In the latest episode of CuriosiD, WDET recently explored the history of Black motorcycle clubs in Detroit. But bikers say they are not always tied to a brick-and-mortar clubhouse.
There are also groups where members join just to ride the roads together. The Christian riding group, “Broken Chains,” cruises through metro Detroit and to all points across the state and country.
Biker and Michigan resident Johnny Van Patten is one of those riders.
Van Patten says his personal journey stretches from Broken Chains to the rough, so-called “one-percenter” clubs.
Born a one-percenter
Van Patten grew up in the one-percenter lifestyle, with his father a member of “one of the most notorious [one-percenter clubs] in the nation and in the world,” he said.
“One-percenters, there’s a lot of politics that you got to really watch out for — who you approach, how you approach, who you can and can’t talk to,” Van Patten said. “Like one-percenters, anybody with a diamond patch, you ain’t gonna just walk up to them and say: ‘Hey, brother.’ You’re not their brother. It’s a good way to get snatched up by somebody that’s standing by him.”
Most importantly he said, it’s about respect.
“You always take your glasses off, your glove off, you introduce yourself as your own name, not your riding name. So I would be like: ‘Hi, my name is Johnny Joe. I’m with Broken Chains.’ That’s how I introduce myself. And then they might ask: ‘Who’s Broken Chains? Why did we get the right to wear these?’ Because you can’t just wear a patch in some states. They’ll come take it right off your back. If you don’t have clearance from some of the one-percenters that run that state, then you don’t belong.”
Van Patten’s dad died in a motorcycle accident when he was 10-years-old, leaving his MC “brothers” to care for him.
“I’ve been riding since I was five years old,” he said. “So I’ve been doing this for about 50 years.”
Listen: Michigan biker Johnny Van Patten speaks with WDET about his journey from his rock bottom to becoming a motorcycle missionary
The clubs and the day riders
There are many other motorcycle clubs beyond the notorious one-percenter groups, Van Patten says, including “day riders,” “mom and pops” and church riders.
Thousands of bikers from different groups joined a recent charity ride in Flint for a fallen police officer, though not all were friendly with each other, he said.
“All the big [groups] were there and some of them weren’t getting along. And it was a little bit scary,” Van Patten said. “But then you have thousands of people that are getting along. What you hear about bikers is probably true in some clubs and in some way. And if you don’t know, you’re probably best off not asking questions. It’s a lifestyle that you’re invited into.
“If you came with a microphone up to certain people, you’d probably see some prospects carrying you off somewhere and probably taking that from you. That’s the one-percenter lifestyle,” he said. “Somebody like me who’s got nothing to hide, is not doing anything illegal, not into that lifestyle any longer, I stand proud and tall. This is who I am. I’m a biker who’s in Christ now.”
“I grew up with drug smugglers and cartels and the one-percenter lifestyle. So to go from the gang banging and biker gangs and the cartels to being an ordained minister and a motorcycle missionary riding around the country letting people know that change is possible, you’re talking opposite ends of the scale.” — Biker and Michigan resident Johnny Van Patten
A biker’s fall and rise
Still, Van Patten says his path to joining a Christian biker group took him down a very dark road.
“I fell as far as I could fall. I couldn’t get no lower in life. I had become a person that I vowed I’d never become in my life. I’ve seen it all. I drank probably a half-gallon to a gallon every day for 25 years, had as much as an ounce-of-cocaine-a-night habit. That type of lifestyle over the years really wore me down. And I ended up hanging myself in a garage, Oct. 19, 2007. And that was where it happened for me. I heard this little whisper in my ear that said, ‘Not like this.’ And that was when I met God. I don’t know how to explain that to people. There was no booming voice, no angels singing, no shining light, none of that. But I knew I was in the presence of something greater than myself and greater than this world. And I don’t know how I got out of the situation because I was literally hanging from a rafter. It was a bona fide miracle for me. And I got out of that situation. Then I got clean and sober. I had turned myself in for a crime that was five years old at that point. Went to prison for 10 years, took sobriety and recovery with me into the prison system, became a facilitator and started teaching men what I had found out. So for the last 15 years I’ve been teaching men how to make better decisions with their lives. And kind of changed my life around because I was a hardcore criminal. I grew up with drug smugglers and cartels and the one-percenter lifestyle. So to go from the gang banging and biker gangs and the cartels to being an ordained minister and a motorcycle missionary riding around the country letting people know that change is possible, you’re talking opposite ends of the scale.”
Riding for Christ
Van Patten says while members of Broken Chains are Christ-centered in recovery, they are still very much bikers and know how to have a good time — in a different way.
“We’re not drinking and smoking and carrying on and doing the things that are of the world, we’re doing Jesus things. And we do them to an extreme because we are bikers in recovery,” he said. “We get together, we praise and worship and we’re open about it. You know I got patches on my vest that say, ‘These are my church clothes.’”
Even his pastor is embracing the lifestyle.
“My pastor rode here with me. He’s a new biker, and it’s kind of neat to see because I belong to a big church and they see me all the time as the biker dude,” he said. “Now my head pastor is a biker.”
Two wheels in the wind
Even though some rough times in Van Patten’s life are associated with motorcycles, he says there’s just something that keeps drawing him back to the big bikes.
“Two wheels in the wind. And freedom to ride. When you’re by yourself with your thoughts on a bike, it’s a different aspect of things. I get closer to God every time I ride out on a backcountry road somewhere,” he said. “When we show up in the thousands, we’re not looking at patches, we’re not looking at your color of your skin, we’re not looking at your financial statements. We’re looking at two wheels in the wind and we’re looking at a biker. When we get on these bikes, we forget everything. Motorcycles fix everything for a little bit.”
You can hear more about the history of Black motorcycle clubs in Detroit if you check out the latest episode of CuriosiD at wdet.org/podcasts or by searching for CuriosiD wherever you get your favorite podcasts.