Dave Biehl, 60, wears a black leather vest with the seal of the Christian Motorcyclists Association sewn on the back as he thunders down Orange Blossom Trail on his '99 Honda Valkyrie motorcycle. On his left handlebar is a tattered pink ribbon, a gift from the Chrome Angels, a group of female bikers raising money to fight breast cancer. On his windscreen is a National Rifle Association sticker.
The sun bears down on his thick 6-foot, 4-inch frame as he guns it around a slow Ford Escort, popping the speedometer up to 55 mph in a 35 mph zone just south of the East-West Expressway. The short, wispy blond hair peeking out of the front of his helmet is darkened with sweat. He pulls into a Kwik Stop and, before stepping off, bows his head.
"God, give me the right words. Let me be sensitive."
It's a quick prayer he offers in case he's called on to help someone find their way off the street or an opportunity arises to spread the word of God. Then he's off the bike and into the store, his walk almost jaunty. He grabs a 69-cent Pepsi ("the coldest soda in town") from the cooler, pays at the counter and flashes the cashier a toothy smile. "Thank you, kind sir," he says.
Biehl's mission, his calling, is working with the prostitutes who work the Trail. He wants to save their souls; he'll be satisfied if he can get them to stop selling their bodies.
If his ministry has a central office, this Kwik Stop would be it. He's here a couple of times a week buying the coldest Pepsi in town and waiting to see the prostitutes he's come to know on a first-name basis since he started his outreach a year ago.
"Today is slow as molasses," he says, taking a seat on the curb outside the door. In any given conversation, Biehl will likely slap your back and shake your hand at least a couple times. Say something funny and he'll thump your shoulder. Make a point he likes and he'll engulf your hand in his. He enjoys contact; he seeks the human connection.
A few minutes later a black woman Biehl says is a streetwalker wanders through the parking lot. Stephanie (all of the women's names in this story have been changed to protect their identity) is wearing dirt-speckled red flip-flops and a dark-green cotton nightie. She looks to be in her late 30s.
Biehl sees her and he's up in a second. "Stephanie, how're you doing?" he asks, embracing her and flashing that toothy smile.
She offers a sheepish grin in return. They talk for a few minutes. Her birthday has just passed, and Biehl says he's going to bring her a present in a couple of days, a promise he keeps. She answers his questions, but her eyes shift and she seems eager to be done with the conversation.
Three minutes later he says goodbye and Stephanie offers a small smile before shrugging and walking toward a group of men standing near a gas pump. Biehl sits back down on the curb. "In a year she's going to be one of my partners out here helping spread the word."
Minutes later Stephanie is back, standing over Biehl. "Can I have some money?" she asks.
Biehl says he can't give her money; that's just not what he does. It's a recurring scene; the line between being a friend to these women and being used is constantly blurred. Back on the bike, motoring up and down the Trail, he points out women he says are prostitutes. He's seen them take money from men, get into cars and return in an hour. He knows their names and has given most of them leaflets inscribed with the Lord's Prayer on one side, and two bikers hugging and the words "Welcome Home to Jesus" on the other. He got the tract from the Christian Motorcyclists Association, a worldwide group of saved bikers.
He has chosen his path along the Trail, and it's a paradoxical mission. Many of the people Biehl is trying to save don't want to be saved, and many of the local Christians he turns to for help would rather turn a blind eye to what's going on in that part of town.
"I'm a bit of a mutant in the Christian community," he says. "Christians from my generation aren't like me. They don't want to be on the Trail, but I've got to do what I was called to do."
SAVED AT SEA
"I was a very bad person," Biehl says one day while on his Valkyrie en route to the house of a woman he's been working with. His usually strong voice dips to a near-whisper barely audible over the rumble of the engine. "I did some bad, very, very bad stuff." Stuff like burglary, stealing cars and dealing drugs, he adds. But he won't delve further into it because it's too hard to think about; or maybe too easy not to. He should have been in prison many times is all he'll say.
