The Long Road Home

How Fred and Rosella Sawatsky use their home as an outpost of God’s kingdom

For hundreds of motorcyclists, the road to Alaska runs through Chilliwack, British Columbia. They come from the southernmost reaches of Argentina and Chile, and from as far afield as Spain or Germany, to the home of Fred and Rosella Sawatzky. Just off the Trans-Canada Highway, where blue mountains and low-hanging clouds frame the windscreen, their modest home on a quiet street is like a beacon to all who ride.

Fred Sawatzky on the open road in Chilliwack, British Columbia.
 

Fred and Rosella grew up on the same street in Filadelfia, Paraguay. “I always tell everybody, make sure you don’t marry a pastor’s daughter,” Fred says with a wink. “And make sure you don’t marry the black sheep of the town,” Rosella quips back. Though Fred grew up in a Christian home, he admits he ran far from the faith. “Very far. I was scared I couldn’t come back.”

But he did. When Rosella was pregnant with their first child, the nervous father began having terrible and persistent nightmares of babies with seven arms, three heads, and 10 legs. He was anxious throughout the pregnancy. But when their daughter was born without complications, Fred, now the relieved father, collapsed at a bench outside the newborn nursery and poured out his tears to God.

Rosella poses with Fred on his bike.

Today the Sawatzkys are motorcycle missionaries, members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association of Canada, with a gift of hospitality that seems supercharged. “We had 19 one weekend,” Rosella remembers. “All three [guest] rooms were packed, the camper was full, and the front lawn was full of tents. We had a blast.”

The first Alaska-bound biker—a friend of a friend—came from Argentina about five years ago. The next year, it was that rider’s friend. And when Fred and Rosella connected with a WhatsApp group for long-distance bikers, guests multiplied. Fred kept up with the chatter, offered his mechanical advice, and the couple put out the welcome mat for everyone going by.

 

A woman from Argentina stands in the front room of the Sawatzkys’ home, unfolding a large laminated world map. Her four-year-old son tugs at the bottom edges, helping his mother stretch it open. Crisscrossing the map are circles and long lines marking the destinations of a family of three that’s traveled the world by motorbike. They bring the total number of guests to 51 this year—a new record for Fred and Rosella.

Mid-morning in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia.

Bikers who ride 6,000 or 8,000 or even 10,000 miles going from one destination to another seldom get to feel at home. But at Fred and Rosella’s place, they tend to settle in. It’s a rare opportunity to shop for groceries and cook for themselves, to do laundry and shower every day. “We just treat them like part of the family,” Rosella says. And the house Wi-Fi gives bikers a chance to update their social feeds. Earlier in the year, the Sawatzkys hosted a YouTuber. “He sat here for two weeks,” Rosella says, indicating the dining room table, “from morning ’til night, editing his videos.” The ad revenue he earns keeps him riding, and his dining room time secured a two-month stint before he’d need to stop again.

But their guests aren’t just cocooning in Chilliwack—they join Fred and Rosella on camping trips, at local events, even at church on Sunday. “In everyday life, there’s always some way that God comes into the picture,” Rosella says. When meals are served, prayers are said. And all over the house, including on Fred and Rosella’s jackets, is the emblem of the Christian Motorcyclists Association: a cross, the Bible, and two praying hands.

“When I wear that patch,” Fred says, “I’m responsible for what I’m doing.” Whether he’s in his home or on the road, Fred stays conscious of his testimony. And eventually he’ll get asked his favorite question: “Can you explain to me what the cross and the hands mean?”

A guest from Argentina reassembles his bike in Fred’s garage.

Earlier in the day, a world-hopping family from Argentina was having breakfast with Rosella, when she pulled out the In Touch Messenger. Explaining how the solar-powered audio device works, she told them it contains the Bible and Christian lessons in Spanish. Soon Rosella began sharing personal details about her faith story. “For the motorcycling world, [the Messenger] is the perfect instrument,” she says, “because under the helmet, you are just by yourself.” And after a few thousand miles of the same music downloads, the Messenger is often a welcome change.

“I always tell them,” Fred says, “Make me one promise—to listen to the Messenger at least once, all the way through.” That’s when the stories begin to come. “The best note that we get back is that they have changed their life.”

But it’s not only Fred and Rosella who are making disciples. There are others, like their friend Ventura in Mexico, who leads a Messenger Bible study through WhatsApp. Three or four bikers will enter his chat to share where they are in the Bible, encouraging one another as they discuss the passages. A few years ago, Ventura was a seasonal migrant worker from Mexico, working the farms in the Fraser Valley around Chilliwack. He saw Fred with his beard, gruff-looking and on a motorbike, and asked if he had some marijuana. The answer was no, but that didn’t matter. The two men connected in other ways, Fred taking Ventura on rides, even bringing him to church. Ventura came to faith, was baptized, and is now a big Messenger distributor at home in Mexico.

Fred in his CMA vest.

