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.
“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.”