Starting in 1968, Biehl muscled his way to the top of the computer services department at Swift & Co. in Chicago, one of the world's top meatpackers. If there was a chance to make his coworkers look bad, he took it. If he could issue a report that would reflect unfavorably on a fellow employee, he did it. Anything to climb the ladder. "I was in love with money," he says.
He once owned five Corvettes, three motorcycles and a Rolls-Royce, all at the same time. In his love life, he rolled through two marriages, two divorces and one son, before settling down with his current wife of more than 20 years, Mary Jo, and raising two daughters.
It wasn't until 1987, when Biehl accompanied four friends on a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard a home-built sailboat, that he found God. Out in the Atlantic, the boat encountered Hurricane Arlene. The sea tossed the boat like a cat toying with a grasshopper, and Biehl had to help crew a vessel being raked by 80 mph winds. "I was terrified I was going to die," he says. He didn't, and when he returned home unscathed, he was a changed man.
But there's still a coarseness to Biehl that belies his past. He swears. He rides. He consorts with prostitutes and drug dealers. He wears leather. He's got tattoos. He attends First Baptist Church of Winter Garden, but professes not to believe in organized religion; too many rules. And he's not looking for Sundays in church filled with suburban white folk who talk about Christ's work, drop a bill in the plate and go home to watch the game.
A lot of mainstream Christians find Biehl off-putting, which both puzzles and disappoints him. In his eyes, he's doing exactly what Christians should be doing. "Jesus ate with the pimps, he walked with the prostitutes," he says.
Biehl pulls up to a shabby house with boarded-up windows and a dirt yard just off of the Trail. The place is the size of a few closets put together, and might be adequate for two people. It houses four families.
A member of Biehl's church makes small gift packages body wash, shower poufs, candy and Biehl passes them around. Sarah, a streetwalker Biehl thinks he can trust, told Biehl she would distribute the presents to the other women, and he's here today to drop off the packets. He's got another reason to see her. He gave her $25 in exchange for not hooking for two weeks, and he wants to know if she kept her promise. The $25 pays her rent for two weeks, and she gets most of her meals from Crossroads, a local Christian-owned shop that offers food to those in need.
Sarah walks out wearing a white tank top to her knees and nothing else. Her white face is marked with the wrinkles of a hard life. None of the women Biehl sees are glamorous; there is no Julia Roberts in a blond wig walking the Trail.
"I got myself a new tire," Biehl says, pointing to his bike. "It's …"
"I kept my promise," she cuts him off. Biehl stops, his eyes wide in surprise, and pulls her into his arms. He flashes that same toothy smile. He believes her.
"But I got to go back out today," she says.
He lets her go and steps back. The smile is gone. He knows she's got to pay rent and hooking is the only way she knows to make money. He thinks of all the places that would house and feed Sarah and her son, but he's got no money for that. "There's nothing I can do?" he asks.
She looks down at the dirt and shakes her head.
He tries to change the subject to his tire and they chat for another couple minutes before he straddles his bike and zips back to the Trail.
"That just breaks my heart," he says.
WHERE'S THE LOVE?
Biehl has pared down his material goods to support his ministry. He's sold three of his five Corvettes and one of his motorcycles, and he allows a local business to use his Rolls-Royce for advertising. He's gone from a high-rise in Chicago in the 1980s to a community of well-kept manufactured homes in Winter Park where he lives now with Mary Jo. His two daughters are grown and gone, and much of what he currently makes as a part-time computer technician goes to his ministry. He's given up a lot of the good life, but he isn't going to give it all up.
"I've given what I can to this, but I can't give everything. My daughters, mine and my wife's retirement. I've got to look out for my family."
Thus, Biehl feels justified in asking local churchgoers for help funding his work. Problem is, they're not biting.
