Biker preacher at home on Harley or leading church
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/14/08
Biker dude – not preacher dude – comes to mind when you meet Tom Hamilton.
He is indeed a tattoo-laden, leather-jacket wearing, Harley man.
But motorcycles aren't the burly pastor's No. 1 passion.
And he's in his element during Tuesday night bible study at Sozo New Covenant Fellowship church in Tucker. The brightly-lit storefront space serves as a sanctuary for nearly 50 worshippers, and rows of oversized loveseats and chairs are their pews.
Standing on a platform, dressed in his usual liturgical attire – jeans and a T-shirt – the preacher dissects the Old and New Testament with church members.
He points out that the book of Luke is written in an orderly way and the book of Mark is not. He picks member's minds on the role of women during the time of Jesus. And the 51-year-old reminds them that he too is a student of scripture.
"I don't know about you," he says. "It's not that I'm a slow learner. I'm just a fast forgetter."
Hamilton and friend Charlie Crippen co-pastor the unconventional church. Crippen leads Sunday morning services while Hamilton plays the piano and guitar with the band and teaches children's Sunday School.
The church, however, is Hamilton's baby.
"I'm living my dream right now," said Hamilton, a former Marine and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Sozo was birthed from a weekly Bible study that Hamilton and his wife Brenda started at their home in 2001.
The couple has been married for 27 years.
"It started out with a few people Tom and I hung out with recognizing there was something in him we could learn from," said Brenda, 61. She works as church assistant and treasurer. "It got bigger and we moved into our neighbor's great room. It got to the point where everyone really felt like we had the underpinnings of a church," she said.
Hamilton left his job as network engineer and obtained a degree from Beulah Heights Bible College. He's now working on a master's degree in divinity at Mercer University.
The church doors officially opened in 2004.
Members volunteer with SafeHouse Outreach and other programs that help the homeless and hungry. Anyone in need is welcome at Sozo, but along with help they get some tough love and questions from pastor Hamilton.
"My first reaction when someone says they need help with rent is 'bring me your budget,' " he stated.
New members must take Crown Financial Ministries 10-week biblically based course at the church. The course is led by a church member. Couples and individuals pay $55 and $45, respectively, for course materials, Hamilton said.
"We get initial resistance and then by week five, everybody is looking forward to it," he said. "You learn to open up in a small group and develop relationships. Secondly it really gets you to understand what the Bible says about money, honesty and integrity."
The small church has not always met its own budget of nearly $3,000 per month in rent. High school and Naval Academy buddies and other friends have helped pay the bills, Hamilton said.
On a few occasions, car dealership owner Tim Stewart has paid the rent.
"I met Pastor Tom at the dealership in Tucker, " Stewart said. "I instantly loved him because he rode a Harley. He really puts forth his heart and wears it on his sleeve. Very few people will actually lay down corporate America and do what he's doing."
Joanie Burleigh, 53, from Doraville, met Hamilton at Pleasantdale Church of God. There he taught Sunday School to kindergartners and Bible study to inmates at Gwinnett Detention Center through its program with SafeHouse Outreach.
"At first he was kinda scary with his tough approach," she said "I thought, 'Who does he think he is.' And then I saw that he's just a teddy bear."
Traditional Sunday service never resonated with Hamilton as a child, he said. Despite nurturing parents and success in high school sports "traditional" is not a label that is easily pegged to Hamilton.
The Nashville native's family lived in Texas, Delaware and Ohio. A recovering alcoholic, he started drinking at age 15. Later, he dropped out of high school but still received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He recalls weekend "drink-a-thons" during his senior year.
At age 28, Hamilton said Brenda told him frankly that alcohol was destroying his life and he stopped drinking that day.
"I have not had a drink since February 16, 1984," he said.
Recovery from alcoholism has served his ministry and attracted some members who have battled addictions.
Worshipper Lon Cotton said he's 19 years sober from drug and alcohol abuse. "A lot of people in recovery can get specific help from specific problems here," he said.
"I think that we extend a lot more compassion and understanding. We realize that when you feel marginalized [inside], the last thing you want to be made to feel is more on the outside," Hamilton said.