DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–Wearing biking jerseys with Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s cross, wheat and flame logo, eight cyclists boldly “flew the flag” for Southern Baptists and for the faith July 19-25 in the world’s longest, largest and oldest touring bicycle race. The event was the seminary’s second appearance in RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Each year more than 10,000 cyclists participate in the ride, which crosses the state of Iowa from east to west.
Midwestern’s team included Mark Coppenger, seminary president, and Keith Jones, a Midwestern student, both of whom participated in last year’s ride. Encouraged by that effort, they decided to field a team for this year’s event, with Midwestern’s eight riders wearing a special jersey representing the Kansas City, Mo., seminary. The jerseys, which precipitated considerable conversation from participants and observers, sport a large white cross on both the front and the back..
During this year’s 485-mile trip, each team member shared laminated business cards which included an evangelistic message explaining the seminary’s logo. Coppenger said his jersey provided him not only with opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers, but also to get to know Christians in Iowa.
“My jersey proved to be a magnet to pastors and other Christians on the ride. They would pedal alongside and express appreciation and curiosity,” Coppenger recounted. “In this very secular event, I think we encouraged a lot of Christians to take a more visible stand for the Lord.”
Among those joining the veteran riders was Gary Houser of Country Meadows Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo. Houser’s daughter, LeeAnna, currently is a student at Midwestern.
Midwestern also was represented by several Iowa Southern Baptists with ties to the seminary, including Michael E. Carlson, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Indianola; David Miller, pastor of Northbrook Baptist Church, Cedar Rapids; and Miller’s sons, Joshua and Matthew; as well as Matthew Neely of Cedar Rapids.
Jones, who serves as pastor of Melbourne Baptist Church in Brimson, Mo., said during the race he encountered graduates of the other five Southern Baptist seminaries who were encouraged to see a seminary represented. Jones also met many Iowa residents who were unaware of Midwestern’s existence.
“I think it gives the seminary credibility,” Jones said.
Coppenger agreed, noting how Midwestern’s participation benefited both the school and Iowa residents.
“I think it put us on their map. We were, in effect, mobile billboards in the midst of 10,000 people for seven days,” Coppenger said. “It underscored our seriousness about missions and provided those who participated new eyes and hearts for Iowa. And I hope it was an encouragement to Iowa Southern Baptists, boosting their appreciation for their own state and for the resources of the seminary.”
Each of Midwestern’s team members had been training throughout the year, taking 50-mile trips to prepare for the journey which covered from 46 to 92 miles each day over seven days. As a second-year rider, Jones hoped his participation again this year would encourage rookie teammates to endure the grueling journey. But the trip also provided him with a better perspective on ministry in Missouri and Iowa. Since Jones’ church lies only 30 miles south of the Iowa border, he was able to talk with area pastors about evangelism strategies appropriate to the region.
“It is going to take a different approach than in the South,” he noted.
RAGBRAI participants began each day at 5 a.m. with the ritual of breaking camp and getting on the road by 6 a.m. so they could ride as far as possible before the sun became too hot. Countless small towns along the way, at about 10 mile intervals, provided a warm welcome to cyclists. The cyclists sampled everything from homemade ice-cream to smoked turkey legs, pork chop on a stick and breakfast burritos.
Midwestern’s fastest rider usually got into the next camp by 12 noon, having averaged from 16 to 18 miles per hour. Others came in throughout the afternoon, depending on how many times they stopped for food and water along the way and on how many people they were able to talk to. They spent their evenings at assigned campgrounds, which sprouted colorful round-domed tents on every clear area of grass. Cyclists were in bed as soon as the sun set at 9.
Camping places for the cyclists included the grounds of a saddle club in Hawarden (where cyclists had to be careful of the sawdust-piles that covered horse droppings); the lawn of a large Methodist church in Rockwell City (where church members served waffles with whipped cream and fruit syrups starting at 4:30 a.m.); beautiful McHose Park in Boone, a grove of small pine and fir trees; the edge of a parking lot on the campus of Northern Iowa University in Cedar Falls; and on the Jaycee Ball Diamond next to the fairgrounds in Monticello (where cyclists could hear the Oak Ridge Boys in concert and see the closing fireworks display).
Southern Baptist churches hosted the Midwestern team on two different evenings. In Quimby, Rich Keyser, pastor and Midwestern student, welcomed the cyclists for their Sunday night service. Coppenger brought the evening message and Houser sang special music. Members of the congregation provided comfortable beds and showers in their homes. In Waterloo, Ted Keys, pastor of Community Southern Baptist Church, and his congregation prepared a special dinner.
The team encountered all kinds of weather, which residents said was typical of Iowa in the summertime. During the first night of camping in Hawarden, campers met with hard rain and a tornado warning. Huddling in their van, the Midwestern team listened to the radio until they heard that the storm was passing north of them, signaling that they could return to their tents. The next day, everything dried quickly in the hot sun. By the end of the week, a cool front caused some to wish they had brought along an extra blanket, but the days were much more pleasant for biking.
In addition to the cyclists, 5,000 people drove support vehicles. Midwestern’s Mission Service Corps volunteers Lloyd and Carol Hendrickson drove the seminary’s 14-passenger van for the team.
Hendrickson is a North American Mission Board Missions Service Corps volunteer at Midwestern Seminary, currently serving with her husband, Lloyd, as assistant to the president.