First Baptist Church of Winter Garden, Biehl's church, has about 700 people who attend each week. He has spoken in front of the congregation, but only Charles and Shirley Cook who help put together the gift bags have offered to help. A few people outside of the church have volunteered to pay for his gas or for Bibles for him to pass out, but such offers are rare.
"With all the affluence in this area, with all these rich people around, a lot who are Christian, there is money to help, but no one does," Biehl says.
Al Paquette, head of Al Paquette Ministries in Orlando, a group that ministers to inmates, says most people just don't want to know what goes on down on the Trail. "Christians want to stay in church, sing a few songs and go to potlucks," he says.
Biehl, says Paquette, isn't like your average Christian. "People on OBT need to know there's hope. Dave's bold. He's got zeal and enthusiasm, and that helps down there."
Larry Braswell, the senior pastor at First Baptist, says Biehl's ministry fills a void in Christian work. "People are afraid of what they don't understand," Braswell says. "And I'm not just talking about the Christian community. Society is not excited to walk up and down OBT. You're dealing with the drug community and porn stores, and that's a place most people don't want to be."
Peggy Ament, head of Trail to Heaven Ministries, a program that works with women on the Trail, sees how little other people in the Christian community want to help. "There's this wall in the church," she says. "They don't know how to talk to `people on OBT` or how to relate to them."
If mainstream Christians find Biehl distasteful, the feeling is mutual. He goes to church for the fellowship and because the pastor is "a righteous dude." But make no mistake, Biehl is no fan of organized religion. He talks about ministers who don't have the heart for the job, who are just making money off "religion," pronouncing the word with heavy sarcasm. He says a lot of Baptists are "headhunters," meaning the goal is to rack up big numbers of people saved even if they aren't truly converted. He calls megachurches "edifices built for themselves, not for the glory of God," and characterizes national Christian bookstores as "moneymaking machines that just happen to sell Christian paraphernalia."
One night, while seated in a white wicker chair in his screened-in porch, Biehl says that four women he's tried to help have died. He leans forward in his chair and says, "Some of the people are just so coldhearted. I've talked with women from church, asked them for help for people on the OBT, and they say, 'We can't help. Those people have to make their own choices.' They just don't understand. You can't learn 'poor' until you've got no shoes, no clothes, no keys, no car, no money and you've learned to stay alive on the streets. There are women that say, 'Oh, I've saved 20 or 30 women.' Bullshit. They don't know what it takes to save someone down where I go."
DAVID AND RACHEL
Biehl is too big a character to be contained by a ministry. Which is why he's also a novel: The Adventures of David and Rachel, written by Biehl under the pseudonym Nathan Justice.
The book's main character is a Christian biker from a not-so-Christian past. He saves a hooker named Rachel, and the two head off to help streetwalkers on the poor side of a fictional town. Biehl began the work as a memoir but spun it into a novel, the first of three he plans to write. You can find it only six places, including a motorcycle shop and an adult bookstore on the Trail.
Don't look for it at local Christian bookstores, however. Here's the reason why, according to one such owner: "Because it has cuss words."
"That's the way pimps and those people talk," Biehl tells the woman. "The book's about helping those people."
"I don't think many of our customers want to hear about that."
To be honest, it's not only Christians who might have a hard time with the book. The tiny type, punctuation errors, bad grammar and stilted dialogue make it a trying read, no matter your creed. A passage to illustrate the point:
"You can't protect her and that is that. We on the other hand have a plan. If the mother agrees to it we will put her in our own protection program supported by the Christian community's finances and she would be off the streets and that would help you out as well."
"Dreamer;" was the response. "We'll keep a long distance eye on your anyway just in case."
"Thanks," I replied, "we are grateful to you folks are out there."
"Chow baby," said the fuzz.
"Is it a work of art?" asks Biehl. "Probably not. Is it a true representation of what goes on in Orlando? Yes, it is."
Biehl may go where others won't to help, but he never lets the people he meets there become friends. He's learned that getting close can be painful.
