WATERLOO, Iowa (BP)–A four-lane country road parallels the four-lane highway heading into Waterloo, Iowa, from Des Moines. The road was filled with bicyclists on a Thursday during the annual border-to-border ride sponsored by the Des Moines Register called RAGBRAI (“Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa”).
In Waterloo, one of the overnight towns along the 472-mile east-west route, pastor Ted Keys, his wife Sarah and members of Community Southern Baptist Church greeted a contingent of Baptists from across the country who had contacted the congregation about the overnight stop in Waterloo during the July 25-31 RAGBRAI.
Community Baptist not only offered accommodations at the church and the Keys’ home, but also a meal of fried catfish with collard greens, sweet potatoes and corn bread. Mike Roberts, director of missions for the Northeast Iowa Baptist Association, his wife Ginny and others from the Baptist Convention of Iowa assisted with the hospitality.
In addition to staff members from a couple of state Baptist convention offices, a team of students with their professor from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., were among the riders who enjoyed the evening in Waterloo.
This year 10,000 bicyclists signed up for the tour, although RAGBRAI officials estimated as many as 20,000 may have participated on some segments, since many ride along for a day or so without official registration. In addition, nearly all the riders have support crews who follow the route to transport luggage, camping equipment and meals during the week-long trek. Bikers camp in the towns along the way and local organizations and churches open up food stands and sell the riders pork chops, watermelon, bottled water and other sustenance. The riders often tent camp overnight in campgrounds and city parks.
Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary who also pastors the Chicago-area Evanston Baptist Church, said the team of seminary students was riding RAGBRAI as a missions experience.
“We wanted our students to experience a different kind of culture than in the South,” Coppenger said. “Here in the heartland of America they are seeing a state with a strong rooting of a Christian culture, but a lot different than back home. Some of the spiritual vitality of the mostly mainline denominational churches in Iowa has left them. They are in need of a revival and a fresh infusion of the Gospel.”
The 10-member seminary team and two support staff looked for “divine appointments” as they rode from town to town, Coppenger said. “I think lifting up the cross in Iowa was an encouragement to the residents, the riders and our students,” he said of the team’s witness to both riders and townspeople, which included small cards with a Gospel message and information about the seminary.
The riders were challenged physically as they rode up to 80 miles a day on both flat and sometimes-hilly roads, at times against headwinds and rainstorms, Coppenger said. When the last two days passed through a more hilly section of northeast Iowa, the seminary team described some of the inclines as “brutal.”
“One student, a Korean-American, was getting pretty discouraged that last day as he was chugging up a long hill in a rainstorm,” Coppenger recounted. “A lady passed him and commented on his Southern Seminary bike jersey with a prominent cross on the logo, saying she was ‘so glad to see that image.’ That encouragement helped the student make it up the hill.”
Another Baptist rider, Norman Jameson, editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, said he had a long conversation while “riding with a guy from Sioux Falls, S.D., on the futility of Vietnam and its similarities with Afghanistan. I’ll admit that was an unusual one! I love chatting up people on the road and at the stops.”
Commenting on the seminary team, which included both men and women, Jameson said the SBTS jerseys elicited questions like “What’s an SBTS?”
“That opens doors for conversation, and they initiate conversations commenting on the unique jerseys, signs and apparel of others. I do it myself and it really opens doors,” Jameson said.
Bill Pepper, director of business services for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, also was on the ride and was pleased to stop in his hometown of Storm Lake overnight and see family and friends.
“Some of the best of it was the scenery, the rolling hills in the northeastern corner,” Pepper said of the ride. Moreover, he said, “There was a great sense of hospitality from the people, the vendors and the churches. In Rowley, Iowa, we met a guy by the name of Thomas who attended a Christian college in Nebraska. His fiancé is in a coma due to a car accident and their wedding has been put on hold. He talked about where he was at spiritually and he knew things were going to work out. We talked to him about holding on to his faith even though his world had been turned upside down.”
It is traditional for RAGBRAI riders to dip their back tire in the Missouri River as they begin the ride and their front tire in the Mississippi River at the finish the trek through Storm Lake, Waterloo and a host of other towns. The Register claims RAGBRAI, in its 38th year for the bike ride, is the longest, largest and oldest touring bike ride in the world.
“I thought it was neat to be able to help them out,” Sarah Keys said of the Baptists visiting from several states. “It was an opportunity to give back something to those who help us and we could reach out to help them.”
The Keys, along with Roberts and others, encouraged the seminary students to come back to Iowa and help reach the state for Christ. There are 105 Southern Baptist churches in the state, but the northern Iowa route of RAGBRAI took the riders through several counties where there is no Southern Baptist work at all.
Richard Nations is the publications editor of the Iowa Baptist, newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Iowa.