He was a biker with a Bible: a fun-loving, guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding 59-year-old Pentecostal pastor who died while riding his beloved Harley.
Elijah Byrd adored motorcycles, a hobby he had dabbled in as a young man. But he could never afford to own one until his son Shane gave him a Honda Shadow Spirit 750 for Father’s Day in 2004.
Byrd eventually traded up for a 2008 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail, which is what he was riding when he left his Dale City home on a Saturday in late May to meet bikers who were in town for the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally on Memorial Day weekend.
The folks who ride in Rolling Thunder exemplify the down-home Americana with which Byrd felt so at home. He gravitated toward the ordinary, the unnoticed, the needy. In 2002, he and his wife, Joy, gave up Thanksgiving at home to drive to South Carolina to visit a 7-year-old named Miracle, the daughter of a friend of a parishioner who had a severe form of spina bifida.
“I want to go pray for her,” Elijah told Joy. One of the Byrds’ most cherished photographs shows them seated on each side of a smiling, blond-haired child, who was clearly delighted with this couple who had shown up on Thanksgiving Day.
Elijah Alexander Byrd, named for the Old Testament prophet Elijah and Alexander the Great, was born poor in Beckley, W.Va., the youngest of seven children raised by a Pentecostal Holiness preacher. Elijah Byrd ended up in Warrenton, Va., managing a McDonald’s, where he met Joy, a hamburger flipper. They married in 1979 and had three children, plus two from his previous marriage.
Byrd then became an electrician but, in 1986, felt that God wanted him to start evangelizing.
“He gave up a $2,000-a-month paying job for a $400-a-month job because he believed in what he was doing so much,” Joy Byrd says. She worked for the government, and he maintained a small handyman business to help pay the bills.
Byrd became youth pastor at Pine Grove Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church in Woodbridge, then pastor in 1991. He changed the name of the congregation to Open Arms Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church “because he visualized Jesus with His arms outstretched inviting anyone in,” his wife says.
Acts of mercy to the poor and sick marked Elijah Byrd’s life, friends and relatives say. He would grow his brown hair long, then donate it for hairpieces for cancer victims. Once, when a homeless man showed up at the church with no shoes or gloves, Byrd gave him his gloves and almost-new leather boots — and went home barefoot.
Then, there was the time he was burying the husband of a widow who was so poor that she could not afford a hearse. So, Byrd put the coffin in the back of his brown Ford pickup and drove from the funeral home to the church. He also hand-dug graves for those who could not afford an undertaker.
“Elijah would help anybody,” says Rick Dawson of Woodbridge, a friend and fellow electrician and motorcycle rider. “I’m not a very religious person, but he’s the one person that made me believe there’s a higher power.”
Byrd loved gospel, country and bluegrass music, and would lead worship at his small church with his bass voice and guitar. His dry sense of humor and self-deprecating wit surfaced often, especially when joking about his 5-foot-4-inch height.
“Look,” he’d tell his friends, “if I could grow one more inch from worrying, I’d be worrying all the time, but I can’t.”
Riding his Harley was one of Byrd’s escapes from worry. Joy had bought a motorcycle in 2006, and the pair often tooled about on Saturdays. But on the morning of May 28, she couldn’t go with him.
So Byrd set out with Rick Dawson and his wife, Patti. The trio rode to a Harley shop in Manassas to shoot the breeze with Rolling Thunder bikers. Then they headed south on twisting, rural, two-lane Joplin Road. It had just sprinkled, and the pavement was wet. Police said Byrd took a 15-mile-per-hour curve too fast, causing him to lose control of the motorcycle and strike a tree.
By the time Joy got to the hospital, Elijah had died.
Hundreds of people attended the funeral and burial at the church, and Dawson made a black memorial motorcycle patch in Byrd’s honor.
“I had stopped by the church about two months before he passed,” Shane Byrd says, “and we were standing next to the church looking at some of the graves. And I asked Dad, ‘Where do you want to be buried at?’
“And he said, ‘Why?’
“I said, ‘You got to know these things, Dad.’ ”
“I don’t care,” was the response. “I’ll be dead.”
Julia Duin is a contributing writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.