WALLA WALLA -- In the midst of a 5,000-mile cycling pilgrimage to raise awareness about poverty in America, 12 cyclists arrived in Walla Walla on Wednesday afternoon after traversing 550 miles in 12 days. The cyclists are part of a group called "Cycling for Change" that is sponsored by National Catholic Charities.
A small group of parishioners, who acted as overnight hosts for the cyclists, guided the riders to St. Patrick's church after stormy weather compromised the planned reception area of Washington Park. While riders had braved rainy weather for most of their journey, riders said their arrival in Walla Walla marked their first encounter with thunder.
The 100-day ride began at Cape Flattery, Wash., on May 29. The cyclists will pursue a diagonal route through the nation that ends in Key West, Fla., in September. The spiritual (and logistical) father of the trip, Jesuit priest Matt Ruhl, has been planning the event for more than four years with members of his Kansas City parish.
Ruhl says that a 2006 Catholic Charities paper ("Poverty In America: A Threat to the Common Good"), which reported more than 40 million Americans were living in poverty, spurred him to combine his twin passions of cycling and charity work to make Americans "aware of all the different kinds of issues surrounding poverty and to realize how devastating it is to the local community."
Although the paper sparked the immediate inspiration for the ride, Ruhl said his personal commitment to alleviating poverty can be traced back to his work as a pastor in the poorest neighborhoods of St. Louis.
"I know firsthand the devastation of poverty on mind, body and soul," Ruhl said while drying off at St. Patrick Catholic Church after finishing the 53-mile leg of the journey that began in Umatilla.
Ruhl hopes the increased awareness about poverty will lead to direct action by individuals, businesses and governments at the local, regional and national levels.
"I hope this (ride) will be the impetus for people to do something about poverty in America," he said.
Along the way, the riders have used their publicity to sponsor fundraising events that infuse money directly into local communities, while hosting forums intended to spread awareness of poverty issues. Catholic Charities Director Tim Meliah organized one of these forums later that evening at St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
The cyclists attribute the "remarkable" support they have been given by "the average person" in towns they have stopped at to the current economic situation.
"With this economy, hardworking people have tried to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, only to realize that they're not wearing boots ... more than ever, people are realizing that poverty can happen to anybody," Ruhl said.
Omar Ihmoda can be reached at email@example.com.
ON THE NET
Cycling for Change website: www.cyclingforchange.org