It was almost 11 am. The neighborhood around St Patrick's in Butte, Montana, had been resonating with the unmistakable sounds of Harleys all morning. Hundreds were parked in a strange crown around the church.
The funeral was about to begin when I glanced one last time outside and noticed dozens of bikers still on the sidewalk. I deduced that on an unusually mild and sunny spring day, it was more comfortable for them to stay there during the service. I was wrong.
As the organist started to lead the opening hymn they all walked in slowly, silently and respectfully. Faces were distinctively weathered by sun, wind and alcohol. Black leather jackets bore the red on gold word: "Bandidos".
How, I wondered, do I speak meaningfully to a congregation with hundreds of formidable looking dudes and with a sweet and heartbroken 7-year-old mourning her Daddy? Her older sister kept her arm gently around her. The eyes of both reflected the sort of grief for which words are invariably inadequate.
The deceased had a remarkable ability to help people escape the bitter snare of addiction. He genuinely knew how to lead them along the path towards sobriety. It truly was the gift and the cause that defined his life. He was a fiercely loyal and protective giant with a tender heart.
In my homily, I spoke directly to his daughters: "It's kind of nice when you are growing up to have a protective dad. Men like your dad who spent a lot of time making a huge difference in the lives of others go to Heaven. And people in Heaven have other ways of protecting us. I know that your father is watching over you right now. From way above you, he will continue to look after you. "
Several bikers responded with spontaneous approvals. It was their way of saying that they were also ready to jump in and keep an eye on the young ladies.
For the bikers, I drew an analogy between the faith which created enlightenment for the deceased and the sense of balance that keeps them on their motorcycle: "The way we conduct our lives is often flawed. I easily admit that I am near the top in that category. But we are always given opportunities to make redeeming decisions. On the unpredictably winding roads of life, your friend seized the opportunity and never let it go."
The eulogy given by his close friend could not have been more sincere. It struck me with how well it succeeded in capturing a complex, colorful and rich life. It was spoken from the heart. I always learn from tough guys when they find the right words to express the touching bond of friendship.
On the way to the cemetery, I was driving a few cars behind the hearse. Behind me came the stunning procession of hundreds of Harleys lined up two by two. It was one of the most memorable rituals of the day. Along the way, I saw several police cars marked and unmarked. It was hard to know whether their presence was motivated by potential traffic problems or the reputation of the Bandidos.
The family of the deceased had planned a reception after mass. I told the many out-of-state visiting Bikers, "The place is not hard to find. Anyone can tell you where it is. It is the most notorious bar in a city most notorious for its bars."
Later that day I had to pass by the reception venue. Weather was still delightful and many drinkers were outside. The atmosphere was considerably more subdued than I had expected. These guys knew exactly how to say a respectful farewell to their departed brother and honor his family.