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Crazy 4 Love . . .

Motivation for a Long Journey

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What was I thinking?

That question popped into my head more than once after I had committed to making a bicycle ride across America to raise funds for the Hospital for Women and Children in Koutiala, Mali (West Africa). It came to mind again as my son Isaac and I drove our RV, loaded with bicycles and equipment, to California to begin two months of cycling.

Could I really make it all the way from California to Maine on a bicycle? I didn’t know, but for the sake of the people of Mali, I knew I had to try.

Gaining Strength

Imagine having to choose between obtaining the medical care one of your children needs to survive and being able to feed your family for the coming year. No parent should have to make that choice. Yet, in Mali, where nearly one quarter of the children die before age five, mothers and fathers regularly face this heartbreaking decision.

My wife, Sheryl, and I have four children—Joshua, 24; Isaac, 21; Christina, 18; and Jeremy, 14—who have been a blessing from God. But Joshua’s beginning was rough—if not for the medical attention we take for granted in this country, he may not have survived the first weeks of his life. Children and mothers in Mali need such care as well.

I wanted to use the gift of sabbatical time from pastoring North Country Alliance Church in Plattsburgh, New York, to support the hospital, showing the love of Jesus in the tangible form of medical care. The thought seemed crazy: a bike ride across the country with people pledging money to the hospital for each mile I rode. As I prayed about it, the Lord seemed to bring to me several Scripture passages, but Isaiah 40:31 stood out:

“Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary” (NASB).

It was as if Jesus were promising that He would strengthen me specifically for this effort. I went to my district superintendent, our elders, our church board and two gentlemen who have had much association with the hospital, Tim Stephenson and Jack Eisenbach. I kept thinking that one of these people would tell me I was crazy, but all were supportive of the idea and its potential. The great need of the Malian people, along with support from my church, confirmed my summer plans to “Bike4Mali.”

Teamwork Required

When the people of North Country Alliance became aware of the plan, they immediately came on board. In addition to the three months’ sabbatical with full salary, the members also held various fund-raisers within the church. Children donated through the vacation Bible school offering, and adults gave beyond their usual tithe to support the cause. Our Alliance Women auctioned baked goods, and a few local businessmen sponsored a large portion of the ride. Altogether, our church raised more than $20,000 toward the effort.

But the most powerful thing the church members did was to pray faithfully for me and my family. I know that we made the journey without significant incident because our church family and many others prayed for us every day.

I say “us” because my family committed to work together as my support team. Isaac was the RV driver for the entire trip. He faithfully followed and met me several times a day, providing whatever was needed along the way. Christina created and continues to update the Bike4Mali.org Web site. Joshua took time off work to help with various aspects of the ride for two weeks before he began army training. Jeremy rode with me and helped with various RV tasks as well. And Sheryl, my wonderful wife, was a constant support in ways too numerous to list.

Rocky Mountain Sigh

Once we were on the road, it would have been easy to overlook prayer time in the rush of getting started each morning. But we realized how important it was to prepare for each day by asking the Lord to care for me on the bike and for the family in the RV.

One thing predictable about cycling is that it is unpredictable. For instance, I went along for weeks without a flat tire, and then suddenly I had three in just a couple of hours. (By the way, the total flat tire count for the entire trip was nine.) Maps don’t always reveal the massive climbs between you and your destination for the day. Motorists told us, “It’s all flat or downhill from here.” But they have never ridden the road on a bike and are unaware of false flats or a subtle 1–2 percent grade stretching for more than 40 miles. Wind also affects average speed significantly. All of these are factors in how long it takes to ride 100 miles.

One day I rode 100 miles in 5 hours and 20 minutes. Other days, 100 miles took more than 7 hours. When anxiety came, I learned to say to the Lord, I know that You called me to do this. You must have a plan. Therefore, I will continually look to You for strength, protection and whatever else is needed to make this trip successful.

As we climbed the highest two mountain passes of the ride, I prayed more for the RV than I did for myself. The sense of relief that came at the top of Colorado’s Monarch Pass (elevation, 11,312 feet) is difficult to convey. I believed that if we got over this pass, the RV would be able to endure the rest of the trip.

And it had been more than 20 years since I had climbed such a pass on my bicycle . . . so I wondered if I could make it to the top. When I came around the last bend and saw the sign marking the top of the pass and the Continental Divide, a rush of encouragement and relief came over me. If we made it over the highest pass of the trip, then perhaps we really would make it all the way to the coast of Maine.

On July 8 we took our oldest son, Joshua, to the airport in Denver to begin basic training in the U.S. Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and did not expect to see him again for at least three months. That same day we resumed the ride at Limon, Colorado. We made it to Omaha by the end of the week.

Down in the Valley

The next week turned out to be the most difficult, emotionally, of the entire ride. Even though I had known my mother’s health was failing, and I felt compelled to move quickly toward her home in Indianapolis, I did not start the day on Tuesday thinking I would ride 200 miles. But somehow, by the day’s end, I had completed my first double century ever by riding 202 miles across Iowa.

On Wednesday morning, I awoke to a phone call from my brother informing me that our mom had gone to be with the Lord. After consultation with my brother and sister, we decided I should simply continue to ride since the services would not be held until other family members could arrive. Our family grieved as we traveled to Indiana.

Josh was able to fly back for his grandmother’s funeral, which I conducted on July 21. Four men found a way to lessen my burden the following day. My brother in-law, John Reutman; Rev. Dan Messner; Rev. Doug Anthony and John Keller were a great help as they remained with me for two days from Indianapolis to Grand Rapids, Ohio, allowing me to draft behind them for almost 200 miles. On Thursday God provided another helper, Jim Gardner, who accompanied me from Grand Rapids to Beulah Beach. As we continued east, God provided us with the privilege of meeting Gail Warner, who serves in Mali as a nurse practitioner at the hospital and was speaking at a church during her home assignment.

An End in Sight

I relished the last days of the ride. It was beautiful country. I felt great. And we were nearing completion. With each mile it looked more and more like I would actually make it to the coast. But I was always guarded in my own confidence, aware that one mistake and a crash could prevent me from finishing. I again asked the Lord for protection and strength as we rode. We went over the top of Mount Washington, and I kept expecting a big climb, but it never came. I increased my speed for about 20 miles to an average of 22 mph.

As I rode through New Hampshire I did not think about anything but keeping a good pace. But then I saw the sign that said “Thanks for visiting New Hampshire” and then the state line. It dawned on me that this was it; the last state line—my sixteenth of the trip. I felt emotion welling up, but I held it back. I needed to focus. I stopped at a rest stop just inside of Maine and called Sheryl, as I had many other times when I had crossed state lines. But this time, my voice was choked with emotion.

The next day, we went the final 30 miles to the coast. It had been raining all morning as we came down the slope into Old Orchard Beach, Maine. This was the only rainy day of the entire 52 days of the trip (actual riding time, 273 hours or 11 days 10 hours)! As I saw the Atlantic Ocean, I knew we had finally made it. It was an emotional time as I turned onto the last road that led to the beach, where Sheryl and all of our children (except Joshua) were waiting. I could not ride in the sand, so I got off and walked the bike across the beach to dip the front wheel in the Atlantic Ocean. With the 4,135 miles of the U.S. portion of the ride complete, there remained only a little over 250 miles of riding across Mali from Bamako to Koutiala.

What was I thinking? The answer is: Jesus loves people. And one way to show that love is to help bring medical care to women, children and families who desperately need it so they may learn to love and trust Him as a result.

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