Never beyond grace
John Potter once rode with a biker gang, but now serves the community breakfast.
“My story starts with a gallon of milk.”
It might sound dramatic, but a gallon of milk from The Salvation Army food bank led John Potter to forgiveness and redemption in Christ, which transformed him, he said, from “Lucifer Jr.” into “a child of God.”
Potter was a self-proclaimed “wild child,” born in Casper, Wy., to good parents. “We did struggle, but there was a lot of love in the family,” he said. Yet, he did not do well in school and admits he was always a rebel. “There was too much adventure out there for me to just be good.”
By ninth grade, Potter had crafted his own custom motorcycle and began to “pound the pavement.”
He left home on his bike, and as he rode around the American West, he said he began to feel like he was “God on wheels.” He thrived on the adrenaline rush that came from riding 100 miles an hour and the freedom of sleeping under his bike at night with no responsibilities.
“I loved the bike life,” he said. “I like the freedom. I like hopping on a bike, and wherever that tank of gas takes you is where you end up.”
Potter soon traded the open road for membership in a notorious biker gang. To him it was a brotherhood and a family, a replacement for all he had left behind. “You stuck together,” he said. “That was an oath.”
His stature and demeanor sparked fear in others, which Potter said gave him a sense of control and power. Wild parties, women, drugs and alcohol were all part of the scene. “It was all about showing off and having fun,” he said, “enjoying life and being the first one to the bar.”
Yet it was also a lifestyle of crime and violence. Fights over territory could lead to sudden, vicious attacks, and danger was everywhere. Potter collected on debts owed to the group, an often brutal task. Although he spent time in jail for his actions, he said, “I didn’t worry about the consequences. I did everything out of spite. I had no remorse.”
Then one day, his life took a turn. Potter received word that his mother was sick, so he returned to Casper to visit her. A few days later, he went for a ride on his bike and saw an old friend standing outside a Salvation Army building. He stopped to speak to her, and she began to tell him about all of the services the Army offered to the community. He asked if he could get a check cashed there, because he wanted to buy a gallon of milk for his mother’s cereal the next morning. His friend gave him a gallon of milk from the food bank. When he offered to return the next day to pay for it, she told him, “The Salvation Army is about giving. Anything here, you can take home. If you truly need it, use it.”
Potter was grateful and asked if there was something he could do there as a volunteer. The woman invited him back the next day for the weekly community breakfast. He ended up doing the dishes for the meal, and in the following weeks he did some volunteer cooking. After over 2,500 hours as a volunteer, he accepted a job there as the warehouse coordinator.
During that time, Potter still had a rough reputation throughout Casper, and he continued his association with the bike gang. Yet Captains Mark and Kathy Merritt, corps officers in Casper, could see that he respected and loved his job, and cared about the clients he served. Over time, they watched him transform, little by little. Then, about a year and a half ago, Potter attended a Salvation Army men’s camp and made a commitment to Christ at the mercy seat.
“From then on, it’s been a really amazing journey with John,” Mark Merritt said. “He has learned to read his Bible, learned to pray…and suddenly he’s asking me questions about theology and about salvation.” Potter began attending the worship service, Sunday school, the men’s group and Bible studies at the corps. He soon became a Salvation Army soldier.
Potter still works as the warehouse coordinator in Casper, and he also serves the community breakfast to over 100 homeless people each morning at the Hope Center. Even though he clocks out every day at 10:30 a.m., he can often be found at the corps volunteering into the evening, running a weekly homeless Bible study and an explorers troop for kids from the community. He is also the team leader for the emergency disaster services (EDS) in Casper, and has responded to countless disasters with his ragtag team of volunteers, some of whom he trains in the canteen on the way to the emergency. Once there, he is ready for anything. “They ask him to do something, wherever he goes, and his immediate response is, ‘OK. We’ll do it,’” Merritt said.
Potter acknowledges that his life with the biker gang was based on how much he could accumulate, but now his concern is finding new ways to give in service to others. “It’s one thing to ride around and to take, but it’s another thing to give,” he said. “And that was a transformation that was really hard for me, because if you owed me $10, I’d find a way to get $20. Now if I have $10, I find a way to give $20.”
Potter said his goal is to one day become a Salvation Army officer. He wants to be trained in the gospel, he said, so that he can provide more than words of comfort to those in need, but also lead others into a relationship with Jesus.
“I think it’s an amazing story of God’s grace,” Merritt said. “There’s never a moment in your life when you don’t need the grace of God, but what John’s really shown people is, there’s never a moment in your life when you’re beyond the reach of God’s grace. Because if I ever met anyone that I wondered if God could ever capture him, I wondered that about John. To know he’s not beyond the reach of God’s grace, it gives everyone hope.”
And Potter now works to spread hope at the Hope Center, where Merritt said people look up to Potter because he cares about them and makes sure they know that God’s not done with them either.
“If I could turn, anybody could turn—you hear that every day, but truly you gotta ask for forgiveness,” Potter said. “You know when Christ is in your heart when you walk away from what you’ve done and you start over.”[button color=”black” size=”normal” alignment=”none” rel=”follow” openin=”newwindow” url=”https://youtu.be/eMSjX6Kth8c”]Watch “Devil On Wheels” featuring John Potter[/button]