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FIRST-PERSON: Trolling for fellowship across Iowa’s countryside

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–I just finished a 505-mile ride across Iowa with 10,000 of my closest friends. The event is called RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Though you’re struck by the splendor of God’s handiwork in the Iowa countryside, the fact that you don’t have to lock your bike in this crowd, the ingenuity of a massive program well run and the camaraderie that comes sharing quadricep “burns,” soaking rains and persistent headwinds, you nevertheless hunger for Christian fellowship.

The prevailing cultural themes were less than anointed. Beer appreciation was huge. T-shirts and beer gardens set up in many towns bore such words as “Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder.” One fellow even attached a beer can to a coat hanger projecting a yard in front of his bike. He was mimicking the carrot on a stick, identifying his motivation for pressing on.

Many of the team names and slogans were funny in a grim way — “Do Not Resuscitate” and “Donner Party: We Eat The Slow Ones.” Some were connected to cool traditions. For instance, Team Gourmet had a different gourmet meal prepared by their own chef waiting for them at each evening’s campground. But many were pretty rude, celebrating one perversity or another.

In this setting, I thought I’d go trolling for fellowship with other Christians. I donned an old seminary bike shirt displaying a prominent cross and the word Baptist. When I hit the road, the response was not long in coming. Yes, there were the good-natured digs — “I hope we don’t run into any Baptists today. Oops!” and “You aren’t going to preach to me, are you?” But then there those who were drawn to one displaying the cross. Let me note 10:

1) A Christian doctor sidled up to ask about the seminary, saying he had a good friend in seminary when he was in medical school in Denver.

2) A Christian Reformed chaplain with the 180-member U.S. Air Force team rode with me for a while, talking about his denomination and his work on a base in Wyoming.

3) A Methodist pastor, trained at an American Baptist seminary in Illinois, opened the conversation at a water stop. We discovered that we were both pastors, both 53, and both sons of 91-year-old preachers.

4) One man was a member of First Baptist Church, Branson, Mo. I’d preached for his son-in-law when he was the chaplain at East Texas Baptist University.

5) One was a Christian counselor, a member of First Baptist Church, Bellevue, Neb. He remarked about how good it was to worship God surrounded by the beauty of nature. (That day’s view was particularly marked by a sea of corn bordered by the purple sky of a looming storm.)

6) A Catholic layman from Gurnee, Ill., started the conversation with “Nice jersey.” As we talked, we discovered that he’d been married in a church only a couple of miles from my apartment in Wilmette, Ill.

7) Another Air Force team member, now stationed in Utah, recalled his upbringing among Baptists in North Carolina. He wondered where I was “stationed.”

8) A Catholic lady asked if I were a priest. She said her uncle in British Columbia was one.

9) An American Baptist girl, riding with her church group from Cherry Hill, N.J., stopped to speak to me at the Herbert Hoover presidential library in West Branch.

10) A circuit riding South Dakota pastor, serving Mennonite and United Church of Christ congregations in rural regions, was my partner as we descended in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine.

Yes, the shirt gave me occasion to witness to non-Christians, such as to the postman who wondered if we were the “Amen corner” sort of Baptist. But the preponderance of contact was with those who were heartened by the image of the cross in a pretty secular setting. It struck me that in a nation less Christ-conscious than it once was, we do well to bear tokens of our faith, both as an encouragement to fellow believers and as a means of self-discipline as we walk in awareness that we conspicuously represent our Lord.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Other reflections by Coppenger can be seen at www.listten.com and www.comeletusreason.com.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger