Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
On Monday, June 13, Skip Rodgers dipped the back tire of his steel-frame touring bike into the Pacific Ocean in Anacortes, Wash., 93 miles south of Vancouver, B.C., settled onto the seat, and began a trek of over 3,400 miles across the northern tier of the United States. His goal is to dip his tire in the Atlantic Ocean in Bar Harbor, Me., around August 9.
Why did 59-year-old Skip Rodgers take on this challenge which he calls the Ride for Hope and Mercy?
He just had to do something about the plight of the persecuted and displaced Christians fleeing violence in the Middle East, he explained.
The seed of the idea took root after Rodgers went to St. Rafka’s Mission of Hope and Mercy Conference at Regis University in Sept. 2015. There, Father Andre Mahanna, who was brought up in Lebanon and is pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church in Lakewood, Colo., was part of a panel on religious persecution in the Middle East.
“I left there feeling we should something besides wearing the Nazarene pin,” Skip said. “I started thinking about doing something more. At the same time Father John Hilton at age 60 last year was riding across America to raise money to build a retreat center at his church.” He is pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Aspen, Colo. That watered the seed of inspiration for Skip.
Then driving to Mass and “realizing the freedom we have in the United States to attend Mass without being persecuted and facing death,” Skip believed that we should “take every opportunity to involve ourselves in the Church, and the Mass, and the sacraments because of the opportunity we have here.”
Everything added up—he was going to ride across America to tell as many people as he could about the plight of the Christians in the Middle East and to raise as much money as he could for St. Rafka’s Mission of Hope and Mercy, which supports many several missions in Lebanon for Christians who fled there.
Rodgers’ route, which he named Ride for Hope and Mercy after St. Rafka’s mission, will take him through Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Ontario—then it will touch the northern tip of New York, back into Canada and Montreal, and finally across Maine to the Atlantic.
He purposely wanted to “do something hard” to reach his goal. That includes taking along only his tent, sleeping bag, and two saddlebags of necessities.
Along the way, he will share his faith and have plenty to tell people about the Middle East Christians and their plight as he stops at churches, grocery stores, diners, or wherever else he takes a rest.
He considers it a pilgrimage, too, and hopes churches along the way will let him stay the night or sleep on their lawn.
“I hope people ask me what I’m doing and where I’m heading,” said an energized Skip. “My goal is to help bring more awareness to people here in the United States. We would like to try and make their lives better by supporting Father Andre Mahanna and his efforts in the Middle East.”
After Skip learned about what was going on in the Middle East against Christians, he asked a lot of people if they knew about that persecution. A few had heard once or so; many hadn't. That was another reason for him to take this challenging journey to raise awareness.
Skip took a bundle of vacation time—built up over a 27-year career at Children's Hospital in Denver—all with the blessings of the hospital after they learned of the mission he wanted to accomplish.
“My wife has been very supportive and would be on the bike too if she could,” Skip said. “She shares this mission. And the kids and all my family all behind me.” Skip and Lee Ann have two daughters, Lucy, 21, and Carly, 18.
In fact, Lee Ann also helped bring the plight of Middle East Christians to the forefront.
About a year ago she “saw a documentary on EWTN explaining what was going on then in the Middle East, and I shared that with my husband,” she said. “Until then I had no idea what going on there. The media here were not telling what was going on.”
What was her immediate reaction? “You feel paralyzed about what you can do so far away other than send money, but you’d like to do something else,” she said. “This is something that we’d like to do to bring awareness to more people.”
What does Lee Ann think of Skip taking on this challenge?
“He is not afraid of doing hard things,” she said without hesitation. “He’s a man of action, and he takes his faith very seriously. He was inspired by the Holy Spirit to do something and he tried to follow through doing that. He’s a good man. And he tells our daughters, don’t be afraid to do hard things.”
Year of Mercy’s Role
“This being the Year of Mercy was another piece of the puzzle for me,” Skip said, “as well as the examples of Father Hilton and Father Mahanna. I knew it would be a great way for me to participate and do acts of mercy.”
This idea being connected to the Jubilee Year of Mercy applied not just to him but to his family. “Lee Ann and I would like to be used by God this year to raise awareness of what our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters are going through, and raise money to help Father Mahanna’s mission in Lebanon.”
Lee Ann explained, “We would like to raise as much money as possible on our website for St. Rafka’s mission.”
Skips stressed that “every dollar donated, except the money PayPal receives, will go to help provide shelter, food, water, and everyday needs people have who have fled to Lebanon.”
People can get a hint at those needs in a short video on St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy’s SaveChristianMiddleEast.org.
Mission on the Front Lines
Father Mahanna founded the Mission of Hope and Mercy for Christians in the Middle East in May 2015 to focus on raising awareness of how severe the situation is in the Middle East and its far-reaching implications for social justice and religious freedom, and to focus on charity as a way Americans can help persecuted Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria who have been displaced to Lebanon. The mission provides hope and mercy to families with food, medicine, clothing, and hygienic supplies. They receive medical care and special attention for those with serious ailments (including cancer), and help to severely brutalized women and children who have continuing trauma.
Father Mahanna, an American citizen, himself lived through such a situation growing up in war-torn Lebanon. At 10, to escape Christian massacres, his family lived in caves at Mount Lebanon. Now a priest and recognized leader on Middle East complexities, having served on the Vatican’s 2010 Synod on the Middle East, he speaks on ISIS and its mission to destroy and eliminate Christianity in the Middle East and beyond as a systematic Christian genocide in the very places Christianity began.
Father Mahanna said from Rome in a recent statement, “Our care is first for the Christians and then others who are persecuted. Not because they are a minority, but because they are on the front lines of a modern-day genocide. They are suffering barbaric situations now, so they are, in fact, the true harbingers of what Americans should be aware.”
Support for Skip & Mission
A few families who know the Rodgers are helping Skip with their support and prayers, including Matt and Peggy Tynan of Denver.
“Skip is a personal friend and one day told me about God putting this on his heart, and how Lee Ann and his beautiful daughters were supportive of it,” Matt said.
The Tynans have known Skip and Lee Ann for 20 years and “have always admired and looked up to them and appreciated their faithfulness,” Matt said, pointing out one example of how Lee Ann is active in the pro-life movement in Colorado.
Referencing the shooting in Orlando, he said, “This is the kind of thing Christians in the Middle East are facing on a daily basis. We have such free access to the sacraments and so much religious freedom here in the United States, and Skip and Lee Ann and his family is raising awareness’ to help Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East. That’s a great sacrifice. So Peggy and I wanted to be supportive of Skip and Lee Ann for their efforts to support Father Andre and his mission.”
Skip’s mission also caught the attention of Seth DeMoor and Steve Seguin of One Billion Stories. Skip’s story will be one of the Catholic stories from around the world that DeMoor and Seguin will tell by filming his challenges on such a mission.
Skip also hopes to do some blogging about his journey along the way. It will appear on his website Ride for Hope and Mercy, where he hopes people will consider a donation for the Christians who have fled to the mission in Lebanon for survival and help.
Follow Skip along his route, and send him messages of encouragement and prayers. He asks for prayers for himself and his family for the safety and success of this mission.
With your prayers, and hopefully a donation for the Christians at St. Rafka’s Mission of Hope and Mercy for Christians in the Middle East, don’t skip supporting Skip.