When the Rev. Roger Bauer arrives to preach on a Sunday, worshipers at Immanuel Lutheran Church might hear him before they see him.
Or rather they might hear his blue 2005 Harley-Davidson Road King, license plate "ROKNREV."
Adeline Peters, who at age 90 has been a member of the congregation for 61 years, remembers when Bauer rode up to the Gothic revival church the first time.
"One of the girls here said, 'Go hide the cash box. Here comes a hippie,'" Peters said. "I said, 'That's no hippie. That's our new minister.'"
With a silver beard that reaches down his chest, Bauer could almost pass for an Old Testament prophet himself.
Except that Bauer sports an earring, a nose stud and an AIDS pin.
What's more, he always wears a black suit and boots, never sandals or a white robe.
Bauer first arrived at the church in September 1980.
Since then, he has preached the Gospel and married lovers. He has blessed newborns and comforted the grieving.
But despite his nearly three decades ministering to the faithful, Bauer does not consider himself an ambassador of the church, Alameda's oldest, with a snow-white exterior and wooden steeple.
His calling is more spiritual, the 54-year-old said.
"An ambassador of faith? Absolutely," Bauer said. "Of God? Absolutely."
The word "church" has a negative undertone for many people, Bauer said, as he sat beside the altar on a recent afternoon.
"In this day and age, there's just this word, 'church,'" Bauer said. "It turns off people. You have to do something to make it comfortable for people."
Bauer said he tries to do that by sharing the lives of the men and women who pray with him.
He also does it by closing the Bible and picking up an instrument.
Every few weeks, Bauer entertains the congregation by playing an accordion and strumming a guitar with an amateur band, offering tunes during services that range from Dixieland jazz to Mariachi in celebration of Cinco de Mayo.
Bauer also takes his message on the road.
Along with regularly offering invocations when the City Council or community groups meet, Bauer serves as a chaplain for the Blue Knights International Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club.
It's a bikers' club for cops.
That means almost every Alameda police officer recognizes Bauer when they see him cruising on his blue Harley, arms raised high to grip the handle-bars, his silver beard flapping over his shoulders.
"Yeah, he does have that kind of 'outlaw-of-the-Wild-West' look, doesn't he?" said Alameda police Officer Dave Ellis, a friend and fellow Harley rider.
An early calling
Bauer was 4 years old when his parents asked him what he hoped to be when he grew up.
A minister, he replied.
"My dad laughed," said Bauer, who was born in Saginaw, Mich. "He got a big charge out of it."
What's striking about the answer was that Bauer did not come from an especially religious background: His father, now 85, worked for Dow Chemical.
But the religious calling remained. "It was always a pull," he said.
After attending Webster University in Missouri and taking part in a variety of Lutheran youth events — including once playing guitar onstage in Texas with Johnny Cash and Mary Travers — Bauer graduated from Christ Seminary in St. Louis in 1980.
He came to Alameda a short time later.
Bauer initially served as associate pastor under the Rev. Charles Nahnsen, who ministered at the church on Santa Clara Avenue for a quarter century and who helped guide its congregation through the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.
Bauer took over as pastor when Nahnsen retired in January 1990.
As he walked through the church, Bauer said he's regularly reminded of the building's 117-year-old history. He pointed to the redwood ceiling supported by wooden tresses, the rows of wooden pews, the stained glass windows that line the walls.
A pipe for a gas light still remains attached to a wall near the altar, he noted.
While the building may offer a place for worship, Bauer said the actual church is the congregation, the men and women whose faith anchors their lives and helps inspire him.
It drives his calling, especially when he considers the less fortunate.
"Do we spend our time living our spirituality?" he said. "Are we putting it to the test feeding the hungry? Taking care of people? How are we living our lives?"
A sense of the Creator
Among those whose lives Bauer has touched are Jim and Jan Franz. The couple asked the pastor to marry them in July 2002.
Not only does Jim Franz play music with Bauer at church holiday events, the two men also formed the Alameda Services Collaborative. It's an umbrella group that coordinates the work of local service providers.
"He thinks of a church beyond the walls," said Franz, a leader in the Alameda Red Cross. "He takes his ministry into the community. Not in the sense that he's out there preaching. But by living his faith through example."
Bauer's ancestors may be mostly German, but he has a trace of Iroquois blood in his veins.
It may be the reason why he feels an affinity with the red-tailed hawk.
Bauer said he sometimes notices one soaring above him when he's on the highway. It's a sign, he believes, of God's presence.
"It's a sense that God is with me wherever I am," he said.
He feels the same presence when he looks out at the Bay as he sweeps along Shoreline Drive in Alameda on his motorcycle.
"The water is very peaceful," Bauer said. "You get a sense of the Creator."
Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or firstname.lastname@example.org.