Columbia pastor bikes to raise awareness of racism

Sunday, July 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
John Yonker trains for his bike trip from Columbia to Indianapolis on North Haven Road. “I just enjoy physical exercise and the challenge of setting a goal and meeting a challenge,” he said.

COLUMBIA — John Yonker straps on his helmet to complete his look. He wears a polyester racing jersey, cycling shorts and shoes that click into the peddles of his Selt road bike. His last additions to the outfit are the gloves that provide a shield from blisters during the long ride. This is not the typical attire of a pastor, but he is preaching a message to his congregation all the same.

Yonker, senior pastor at First Christian Church in Columbia, plans to ride his bike the 380 miles from Columbia to Indianapolis for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly later this month. He leaves July 25 from Columbia's New Haven Elementary School parking lot. For Yonker, the ride is a way to spread the word and raise funds for the church’s mission of racial reconciliation, aimed at dismantling and raising awareness about racism.


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“I think reconciliation is really a primary need of especially our churches because religion seems to be more of a divisive thing today,” said Harsh Brown, a member of First Christian Church and former minister. Brown said he and his wife feel strongly about the mission of reconciliation and support Yonker’s efforts to raise funds.

"There’s a lot of excitement among the members," Brown said. "I hope he raises a lot of money."

Yonker is taking donations and pledges per mile to raise money for the annual Reconciliation offering taken by most congregations in the denomination. The Reconciliation mission focuses on dismantling racism within the church, and the offering goes toward helping minority churches, raising awareness about racism and providing scholarships for minority children to attend church camps.

“I’ve been a supporter of the Reconciliation program of the Christian Church since it got started in the late '60s,” Yonker said. “It’s a cause I believe in. It aims to attack the root causes of racism to help as much as possible end racism, especially in our church, in the structures of the church.”

When Yonker first made a similar journey in 1987, he was riding with the same cause in mind. That year, Yonker raised $3,300 for the mission. Subsequent rides in 1989 and 1993 brought in somewhat less. This year, his first journey in 15 years, Yonker originally hoped to raise around $2,500, but he has already collected $3,158 in gifts and pledges and said he believes even more will come in before his departure.

In addition to raising funds for the mission, the bike ride is an opportunity for Yonker to do something he loves. With three half-marathons, one full marathon and a triathlon under his belt, Yonker said he relishes the opportunity for outdoor physical activity.

“I just enjoy physical exercise and the challenge of setting a goal and meeting a challenge,” he said. “I’m glad to be helping to do this and raise money for a cause I believe in. It should be a lot of fun riding with people who believe in the same thing.”

Another pastor from Kansas City plans to join Yonker on the four-day trek. However, the Rev. Sondra Bowers, senior pastor at Red Bridge Christian Church, said she is not quite as experienced as Yonker and feels a little more nervous about the physical demands of the trip.

“I’m a little anxious about the long miles, but it’s a challenge that I’m ready to take and to face, so that’s kind of exciting,” Bowers said. “In order to not become stagnant in who I am and in my faith I have to challenge myself. I try to challenge myself physically and spiritually both. This is more of a physical challenge.”

To prepare for the trip, Yonker has been biking long miles a few mornings a week, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends from his congregation. Yonker said he enjoys the relationships and camaraderie built during the long rides. He said he has taken rides with a friend who speaks Spanish, and Yonker even picked up a few words along the way.

A support vehicle will travel alongside Yonker and Bowers to carry supplies. The pastors’ mutual friend, retired Christian Church minister Karen Yount from Kansas City, and Yonker’s wife will accompany the cyclists. Yount rode with Yonker on his previous three rides and put him in touch with Bowers when Yonker expressed interest in making the trip again this year.

The route will consist mainly of county roads, and the pastors will be traveling from Columbia to Mexico, Mo., then through Illinois and east into Indiana, aiming to ride about 90 miles each day. In the evenings, the travelers will stay in hotels along the way, rising early each day to beat the heat of summer afternoons. In all, Yonker expects the ride to take about four days.

Despite the demanding mileage, Yonker said he still anticipates an enjoyable and relaxed ride.

“It’s not a race,” Yonker said. “If we get tired and we need to stop and have a snack, we can do that. What ultimately keeps you going is knowing the end is in sight and the encouragement of the friends along the way.”

Yonker said he expects to be traveling about 20 mph on flat roads. Bowers seemed to have somewhat lower expectations.

“He knows that I’m not as physically fit as he is and he’s been doing it a lot longer,” Bowers said. “We’re just going to take it slow and easy.”

Once the pastors have arrived at the assembly, they will stay for five days to attend worship services, workshops and dinners and conduct church business with 8,000 other representatives of the denomination. During the assembly, there will be a workshop and resource group called “Born Apart: Disciples and Anti-Racism,” meant to equip members of congregations to help their churches learn steps in forming an anti-racism identity. Other various workshops will help people deal with diversity in communities.

“I’m just really looking forward to it,” Yonker said. “We just pray for a tailwind.”

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Charles Dudley Jr July 19, 2009 | 4:50 a.m.

Why aren't alot of the other local PedNutz going for this ride for Salvation with this pastor? At least they could ride to Mexico. Mo. as a show of support.

Maybe while out riding maybe they would see the light,repent and stop wasting that grant money for roadway paint,trails and such and pitch a bunch towards the sidewalks that Ped-estrians use.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 19, 2009 | 8:04 a.m.

