Bicyclists Ride for Joplin and Tuscaloosa Tornado Victims

Anna Kuta

Bicyclists Ride for Joplin and Tuscaloosa Tornado Victims

A team of 13 bicyclists recently completed a 766-mile tour across the southeastern United States to raise money for churches and families devastated earlier this year by tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.

On April 27, 173 tornadoes ripped through the southeast U.S. on one of the deadliest tornado days in history, killing 195 and injuring hundreds more. Tuscaloosa was one of the hardest-hit areas, where an F4 tornado with winds up to 200 miles per hour killed 32, destroyed the city’s public works infrastructure and left a path of destruction nearly 200 miles long.

On May 22, Joplin was virtually leveled by a similar, mile-wide F5 tornado that killed 162 and injured nearly 1,000 – the seventh deadliest single tornado in U.S. history.

On September 22, the Present: Hope Tour team set out on a 12-day bicycle journey across the tornado-ravaged region and raised nearly $100,000 for disaster recovery efforts in Joplin and Tuscaloosa. That, along with raising awareness of the damage and providing support – physical, moral and spiritual – for victims they encountered along the way, was their ultimate goal.

Cyclist Aaron Smith of Minneapolis, Minn., who organized the tour, said, “The news about Joplin quickly left our TV screens, and we just really felt like we needed to bring it back to attention and raise money for our friends in Joplin.”

Each member had to raise a minimum of $5,000. They began their journey in Missouri, rode through Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, and ended Oct. 5 in front of 10,000 church leaders on the stage of national ministerial conference Catalyst, who sponsored the team along with disaster relief organization Convoy of Hope and adventure-driven humanitarian aid organization Venture Expeditions.

The group included biking enthusiasts from California, Texas, Ohio and Minnesota, plus the Rev. Aaron Brown, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin. Six members of his church died, dozens more lost their homes, and the church building was halfway destroyed. Though Brown had never biked before, he was asked to join the tour as a voice for the people of his town.

“The tour [was] about raising awareness of what’s still going on in the recovery effort in Joplin and Tuscaloosa,” Brown said. “[It was] about raising some relief to help people back into their homes, back into their lives, to help restore some of the churches.”

A member of Brown’s church whose wife died in the tornado gave him a cross and her wedding ring to carry with him on the trip, and he also carried the wristband of a young boy who lost his life. Brown said when he felt like giving up, he remembered them and everyone who died.

“What inspired me along the way was some of the families I knew personally who lost loved ones,” he said. “When the hills got so hard, that was a time for me … to say, ‘Wow, I’m doing this for you guys, I’m doing this for my community; I love Joplin.”

In addition to biking about 75 miles per day, the Hope team stopped in various communities, visited victims, spent a day helping recovery efforts, toured damaged areas, spoke to churches and civic groups, made media appearances and collected donations to the cause. They alternated driving duties to haul their equipment and luggage, and spent each night at a local church.

Gunnar Johnson, executive pastor of Gateway Church in Fort Worth, Texas, said: “To see the devastation … we were all quiet; we didn’t know what to say to the families when we met them. I think awareness is a big deal. … It’s off the media’s radar already. There [are] so many things happening, yet there’s still a lot of hurt.”

Brown said the team members realized they all had something they could give, and that was hope and encouragement.

Paul Hurckman said: “We went into it thinking we were going to help these people, and when we actually got to sit down in Joplin and Tuscaloosa and meet with some of the people affected by the tornado, we just saw how much hope they had, and it was really exciting to hear the stories in the midst of devastation of what those communities were already doing to rebuild. The opportunity for us … to come alongside and tell their story and encourage others to continue in the efforts to rebuild those communities has been really incredible.”

The team members reiterated on their blog that they were willing to make a physical sacrifice to try to inspire others to make a financial sacrifice, a sacrifice of service or a sacrifice of prayers.

“What do we do now?” Brown said. “What do we do next? I think the answer to that comes through the local church. We are called to serve our world and I think the church shines when the good news of Jesus Christ is really out there as the light of the world.”

Photo c. 2011 Present: Hope Tour

Anna Kuta is the news editor at She is a 2011 graduate of the University of Richmond, where she majored in journalism and political science. When she isn't writing or editing, she enjoys keeping up with politics, spending time with her church's youth group and rooting for the Spiders. She can be reached at [email protected].

Publication date: October 12, 2011