Sunday, June 14, 2015

Motorcycle blessing at 1980s gay leather bar remembered

Jim Mitulski, left, and Kittredge Cherry bless a motorcycle in 1988 (Photo by Mister Marcus)

Motorcycle blessings at a gay leather bar in San Francisco brought together spirituality and LGBT culture in the 1980s.

I was one of the worship leaders at the 1988 “Bike Blessing” at the Eagle Tavern. Recently I dug out photos of the event -- prompted by news that a friend led a “blessing of the bicycles” at his church for AIDS/Lifecycle.

Worship leaders at the Seventh Annual Bike Blessing on July 17, 1988 were all clergy from Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a denomination that ministers in the LGBT community. They included Rev. Jim Sandmire, pastor of Golden Gate MCC and his assistant; Rev. Jim Mitulski, pastor of MCC-SF, and me. At the time I was a student clergy, serving as MCC-SF women’s programming coordinator.

1988 Bike Blessing worship leaders at the Eagle were, from left, Kittredge Cherry, Golden Gate MCC student clergy (or deacon?) Paul Steindal, Jim Mitulski and Jim Sandmire. (Photo by Mister Marcus)

Times have changed in the 27 years since I blessed bikes at the San Francisco Eagle. We were in the midst of the AIDS pandemic then, with a lot of people dying and no cure in sight. We got through it on faith -- a strong faith that we took to the streets and to the people in unusual LGBT events like the Bike Blessing. Now AIDS has effective treatments and to most people today “blessing of the bikes” means the AIDS/Lifecyle fundraiser, which just ended its 14th annual ride last week.

I remember feeling nervous as I arrived and carried my clergy robe on a hanger through the unfamiliar bar crowded with men in black leather. But their warm welcome quickly put me at ease.  I probably shouldn't have been surprised to find out that the leather bar had its own dressing room. “You can put your drag on over here,” one man said as he led me to it.

I was startled to hear my clerical robes referred to as “drag,” but then I realized that the leather community understood the value of dressing for a role. They wore leather drag and I wore clergy drag, but we all felt a need to look to the part.

After a short opening ceremony, we spent most of the time saying personal prayers over individual bikers and their bikes. My prayer partner was my supervising pastor. He began each encounter with a question that I never expected: “What is the name of your bike?”

Sure enough, all the bikes had names. Soon I got the hang of it and joined in asking God’s blessing upon each rider and bike by name, with a special request for safely on the road.

Praying over each individual bike are Jim Mitulski, left, and Kittredge Cherry (Photo by Mister Marcus)

Jim Mitulski, left, and Kittredge Cherry lay hands of blessing on a motorcycle at the Eagle leather bar (Photo by Mister Marcus)

The Bike Blessings at the Eagle were an annual summer event founded in the early 1980s by Harry Harkness, a leatherman and longtime organist at MCC-SF. A full description and liturgy is provided in a chapter by Steve Carson in the book “Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations,” which I edited with Zalmon Sherwood.

Almost 30 years have passed since I first blessed bikes at a leather bar. Harry Harkness died in 2010 at age 85. Marcus Hernandez, who photographed the event as the Bay Area Reporter's longtime leather columnist under the pen name “Mister Marcus,” died in 2009 at age 77. The Eagle closed and reopened, but they don’t seem to sponsor Bike Blessings anymore.

My experience at the 1988 Bike Blessing was expressed well by Steve Carson in “Equal Rites”:

This can be a peculiarly moving event. Bikers form a genuine community in which people know and respect each other…. This group is ignored, misunderstood, or condemned by many religious bodies, yet I have found it to be a deeply spiritual community. Worship leaders will be genuinely welcomed and appreciated, and may find among the leather and the varooms of the motorcycles a spiritual event more real than many they have been in before.

Worship leaders at the 1988 Bike Blessing were, from left, Kittredge Cherry, Jim Mitulski, Golden Gate MCC student clergy (or deacon?) Paul Steindal and Jim Sandmire. (Photo by Mister Marcus)

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