("Columbia pastor bikes to raise awareness of racism")
What good is raising awareness about racism? Discussing the topic only opens one up for ridicule should some one not like what you are saying or how you are saying it. Shutting down an "unpopular" stance is counterproductive.
You can not force people to feel a certain way towards others. This is why the church and government fails at diversity and populations and congregations remain segregated.
Until there are forums and venues to "air things out" and attain true reconciliation, perceived racism will continue on all sides.
Today, being called a racist is the weapon of choice by those who assume that they have the rule book on how to shut down debate on matters which might be emotionally offensive. Their defense mechanism is to invalidate your position by labeling you a "hater" as they themselves "feel" unloved or unaccepted. They may also fear that the " perceived racist" may have some legitimate points.
Progressives use this "racist" label if they find information as offensive to their own agenda and beliefs. Being called a racist, a bigot, prejudiced, rude, insensitive or ignorant is a cop out and avoids real issues and matters at hand. Discussing information does not make one a racist, actions and behaviors do.
I wonder what practice and policies the church is currently involved in which might be considered racist. Raising funds as "guilt money" might make people feel better about their supposed negative beliefs, but it doesn't change the facts that their are destructive and negative influences in specific cultures. Integrating these unhealthy or negative elements into the church can "dumb-down" congregations. Attempting to criticize unhealthy and negative elements of a "culture" opens one up to being called a racist instead of a concerned good neighbor. God forbid we judge or have an opinion of what is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, helpful or not helpful, true or false. Only religious leaders can do that, as God speaks through them. In the end however, it's all really opinion.
Perhaps this cycling religious crusader is the epitome of today's liberal progressive.
He just happens to bear the label of "pastor."

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 19, 2009 | 5:58 p.m.

I believe I saw the pastor out riding his bike this afternoon, far away from any nattering nabobs of negativsm, while picking up my kids from the grandparents, far away from any nattering nabobs of negativsm.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 19, 2009 | 7:29 p.m.

@John Schultz:
("I believe I saw the pastor out riding his bike this afternoon...")
Last time I checked it was still not against the law to believe whatever you want to believe.
Personally, I believe you saw me out riding my bike this afternoon.
I could be wrong though.

(Report Comment)
Darren Hellwege July 27, 2009 | 8:48 a.m.

What a horrible shame that this excellent servant of God and this excellent cause has been used for hateful causes by others. The attack on Pednet, as if it is "wasting" money to make our city more safe for cyclists AND pedestrians, is wrong.
The comment about "liberal progressives" is downright nausiating. Bigots on the radical right are fighting desperately to pretend that racism and hate are nothing but "weapons of choice," as if bigotry didn't REALLY exist, the hateful term "race card" is used to imply that racism is just a game black people play. Nothing could be more wrong, and no attitude could be less Christian. Yes, sir, there IS a great deal of hate and racism pretending to be "criticizing unhealthy and negative elements of culture." We read forums like this and nearly every day see people making racist comments about blacks, blaming them for the racism and discrimination of our society, projecting the actions of a few onto every person of black skin, insulting young black people who wear stylish clothes or listen to popular music as if they're promoting crime and a "negative element," a cliche used by racists for decades. We get the same nonsense over and over--Rev. Wright speaks against slavery and racism, he's called a "racist" and his career destroyed. Judge Sotomayer promotes equality of opportunity, she's attacked as a "racist." And here, ministers of our Lord and Savior promote racial harmony and are attacked for being "liberal," as if that were the opposite of being a true Christian, an outright blasphemy.
You sir, have no clue what you're talking about if you think Rev. Yonker's ministry is just a label. It's a lifelong committment that isn't just about words on Sunday morning but LIVING a Christian life. Yet today, so much of what it truly following Christ--Hunger and thirst for justice, do unto others as you would have others do unto you, if you love me feed my sheep--is opposed for political reasons. Has hate radio turned the term "liberal" into such a slur that even within the church we cannot escape these petty political disagreements? Yeah, he probably is a liberal, more power to him. What does THAT have to do with not being a real minister?
I think all you've done is confirm the need for what Rev. Yonker's doing. Raising awareness of racism is a vital part of working to lessen it in our society. The civil rights movement has been led by people of God going back to Dr. King and before. What's needed next is for more church participation in today's civil rights movement, and speaking out against homophobia and anti-gay hate and bigotry. Instead of leading the way with Christ's hunger and thirst for justice, we see too many in the church contributing to hate and injustice and bigotry.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 27, 2009 | 10:10 a.m.

@Darren Hellwege:
And what are you doing to promote dialog across the cultures?
If all we do is constantly address people as labels, such as cycler, liberal progressive, bigots on the radical right, homophobe, "Christian," "Prophetics," "Jew," "Muslim," "Buddist" etc. how do we address that their are bridges to be built between the individuals? How do we seek out the more "reasonable" of the groups to cull the best and healthiest ideas of the cultures so that social individualism prevails?
And why can't I disfavor both Rev. Wright"s preaching, which smacks of racist hatred of "white America," AND the antics of David Duke at the same time, yet understand where an Imus or Richard Pryor is coming from?
Both Wright and Duke are wrong, from a true "Christian" perspective, yet their hate speech can generate dialog to either build bridges or wage wars.
Those who find biting humor help put things in perspective.
Those who refuse to discuss and/or debate the pros and cons become stagnant.

(Report Comment)
Kansas Wiley Stafford July 27, 2009 | 2:55 p.m.

geezus Ray, it's a beautiful day outside, go get some fresh air. You have been pwn'd.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr July 27, 2009 | 3:10 p.m.

Darren Hellwege those who keep pulling the race card now and in the future will always keep on doing because that is all they know how to do or want to do.

I could post more here but you could not handle the truth.

(Report Comment)

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