Editor's note: This story has corrected the first name of the pastor of University Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.
He’s a pastor with a need for speed in a rush for mission – all on a bicycle built for two.
The Rev. Paul Escamilla, senior pastor of Saint John’s United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, planned to celebrate the church’s 67th anniversary by cycling 670 miles across central Texas. His goal for his modern-day circuit ride: To visit where the church is engaged in mission and raise funds for St. John’s endowment, which supports that work.
His open-road odyssey first had to overcome a sizable roadblock. Just a few weeks ago, Escamilla thought he might have to call the whole thing off after he broke his collarbone while mountain biking.
That is when congregants wheeled out a solution. Members of the church’s cycling ministry volunteered to accompany him in his 10-day trek across Texas’ hill country, with seven taking turns in the captain seat of a tandem bike as Escamilla takes the rear.
With his doctor’s clearance, Escamilla set out with a merry band of biking believers on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 2. About 40 people came to the send-off, and a children’s choir performed a rousing rendition of "The Wheels on the Bike Go Round and Round.”
“At first, this was supposed to be a solo feat. But this feels like a barn-raising.” Escamilla said, during a break from his ride Sept. 4. “This is all-hands-deck ‘We’re going to build a barn together,’ and that’s been a beautiful shift.”
Even church members unable to join him on the road are participating with their prayers, their financial support and their wheels. Those logging their distances via email and social media include children on their tricycles, the middle-aged on their exercise bikes and older members on their wheelchairs.
The plan is for the church’s “Open Roads” journey to conclude Sunday, Sept. 13, with a “Final Mile” parade near the downtown Austin church. The event will be followed ─ in true United Methodist fashion ─ by a potluck to celebrate the church’s birthday.
Saint John’s has about 500 to 600 in weekly attendance. By this week’s end, church members expect their joint effort to exceed the initial goal of 670 miles.
Sandy Fivecoat, who chairs the church council, described Escamilla’s injury as an unexpected blessing. Her husband, Bill, mapped out the church’s route, and the couple has provided reconnaissance ensuring that the roads and trails are safe for the cyclists.
“‘Open Roads’ has morphed from a bike ride/fundraising event to a salient gift — binding our church family in love,” she said. “God is generous.”
From pulpit to pedals
Escamilla dreamed up the ride after families in the church, who choose to be anonymous, offered to match up to $150,000 in donations to the church’s endowment, if given by Dec. 15. Interest from the endowment helps support the church’s involvement in such efforts as disaster recovery; Habitat for Humanity; Meals on Wheels; and Interfaith Hospitality Network, in which faith communities host homeless families trying to get back on their feet.
The pastor said he wanted to generate excitement for those willing to match the families’ generous offer. He took inspiration from his friend and fellow cyclist, the Rev. Matt Gaston of University Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. Gaston biked 1,000 miles over 15 days in June to raise funds for Project Transformation, a United Methodist nonprofit that connects young adults with underserved children.
As of Sept. 7, Saint John’s congregants had raised $67,000, almost 45 percent of their goal.
Signs of rebirth
Throughout his own journey, Escamilla has seen signs of God’s resurrection, and not only in his resurrected ride.
The first day, the Saint John’s pedalers visited Wimberley, which was devastated by deadly floods in May. Like many United Methodist churches, Saint John’s donated flood buckets through the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help with initial recovery efforts.
The once-raging Blanco River is now a “beautiful powder blue” that flows along banks of gnarled trees, Escamilla said. He saw in the tranquil waters both their potential to kill and to bring new life, as Christians recognize in the sacrament of baptism.
The next day, he and his team visited Bastrop, where church members helped rebuild homes after wildfires torched the city Labor Day weekend in 2011. “The area is called Lost Pines, and when you see the burned trees, that seems really true,” he said “But then you could see sprigs coming up from the earth ─ signs of new life ─ and there is hope.”
The journey has not focused solely on the serious.
Appropriately enough, Escamilla said, he boldly began his trek under the leadership of “Captain Kirk” ─ Kirk Mancill, the church’s lay leader. “How often do you get that opportunity?” he chuckled.
“The Holy Spirit has a sense of whimsy, I think. God is at work. People are giving to the endowment cause, they’re giving their hearts to this effort, and they are getting out on their bicycles and getting some fitness.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].