Defy The Trend
in Change Leadership - Community - Self Care

Church on Wheels: RAGBRAI I

Bicycles, unicycles, elliptical machines, wheelchairs and roller blades became a metaphor for the Kin-dom of God. Actually, the people on these various and sundry vehicles are the kin-dom. Just imagine every possible person and body type on as many different kinds of human-powered vehicles as you can imagine and that is a metaphoric image worthy of the Gospel of John.

RAGBRAI — the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — is a 44-year-old tradition that attracts people from all over the world to ride the hills of Iowa from west to east over the course of seven days. I had lived in Iowa for almost five years and swore that I would NEVER ride RAGBRAI. Who would want to ride more than 400 miles in late July heat on Iowa hills? Not me, I had said.

Chalk this up to one more reason to never say never. After years of being goaded by friends to participate, I finally said yes to this wild and crazy ride (or three days of it at least). I rode with the Iowa Conference UCC team, a ragtag group of people directly or indirectly connected with the United Church of Christ in Iowa. So add to the already wildly diverse mix of riders a quirky collection of progressive church nerds and their friends. You’re welcome, RAGBRAI.

My first night before riding, I couldn’t sleep. My monkey mind, overstimulated by the air travel and new people, began to sink into the spiraling “I can’t” vortex. I can’t ride this many miles. I can’t ride this many hills. I can’t imagine dealing with all the other bikes. I can’t start riding at 6 a.m. I can’t … I can’t … I can’t. … Monkey mind was having none of my rational interjections about how solid my training had been. Nor was it distracted into calmness by three usually foolproof guided meditation recordings. Monkey mind just wanted to convince me why I should pack my bags and head back home.

I seriously thought about quitting when we finally woke up before dawn to get ourselves ready for the day. I confessed to the group that I didn’t want to start riding. They told me that was pretty much a normal part of every day. I sighed, a little relieved but still nervous and put on my bike gear and rode to the route and began the journey.

I could not believe how many people and bikes were out there. I’m used to riding alone. Even in triathlons, bikes get very spaced out, except when you’re passing or being passed. With so many people, particularly at the start of the day, I couldn’t even figure out how to change “lanes” from faster to slower. I felt trapped by bikes on all sides. Even with my moderate knowledge of bike lingo, I was overwhelmed with riders yelling unfamiliar things like “Rider On!” (used when you’re getting on your bike and getting into traffic) or “Rider Off” (when you’re getting off your bike). Or when the group rolls into one of the many small towns hosting a stop, people yell, “Slowing!” then “Stopping!” as they get off their bikes to walk through a bevy of food vendors and cheering locals who line the streets of another small Iowa town.

I haven’t even mentioned the costumes yet. People deck their helmets out with stuffed animals, team mascots or any other number of wind-resistant shapes. I was surrounded by superheroes, hilariously named team jerseys and more pie puns that you can fit in a flaky crust. (Pie is a BIG DEAL during RAGBRAI. This may be the only time that you might gain weight from riding 60+ mile days.)

The weirdness of these scenes became more normal as the miles wore on. I settled into the long biking days and learned a little about how to maneuver the hoards of bikes around me. I began to understand why people just have to participate in this ride each year. The community that forms around this event was wildly fun and funny, generous, kind, grateful and hospitable. It looked quite Jesus-y if you ask me:

Radical Acceptance. People were accepted no matter who they are or what kind of bike they rode. All ability levels and body types welcome. 

Ritual. Dipping your bike tire into the Missouri River at the beginning and the Mississippi River at the end of the ride is one of the ritual highlights of this event. Eating pie, pancakes or other special foods created opportunities for ready-made communion with strangers and friends at nearly every stop. 

Care for Fellow Riders. If a rider had an accident (which unfortunately happened with a fair amount of regularity), riders would stop and direct bikes around the accident until help arrived or the person was able to get up and ride again. An Air Force team rode the route every day with the sole purpose to help people who had a flat tire or a bad day. 

Radical Welcome. Every 10 miles or so we would be welcomed into a small town that often had far fewer residents than the 20,000-30,000 riders they would see that day. Iowa towns put their best foot forward for this world of cyclists with church-lady pie, libraries opening up their bathrooms, fire departments setting up water stops, local cheerleaders cheering you on, plain ol’ nice residents who wave encouragement to you.

If you look at this event through Jesus-colored glasses like I do, the Gospel winds its way through every mile of RAGBRAI. Jesus’ love: the radical welcome and the care and concern modeled by his ministry is embodied by nearly everyone on that ride, regardless of their own spiritual or religious beliefs. 

Church folks might start to think: “But how can we compete with THAT? We can’t do our own RAGBRAI!” Of course one church can’t, but you can sure join in. Churches along the route DID welcome us with food and housing for overnight stops. In the place you call home, what is your RAGBRAI? How can you show them love and welcome? How can you BE Jesus for a bunch of strangers? How can you point out where they embody the Gospel (whether they realize it or not)?

God IS doing a new thing around you in the least expected places. Do you perceive it?

Do you need help seeing where God is doing a new thing in your community and how you can join in? I can help your leadership team develop ways to be faithful in your own community.

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