Pedaling Jesuit Priest’s Ride for Poverty Almost Completed

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Jesuit Father Matthew Ruhl is cycling cross country to call attention to the nation’s staggering poverty level.

After a four hour, 67 mile trek from New Orleans, Fr. Ruhl and his 15-member Cycling for Change team – 11 cyclists and four support team members – recharged their physical and spiritual batteries at Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Church on Aug. 15 before resuming their journey the next morning, en route to Dauphin Island, Ala.

After five years of intense training and planning, the group began its 5,000 mile, 100 day journey on Memorial Day in Cape Flattery, Wash. and, thus far, has traveled more than 3,000 miles. They are slated to wrap up their trip on Labor Day in Key West, Fla.

Ruhl said the idea of cycling cross country to raise poverty awareness was inspired by Catholic Charities USA’s Campaign to Reduce Poverty – a plan to cut poverty in half by 2020.

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“I thought that was a pretty audacious goal, so I went to Catholic Charities USA with this idea of getting a group of riders together and traveling across country to talk about the plan and why it’s so important and they thought it was a great idea and agreed to sponsor it,” he said.

Why cycling?

“It’s a very good way to meet people and talk with people,” Ruhl said. “It’s also very convenient. It’s a traveling billboard. It always attracts attention and allows us to get from Point A to Point B – from Cape Flattery to Key West – in about 100 days without pushing too hard so we can meet and greet people. It also corresponds with the 100 years that Catholic Charities USA has been in existence.”

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Ruhl joined the Society of Jesus in 1981 and was ordained a priest in 1992.

“My family had a long tradition with the Jesuits,” Ruhl said. “My mother was a convert. She came in through the Jesuits of St. Louis University. I am the ninth child in a family of ten boys and two girls and everybody was educated by the Jesuits. Growing up, there were all these Jesuits running around, so it was very logical that I would take that route.”

Ruhl said the 100-day journey is very much in sync with the Jesuit charism.

“Jesuits are kind of out there on the frontier. It’s not like there are a lot of people out there on bikes. So I think, in some ways, it’s forward looking enough and it’s a spreading of the Gospel. It’s evangelization very much in the Jesuit manner,” he said.

Ruhl, who was the only one among his siblings to pursue a religious vocation, spent the last nine years as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Kansas City before taking a year-long sabbatical, partly to go on this trip.

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The 11 cyclists accompanying Ruhl come from all walks of life; ranging in age from 24 to 63; they are lawyers, doctors, social workers, photographers and retired volunteers.

A former participant in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Bethany Paul, 29, quit her job right before the ride in order to participate.

Paul, who holds a master’s degree in public service in the nonprofit sector from Marquette University, spent the past four years doing stewardship and development work for Ruhl at St. Francis Xavier Parish. During that time, she was also a member of the Cycling for Change planning committee.

“Through my involvement with the planning committee, it kind of all came together that I was able to join the team and make the ride,” said Paul, who started cycling around the time she became involved with the committee.

Paul was part of the Trinity Fellows Program at Marquette, graduate fellowship program dedicated to developing urban leaders with a commitment to social and economic justice. “It was funded by Dick Burke, the founder of Trek Bicycles, a wonderful man who died a few years ago,” she said. “When we graduated, we were all gifted a free bike.”

Paul credits Burke with affording her the opportunity to get her master’s and motivating her to start cycling.

Paul said the trip has pretty much gone as planned.

“The one thing that I could not have prepared for was just the relationships we’ve formed with the individuals we’ve met along the way at the parishes and the different places we’ve visited,” she said. “The hospitality of everybody has been overwhelming. It’s been wonderful and the reception to what we have been doing has been wonderful”

As for Ruhl, Paul said the priest has been “a good presence.”

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“It’s 100 days and we’re on our bikes and it’s hot or it’s wet and it does a number on the physical, mental and emotional states of people,” she said.

“Father Matt celebrates Mass for us every day and I personally feel that those Masses are becoming more and more important as we’re getting further and further into this and you’re spending 100 days with the same people,” Paul said. “The time wears on you. As much as the spiritual component of this has been so important throughout the entire trip for all of the reasons that we’re doing it, I feel that, more and more, these Masses just become very important to us as a community, especially now that we’re in the heat too. It’s hot. It’s exhausting. We’re tired and, to have the time to think about why we’re making this trek is important.”

Along the way, the group has gotten its hands dirty. Before stopping in Biloxi, they spent several days in New Orleans, where they volunteered at Second Harvest Food Bank.

“If Americans could see how poor people are and take their faith seriously, we’d have a whole new country. There are enough Catholics in this country to try and swing things one way or another and, if Catholics started taking the Corporal Works of Mercy very, very seriously, I really think we’d have a different country,” said Ruhl. “This includes Catholics who are in politics, Catholics who are in faith-based organizations, Catholics who are individuals and Catholics who are business owners.”

The feedback, Ruhl believes, has been very positive. “Poverty is a huge issue,” he said.

And it’s an issue Ruhl will continue to be vocal about long after the journey ends. In celebrating the victory of having accomplished it, there will be all kinds of people who will want to talk about it and we will indulge those interests,” he said.

As for now, the pedaling priest is moving ahead, inching ever so closely to the finish line.

Ruhl said when he finally sets his eyes on the sign that reads “Now Entering Key West Florida” over Labor Day weekend, he will be quite happy.” It’s going to feel good,” he said. “There’s just no lie. A hundred days on the road is a long time.”

Terry Dickson is a writer and photographer for the Gulf Pine Catholic newspaper in the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi.

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