Six months ago, Biehl helped a prostitute, Marie, who was on the verge of changing her life forever. Her "drop-dead gorgeous" face reminded him of his oldest daughter. Marie talked with him many times. She wanted to get out of the area, to try a new life. Biehl was excited. He arranged a place for her to sleep and found people who would feed her. Marie was so close.
But something changed. She got scared probably by her pimp, Biehl suspects and then she was suddenly gone. He never saw her again. The ones that almost make it are the hardest, he says, and this one, with the face of his daughter, really hurt. Where had she gone? Was she living a better life?
And then there's Tony, his own son. They were close, but Biehl suspects his own addiction to mescaline in his earlier years rubbed off on Tony, who regularly used speed. Biehl put drugs behind him in 1987. Tony never could. In 1989, during a phone conversation, Biehl tried to tell his son about Jesus.
"Oh, you're one of those," Tony responded.
Two days later, Tony was dead of an overdose. In a letter he left behind, Tony called his dad "a complete moron."
It still hurts 16 years later. The mere mention of Tony chokes Biehl up, who says he was a "crappy father" to Tony.
"If I got sucked into everyone's personal life, I'd always be in breakdown mode," he says. "I have already had my heart broken a few times."
Brenda is a short, middle-aged streetwalker with chestnut hair and crooked teeth. Biehl met her a couple of months ago, first giving her a tract and then a few days later passing her on the Trail. He pulled a U-turn, found her and bowed his head.
"God, give me the right words. Let me be sensitive."
"Don't tell me any more," Biehl said to her. "It's too hard."
A week later, he took Brenda to lunch and she told him she wanted to be baptized.
Fast-forward two days to a Saturday afternoon, the day before Brenda's baptism. Biehl is flipping through skirts in the women's clothing department at Sears. Biehl, the 60-year-old, black-leather-boot-wearing biker, and Brenda, the shy 34-year-old who's spent her life on the street, are bickering over whether she should wear a skirt-and-shirt combo or a dress. They settle on a pantsuit.
This baptism is a boost to Biehl. He's been discouraged lately. Stephanie, the black woman in a green nightie at the gas station, picked a fight with him because he was talking with a white hooker; she thought Biehl should only be helping the black hookers. And now he thinks Sarah, the woman he paid not to hook for two weeks, was using him all along to get free stuff.
So Brenda's baptism will be a welcome bright spot. She's the first prostitute Biehl has "saved" through his ministry.
On Sunday, Biehl is wearing an olive-toned Armani suit (straight from Goodwill, he says) for the service. His hair is well-groomed, his tattoos are covered and tasseled loafers have replaced the motorcycle boots. It's a startling transformation from his standard biker gear.
He rushes around from the sanctuary to behind the baptism pool where Brenda waits. When the service starts, Biehl sits front row center, tapping his foot on the floor while he fumbles with a small digital camera.
"Boy, she is nervous," Biehl says.
Pastor Braswell is standing behind a waist-high wall, next to the baptism pool. He has short-cropped, curly hair and a strong jaw. He says his welcoming remarks, then tells the congregation that today is a special day. He motions to the stairwell behind him, and Brenda appears, all 5 feet of her, swimming in a giant white robe. Biehl pops off the pew and whips out the camera. Braswell cups Brenda's back and dips her into the water, and the congregation applauds as Biehl clicks away.
After changing, Brenda joins Biehl in the front row and listens to the pastor talk about aligning your passions with those of Christ's. One of Christ's passions was rescuing the lost, Braswell notes.
Then he quotes Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in."
Biehl pulls out a tissue and wipes his eyes. "Amen," he whispers.
"I needed clothes and you clothed me," Braswell continues. "I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me." He is out from behind the pulpit, gesturing in the air.
Biehl's eyes do not waver from the pastor, but his hands, clasped in his lap, twitch along with his loafers upon the maroon carpet.
"I tell you the truth," intones the pastor, "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
Biehl nods. "Amen, yes, yes," he says under his breath.
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