Once a year the Sawatzkys head to Baja, Mexico, and the interior of Durango. Not surprisingly, they’ve made a lot of friends over time on these trips. It’s where Fred acquired the nickname Canadiense Mafioso, or the Canadian Mafioso. “I had a Goldwing,” Fred says of a wide, comfortable bike with what looks like a vinyl armchair. With “the baddest music in Mexico” blaring from his speakers, Fred pulled into a gas station. “And the people turn their heads and they see the Canadian flag, and they see my patch, so they come and ask, ‘You from Canada? And you speak Spanish? And you listen to this music?’ Then I switch the music off and I talk to them.” He hung out with some of the guys in a biker motel, went with them for barbecue, and while they were sitting around talking, one of the men said, “You seem very Mafioso.” He answered, “I could be, but I’m not. I’m Mafioso for God, for Jesus Christ.” And that was how he got the name. His new friends in Mexico even created a biker sticker for him—something they gave him on his last trip south.

 

Fred’s phone rattles with the unmistakable guitar riff that launches the song “Born to Be Wild.” It’s a video call from Gean in Brazil. She stayed with Fred and Rosella nearly two years ago, hoping to turn the page on what was a difficult life.

“Fred and Rosella are very precious to me,” Gean says from the phone, as the couple translates her Portuguese. “Fred is not just a biker; he’s a Christian, and he has taken his mission work very serious.”

On leaving home, Gean felt restless, broken, and alone. When she was a girl, her mother, aunt, and baby brother drowned before her eyes on a family boating trip. The horrific accident would have yet another casualty, as it led to the bereaved husband and father’s rejection of his surviving daughter. Partly to win his approval, Gean enlisted in the Brazilian Marine Corps, where she served as a rescue diver. Years later, with a bullet wound in her chest, she lay in a military hospital, afraid of dying. But she recovered, and to Gean, that signified a new mission in life—something she suspected could be found in God.

The Sawatzkys’ guestbook.

“We took her to a Sunday service at church,” Rosella remembers. “I downloaded the Portuguese Bible so she could read the verses of the sermon, and then I translated for her what the sermon was about.” That was when Gean considered her odyssey was not just a trip to relax from her years of service, but a trip to find peace.

“I realized that the peace I was searching for wasn’t something I could conquer or touch.” she said. “It’s bigger. It’s better. It’s in my soul and my heart.”

Gean kept riding to Alaska, then returned to stay with Fred and Rosella a second time. “When I came back to the home, it felt like I had come home to family.” And then Gean rode on, even taking her bike overseas, along with some important cargo: a Messenger and the Bible given to her by the Sawatzkys. As she rode and listened, she hungered to know the peace she’d witnessed in Chilliwack. Through every challenge, Gean had always relied on her courage and strength. But somewhere around London, she admitted to herself that her powers weren’t enough. “It’s Christ that gives me strength and courage,” she says. The realization made her bow down to let Him be the strength of her life.

At last, she returned to Brazil. Her father had fallen ill, and Gean, remembering the generosity and care she’d received from the Sawatskys, was able to care for him through his final days. They forgave each other, and her father also made peace with God.

Fred kisses Rosella’s cheek.

“It’s very important that we share this love of God,” says Gean, who’s dedicating her hours to producing children’s video content. She’s developed an animated feature starring an owl—Gean’s nickname—and a character named Rose, to honor Rosella. When the owl asks, “Who takes care of me?” Rose appears and says, “God takes care of you. He loves you.”

Through the phone, a joyful Gean waves goodbye. “Ciao! Ciao!” she says, offering a final word for those who will hear her story: “Everyone should know that there is something greater that unites us all and gives our life purpose.”

 

The Canadian Mafioso is dressed to ride—in leather vest, jeans, and steel-toed boots—wheeling his red-flamed Harley-Davidson from the garage. A guest takes up much of the available space, deconstructing his bike before he hits the road again. There’s a sign and stickers to identify the garage as Fred’s OK Corral. “Our place is not about luxury,” Fred says. “Our thing is about souls.” From the Corral, he works, receives customers, and helps to mend the bikes of travelers from all over the world. As he does, Fred’s warmth and joy in the Lord shine through. “It’s not about us,” he says. “It’s about the seed [that] starts to crack. That’s the most important.”

By day, while he’s around the house, Rosella drives the early morning city bus four days a week. It’s given her many unique experiences, and the opportunity, she says, “to show God’s love to everybody that gets on the bus.”

In a flash, Fred mounts the Harley. Then the engine roars. He squints his eyes and looks every bit as tough as the name he bears. But his tenderness is so transparent, it’s easy to smile at his posing. The apostle Paul strove to be all things to all men that he might save some, but Fred and Rosella are simply themselves—opening their home and their hearts as true neighbors to anyone on wheels. In the years to come, they’ll have many more stories to tell as they welcome strangers like family, as if Christ Himself.

 

Photography by Audra Melton

Related Topics:  Evangelism

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