitutes.

"Jesus wouldn't hang out with the religious people. He hung out with people like bikers," Kleckner said. "I love being out there with the lost people — being the light in the midst of darkness. They're comfortable coming to me and asking for help."

A rough history

Kleckner's background is not typical of most Christians. He's now an ordained minister, but he started out without any religion in his life.

"God never showed up in my childhood anywhere. At least, I didn't see him," he said. "When I went into the military, I told them I was atheist."

Kleckner said he was uncontrollable as a child. His father went to prison when Kleckner was 6. When he was 12, Kleckner poached wild game to help feed the family. He first drank alcohol at 12 or 13. He quit school at 16 after a couple weeks in ninth grade. He had a violent temper, stole a car and got involved in the juvenile justice system.

Then, at 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

"Almost went into (U.S. Penitentiary) Leavenworth when I graduated basic training. Got into a fight with a guy in the chow line," he said. "I hurt the guy really bad."

Kleckner was assigned to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He married his childhood sweetheart and settled down. But he continued getting into trouble. He began smoking marijuana and drinking more heavily. Still, he managed to be honorably discharged from the Army after his two year-term was up.

The Kleckners moved back to Perry County, and that's when Bill got deeply involved in criminal activity.

"Was really starting to live an outlaw-type life. Heavily involved in marijuana usage, marijuana sales, marijuana transportation," he said. "During that time, I went to the penitentiary. Was convicted of a violation of the federal arms act and criminal trespassing. I did 7 1/2 months of a 2 1/2 year stint. Got out. But got more involved in criminal activity."

Kleckner got a tip that he was about to be arrested again, and he left his wife and two sons in Pennsylvania and headed west with a van and his auto-repair tools. He found he had a knack for auto repair.

"I was a natural at automotive repair," he said. "I could tear apart transmissions. Electrical things made sense to me. Mechanical things made sense to me."

Eventually, Kleckner ended up in Texas again. His family joined him in Dallas, but life became pretty unstable. He got involved in more serious drug use, was in and out of jail and joined an outlaw bike gang. But even for a biker, Kleckner was extreme.

"I was in fights all the time," he said. "And the gang I was hanging with didn't like the things I was doing, either. They knew if I got busted, it would lead to them."

Kleckner left and settled in San Angelo, Texas. He got a job repairing cars. His wife and sons joined him. Life settled down. For a few months.

"I found the same kind of people I'd been hanging with," he said. "I got in a fight with my boss. Wound up in jail again. This was in 1985, and I was ready to end my life."

Did a 180

Just seven years out of the Army, Kleckner said he knew his life was a shambles. He said he was basically living on drugs and alcohol. He began having nightmares that left him shaking. He didn't like where his life was heading.

And then, his wife found religion.

"My wife got born again in the Salvation Army church. With my dope dealer's wife," Kleckner said. "This is really a God thing here."

But Kleckner wouldn't have any of it. He wouldn't listen to anyone talk about God. With one exception.

"The only one who could witness to me was my second son," Kleckner said. "I'd be sitting in my recliner, stoned out of my mind, and he'd come up to me and say, 'Daddy, do you know Jesus?' And I just couldn't say anything. I just sit there crying."

It all came to a head on a Sunday in mid-November.

"On Nov. 18, 1985, I was ready to end my life," he recalled. "I was mad because the wife wasn't home from church yet. I was flicking through the channels. And there was this preacher just blew into town, and I wanted to burn this guy's church down. 'Cause he was a nut(case)."

Kleckner left the house after a blowup with his wife. He barely remembers whether he made it back home. But he woke with another nightmare and woke up determined to end life as he knew it — one way or another.

Even though he was a skeptic, Kleckner thought he'd give God a chance. His boss at the car repair shop was a Christian, so Kleckner nervously went to his boss' church.

"I was about to leave, when the pastor walks in, and it's that nut(case) that I was about to burn his church down," Kleckner recalled. "I thought to myself, 'Now I know I'm out of my mind.' But I said, 'Preacher, I don't believe in your God. But I've been in the joint. I've been in (Narcotics Anonymous). I've been through (Alcoholics Anonymous). Something is going to change my life today, or I know what will.'"

The preacher asked Kleckner to say a prayer of confession, to admit his sins and ask God for forgiveness. Kleckner struggled to get the words out, and finally did. He said he felt immediate release.

"When I asked Jesus into my heart and set me free and confessed my sins, I felt a rush from head to toe, and I felt clean," he said. "I felt like this whole big huge weight got lifted off my shoulders. When I got home, my wife took one look at me and just busted out bawling. She said I knew it: 'The Lord told me today was the day.'"

Fixed, but not forever

Kleckner said his life changed immediately. He stopped using drugs. Stopped drinking. Stopped engaging in criminal activity.

Life got better, but Kleckner still had ups and downs. He and his family joined a large church in Dallas. He became active in mission work.

"I went in prisons. I was a convict talking with convicts," he said. "Worked in a homeless mission. We bused residents in, had clothes for them, we'd feed them, and had a service for them."

The Kleckners switched churches, and Bill's style of mission was not as welcome in the new church. He clashed with church leaders and became frustrated. After 10 years as a Christian, he put the Bible aside and returned to some old habits, such as drinking.

But his career took off. For the next five years, the Kleckners moved to Pennsylvania, to Nebraska, to Georgia. His stature in the auto-repair industry climbed, but inside, he felt empty. His drinking increased, and he spiraled into bad decisions and depression.

Then, while working in Georgia, Kleckner was charged with a DUI. Within a year, he got another, and ended up in jail.

"I looked around and said, 'This is like the prodigal's son. I'm in the hog pen. How did I get here?'" he said.

He said he prayed for forgiveness, for a second chance to live a Godly life. Once again, he felt that rush of relief and acceptance.

The pastor at Kleckner's next church encouraged him to study theology and the Bible. Never much of a class-based student, Kleckner reluctantly agreed. He stuck with it, and eventually was ordained. Soon after, the Kleckners moved to Hagerstown.

God seeks the broken

Now members of Bridge of Life in downtown Hagerstown, the Kleckners are deeply involved in ministry. Diane offers Bible-based spiritual counseling. Bill is an elder in the church, organizes a series of free family movies in the church's movie theater and helps broken people turn their lives around.

And he's close to launching the biker church. He is working with management at Cancun Cantina West in Hagerstown. Details are still being finalized, but plans are for the congregation to begin meeting at the bar in January.

Kleckner is excited about the planned church, but his eye is on a larger population: Everyone who is hurting, who feels life is not worth living.

"I'm a biker. I love bikers. But I want to touch as many people as possible," he said. "God takes the broken and makes them into something good. And that's what I want him to do through me. I can't fix people, but God can fix them."

If you go ...

WHAT: A church congregation for motorcycle riders

WHEN: Beginning in January; details being finalized

WHERE: Cancun Cantina, 901 Dual Highway, Hagerstown

CONTACT: Call Bill Kleckner at 301-582-9073 or 770-601-2083

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