Denver man rides cross-country for persecuted Christians in Middle East

by Colleen Dulle

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Skip Rodgers was driving to Mass on a peaceful Sunday, admiring Denver’s snow-capped peaks glinting in the morning sun, when he realized it could all be different.

His car could be bombed. He could fear for his family. He could be persecuted for his faith. But he wasn’t.

It was a life-altering realization for Rodgers that would inspire him to leave his home and bicycle across the northern United States and Canada, from Washington state to Maine, raising money for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

“That was kind of a game-changing moment for me, was just realizing how blessed we are,” Rodgers told Catholic News Service July 29 from Sodus Point, New York, where he was resting for the night mid-ride.

As of Aug. 2, Rodgers’ project, the Ride for Hope and Mercy, has taken him 3,154 miles along the Northern Tier route so far and raised $15,000 for Save Christian Middle East, a Denver- and Lebanon-based organization that aims to help persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

Mike Dunn, an assistant with the organization, said the group raises money and awareness of the current genocide of Christians and other innocent people in Iraq and Syria. Raising awareness, Dunn said, increases people’s desire to help politically and monetarily.

Since Rodgers started his ride, donations to the charity have increased significantly, Dunn said.

Rodgers learned about Save Christian Middle East in September 2015 when he heard its founder, Maronite Catholic Father Andre Mahanna, speak at Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver on the plight of Middle Eastern Christians. The presentation stirred his heart, and he and his wife began passing out Nazarene pins in their parish to raise awareness.

The pins had the Arabic letter “N” on them, short for a derogative Arabic term meaning “Nazarene,” which the Islamic State group had spray-painted on Christian-owned homes and businesses in Mosul, Iraq.

Around the same time, Rodgers began following Father John Hilton’s “The Pedaling Priest” blog. Father Hilton, another Denver resident, was biking the Northern Tier route to raise money to build a retreat center in Aspen, Colorado.

Father Andrew Kembering, pastor of the Rodgers’ parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Denver, remembered Rodgers talking about how he wanted to take a ride like Father Hilton’s to benefit Save Christian Middle East.

“For Skip, it’s like a bucket-list thing,” Father Kembering told CNS in a phone interview from Denver. “I didn’t think he’d do it, but by golly, he did!”

Father Kembering said he was excited to see Rodgers working with the local Maronite parish, St. Rafka, which runs Save Christian Middle East.

“When he comes back, I believe he will come back full of knowledge and wisdom that will be good for our community,” the pastor said.

Rodgers spends his quiet hours on the road praying for those who have sent him intentions through his website, rideforhopeandmercy.com.

“I love to hear a little bit about people that email me or send me prayer requests,” Rodgers said. “I’m just constantly praying a rosary, praying Hail Marys, thinking about people that email me [and] people in the Middle East.”

Rodgers brought along two saddle bags, a tent, a mattress and a sleeping bag, and never knows where he’ll sleep the next night or eat his next meal. He’s lost at least 12 pounds during the trip, and still has 354 miles to go, as of Aug. 2.

Rodgers, who converted to Catholicism 23 years ago, said that when the road gets tough, he finds comfort in the idea that suffering is redemptive, a concept he was first introduced to when he converted.

“When I get tired and I’m facing a big mountain or something,” Rodgers said, “I think of those terms, that idea of offering it up.”

As he bikes along the silent back roads through the northern states he’d never visited before, he prays first for those who have asked him for prayers, and then for anyone who comes to mind.

“There’s a kind of list I go through every day,” he said.

Rodgers said that during the seven-week trip, he’s learned from the people who have shown him hospitality. His wife, Lee Ann, reaches out to parishes in the towns where he rests, and they often provide him a place to stay and some food. This kindness, Rodgers said, gives him hope.

“For me, it’s just realizing that people are generous, people are good, people are nice, from the person that put me up in a hotel room to the person who makes me some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to take on the road . . . something simple, an act of mercy,” Rodgers reflected.

“I hope I’ll take that back with me and be generous and be merciful.”

The Ride for Hope and Mercy was set to end Aug. 6 in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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