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Pedaling for hope

Bicycling ministers turn long-distance rides into opportunities to raise funds and awareness for charitable causes.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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The Rev. Scott Alexander and his bike

The Rev. Scott Alexander will cycle from California to Florida in April to raise money for hunger relief. (Earle Beasley)

The Rev. Scott Alexander is taking his ministry on the road—3,300 miles of road, to be exact.

In April, Alexander will be cycling from California to Florida to raise money for the hungry. Members of his congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Fla., are assisting in the fundraising. When Alexander told them he thought he could raise $10,000, members told him they’d help him raise more than $50,000. Congregants helped him create a website for “The Ride to Beat Hunger,” where people can make donations before he sets out and track his progress while he’s on the road.

As Alexander trains in sunny Florida, the Rev. Laurie Bushbaum is grateful for this year’s mild Minnesota winter, as she trains for a hilly ride around Lake Tahoe in June. She’ll be raising money for blood cancer research with Team in Training, affiliated with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. And she plans to ride with a small scroll containing the names of people who have been afflicted with cancer.

Bushbaum had been a consulting minister at All Souls Church UU in Sioux Falls, S.Dak. But this year, she’s staying closer to her Minneapolis home, caring for her elderly mother and her children. She sees her training and her ride as a ministry, and she is inviting people to send her names of people who suffered from cancer so she can add them to her scroll. “It’s symbolizing that we carry their memory, and the community is carrying hope,” Bushbaum said.

These are not the first charity bike rides for Alexander or Bushbaum. And they are hardly the first clerics to put their ministry on two wheels. Alexander, Bushbaum, and the ministers who’ve ridden before them describe the rides as powerful experiences, both physically and spiritually, beyond their ability to raise money and awareness for causes they support.

The Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman rode across the country three years ago, from Carlsbad, Calif., to Bowers Beach, Del., a 3,015-mile, 47-day trek. “That included two days off,” he said, including one to stay out of the way of severe tornadoes.

Ortman had long dreamed of a cross-country ride. The idea solidified itself after a conversation with Scott Alexander. Ortman was nearing 60, and he was coming up on a sabbatical from the congregation he serves, the UU Congregation at Montclair, N.J.

Ortman canvassed friends and parishioners to support the ride by making donations to Toni’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen and food ministry in Montclair. He raised just short of $18,000, and he increased awareness about the need for hunger relief in his community.

He also returned from the ride to the UU Congregation of Montclair with a wealth of insights and inspiration. Ortman began preaching a series of sermons he called “Lessons from the Road.” Drawn to the stories, his parishioners began to encourage him to expand the sermons into a book.

Ortman wrote a book-length manuscript about his journey, which has yet to find a publisher, that chronicles what Ortman calls his “odyssey of discovery.” “No matter what the experience was—visual or physical or spiritual—every experience had layer upon layer of meaning,” he said. “Writing the book allowed me to go back through the experience and discover those deeper meanings.”

In 2003, Bill Kennedy developed a new appreciation for the money charity bike rides can raise.

In 2000, he completed the same Lake Tahoe ride that Laurie Bushbaum will ride in this summer, also raising money for blood cancers. Three years later, Kennedy, himself, was diagnosed with myeloma.

At the time of his diagnosis, Kennedy didn’t even know he was sick. He was undergoing a series of routine blood tests before beginning a hospital chaplaincy program at San Francisco General Hospital, a part of his ministry training at Starr King School for the Ministry. His blood tests showed some abnormalities, which led to further testing, and ultimately to a diagnosis of myeloma, a blood cancer.

Kennedy has undergone lengthy treatments for his cancer, including a bone marrow transplant. He has taken many experimental drugs that were funded in part by the donations people raise in charity events for Team in Training.

There is no cure for myeloma, but Kennedy’s cancer has been in remission for several years. The irony of developing a cancer that he rode to raise money for is not lost on him. “It struck me funny at first, and it struck me odd,” said Kennedy. “I did a certain amount of shaking my fist at the sky and yelling, ‘What?’ I didn’t change my name to Job, but that’s how I felt.”

Kennedy, a community minister who was ordained in 2009 and is now affiliated with the UU Fellowship of Redwood City, Calif., is a hospital and hospice chaplain. After recovering some strength, he has ridden on Team in Training rides again. Chemotherapy sapped the strength in his legs, but a trainer rode with him at whatever pace he could maintain.

Kennedy also speaks to riders before fundraising rides. “It mattered to me when I was on the team at first that somebody spoke to me who had been through chemo and come out the other side and was doing well,” he said.

He spoke to riders in Honolulu, Hawaii, before a Team in Training ride in 2007, where he was also a rider. Kennedy said he told them that people were alive today because of what they were doing. “A child will grow up because of what they do,” he said. “Someone will grow old because of what they do. It is life and death, literally life and death to us patients.”

He told the riders that they were using their love of a sport to save lives. “What you do matters,” he told them. “And if you need evidence, come and talk to me and I’ll tell you about it. Thank you.”

Laurie Bushbaum will write Bill Kennedy’s name on her scroll and carry it with her as she rides. She’ll also carry the name of her niece, Nina Leilani Altmann Morrison, who died of cancer at age three. “She never even got to ride a bike,” Bushbaum said.

She invites people who would like her to carry their name, or the name of a loved one, to send it to her through her fundraising website. She also asks people to send the stories of people with cancer to inspire her in her training. “It’s carrying the names that really makes this worthwhile for me,” Bushbaum says. “The names make it so much more intimate and real.”

Among the names are those of members of the congregations that she has served. Bushbaum said she celebrates the way congregations help sick members. “We know some people disappear [when faced with illness], and still church members walk toward the crisis and the challenge of someone dying and do it with grace and courage. I’m riding for my congregation members who have been there.”

The members of Scott Alexander’s congregation have taken his cause and ridden with it. His cross-country ride raises money for a local food bank, the Harvest Food and Outreach Center in Vero Beach, and Stop Hunger Now, an international organization focused on feeding hungry schoolchildren. The funds he raises will be divided equally between the two organizations.

The Vero Beach congregation is also participating in a daylong food-packing drive to prepare 200,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now. Alexander says the public nature of his ride and the food-preparing event are in line with the church’s goal to be visible in the community and be known as a social justice church.

Alexander has been interviewed by local newspapers and television stations. At the end of his ride, as he cycles back into Vero Beach, a local newspaper editor and a banker will ride with him. A local restaurant is planning a celebratory fundraiser meal for his return. “It’s turned into a really big deal,” Alexander said. People in the community are beginning to recognize him. One man recently stopped Alexander in public and offered to become a sponsor for a day of the ride for $500.

“It’s been incredibly favorable publicity for our congregation,” said Alexander. “Everyone in town will know that UUs care about hunger. It’s worth its weight in gold for ministers or groups from a church to do something like this.”

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