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Lutheran leader hits highway to spread message

Bishop and biker, he’s taking it outside

James Hazelwood stood next to his motorcycle after preaching Sunday at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, an appearance that coincided with the annual motorcycle rally in Laconia, N.H.

Colm O’Molloy for The Boston Globe

James Hazelwood stood next to his motorcycle after preaching Sunday at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, an appearance that coincided with the annual motorcycle rally in Laconia, N.H.

LACONIA, N.H. — James E. Hazelwood is a man with black leather boots planted in two different worlds.

Hazelwood, 54, wears a white clerical collar to work as bishop of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but in his free time he dons a leather jacket, settles his 6-foot-7-inch frame onto a motorcycle, and just rides.

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“When I get on a motorcycle, it’s just a great sense of freedom,” he said in an interview Sunday after he delivered a sermon at a local church. “And the open road really does clear my mind. I’ll go for a ride and after about 20 minutes of [thinking about] all the activities and things I’ve got to do, after that it’s just gone, and I’m in another place.”

Hazelwood, a towering figure with a bald crown, a ring of close-cropped gray hair, and a matching goatee, may have an unconventional style for a man of the cloth. But his approach won him praise Sunday following his sermon at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, an appearance that coincided with the annual Laconia Motorcycle Week.

Ashley Frame, 32, said she grew up attending the church and appreciated the unusual perspective and the enthusiasm Hazelwood brings as bishop.

“I think it’s always great to bring energy into a church, and I think he seems like he has a lot of energy,” she said.

Hazelwood was in Laconia to socialize with other motorcycle enthusiasts but also as part of his effort to personally visit all 184 Lutheran churches in New England, a project that began when he assumed the role of bishop last September. This was stop number 126.

‘I have some of my most spiritually motivated conversations with motorcyclists.’

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His sermon was based on a story from the Book of Luke, in which Jesus visits the home of a Pharisee and a woman described as a sinner comes to see him, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Asked by the Pharisee why he would accept this devotion from a sinner, Jesus explains that those with the greatest sins to forgive will feel the greatest devotion.

Hazelwood spoke of Jesus’ love of outsiders and drew parallels with motorcyclists, who are often outsiders from mainstream society. He challenged the congregation to take the church’s message of grace and forgiveness out into the community, to those who might never step past the church’s doors.

“We all know that . . . the Christian church is struggling, particularly in New England, where about 75 percent of people do not attend any religious community,” he said. “God, through Jesus, is calling us to move from inside of our churches to outside.”

The message resonated with Lee Engelhardt, 74, who founded Good Shepherd Church with his wife, Ruth, three decades ago and said he has loved motorcycles “since I was born.”

“I remember the days we used to run our bikes down the street and jump on them and clutch them to get them running,” said Engelhardt, who wore a leather vest and boots to Sunday’s service. “Nowadays they ride like Cadillacs.”

Engelhardt said he believed Hazelwood’s unconventional manner and focus on outreach was just what the church needed.

“I think that’s what it takes to get people into the church again,” he said.

Before his election as bishop, Hazelwood was pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church of Charlestown, R.I., for nearly two decades, and before that he spent five years as pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Since his election, he has been a member at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Providence, but he said he plans to spend each year attending a different church in the synod and will select another by this fall.

Hazelwood said he first began riding motorcycles at 13 and continued through college, but he set aside biking for many years as he built a life with his wife, Lisa, a fellow Lutheran pastor whom he married in 1986. The couple has one son, Benjamin, 26, who is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

Hazelwood said he rediscovered the motorcycling hobby only in the past three or four years and in that time has found that other cyclists are fascinated by his day job.

“They’re not typically churchgoing people, but they still have a lot of interest in matters of faith,” he said. “Actually, I have some of my most spiritually motivated conversations with motorcyclists.”

Like the motorcycle outsiders he mentioned in his sermon, Hazelwood was a religious outsider for many years. His family didn’t attend church when he was growing up in California, and he didn’t discover his own faith until college, when he took a job at a Lutheran summer camp.

He said this perspective has been an asset in his ministry, allowing him to relate to people in the church and to those who might never consider joining.

“I’m in the church, but I still have this perspective of what it’s like to be on the outside,” he said.

“I understand very clearly that [for] people that are not a part of any kind of faith community . . . it looks very foreign. It’s a very different language, it’s a different culture.”

The Rev. David Dalzell, pastor at Good Shepherd, said Hazelwood’s approach was what the church needs now.

“He’s asking questions, and he’s asking us to ask questions, and I think that’s great,” said Dalzell. “We haven’t done that before, not seriously, not as an entire synod.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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