Some might look at the unexpected turns that confronted the Pedaling Pilgrimage sponsored by Sweaty Sheep Ministries and see the event as a failure. Organizer Ryan Althaus is not one of them.
Only six cyclists were up to the challenge of bicycling from Santa Cruz, California, to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly(2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This was the second assembly for the Pedaling Pilgrimage; the first was four years ago at GA220 in Pittsburgh.
“We had a number of people drop out at the last minute, so we made a few changes to our plan,” said Althaus, the founder of Sweaty Sheep and a candidate for the ministry. “We just embraced the situation for what it was and continued on.”
Rather than make the planned 850-mile trek, the group opted to spend time volunteering with the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, which Althaus serves as development director. They also volunteered with a Habitat for Humanity service project before beginning a shortened journey to the assembly at the Oregon Convention Center.
The group started pedaling Thursday after meeting up in Yachats, Oregon, and rode 76 miles to Corvallis, where they spent the night.
Mounting their bikes again on Friday, they traveled from Corvallis to Salem, from Salem to Tualatin and from Tualatin to Portland, where they arrived late Friday night. All told, their pilgrimage covered nearly 160 miles.
Pete Wells, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Eastern Oregon, was one of the participants.
“It was great experience,” said Wells, who took up cycling a year ago. “I had a wonderful time, and it was easily the farthest I’ve ever ridden.”
Also joining in the pilgrimage was Brian Heron, the pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Portland. Heron is an avid cyclist, author and blogger who was nicknamed “The Pedal Pilgrim” after finishing a 10-week, 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage across America in 2011 and writing a book about the adventure titled “Alone.”
Althaus said he saw the pilgrimage as a great lead-in to Active Life Sunday, which will be recognized by the PC(USA) on June 26. Active Life Sunday grew out of Active Life Church, an initiative designed to inspire churches to integrate physical activity into their worship and fellowship.
“It was Plato who said, ‘An hour of play is worth a lifetime of conversation,’” he added.
He hopes Active Life Sunday will become an annual event to promote the connection between faith and fitness.
Althaus was quick to point out that while the pilgrimages tend to get a lot of media exposure, the events are merely a “means to promote the real message, which is the plight of the homeless and the church’s responsibility to respond to the homelessness problem.”
He suggested that participants in GA222 use part of their per diem to help feed the homeless.
Althaus said the PC(USA) could learn something from the difficulties faced by the organizers and participants in this year’s pilgrimage.
“Our denomination is facing a lot of headwinds and potholes,” he said. “We have to embrace the failures that we face and find new ways to stay on the bike. We have to welcome the headwinds and the potholes and understand that they come with the territory.”
He said the solution to the denomination’s problems cannot be solved with innovation. It’s more about a desire to do mission work and being the hands and feet of Christ in a literal sense, he said.
“Our denomination in many ways has unrestricted resources, but restricted passion when it comes to missions and ministry,” he said. “(Our denomination is one of the wealthiest, but is also one that is shrinking the fastest in terms of membership. Maybe it should be the other way around – having restricted resources and unrestricted passion. Maybe if we were one of the poorest denominations then we might become one of the fastest-growing.”
For more information on the Sweaty Sheep ministry, visit www.sweatysheep.com.
For more information on the homeless garden project in Santa Cruz, visit www.homelessgardenproject.org.