Jason Christensen’s ride for real hope and change did just that for the less fortunate . . .
It might seem that a 5,000-mile trek across the country is an odd way to raise awareness of poverty in the United States. But Jason Christensen, a member of Legatus’ Colorado Springs Chapter, saw the potential in a cross-country bicycle trip to do just that — and to raise funds to help the poor.
As the former director of Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs, Christensen has spent years working to alleviate poverty. He’s witnessed the tremendous work the Church has done on this front, and Christensen knew he could help.
Man on a mission
“Three years ago Catholic Charities issued a policy paper on poverty in the U.S.,” Christensen explained. “The idea was to cut it in half by 2020. At the time, there were 38 million people living in poverty. Today it’s over 40 million.”
Father Matt Ruhl, a Jesuit from Kansas City, proposed a cross-country bike ride that would showcase the Church’s commitment to the poor while raising funds for Catholic Charities’ Caritas Center of Kansas City. Christensen heard about the ride last May, and the idea touched his heart so he signed on.
“Father Ruhl was frustrated by the media’s portrayal of the Church because of the scandals,” said Christensen. “This would be a way to unify Catholics across the political spectrum.”
The ride coincided with the 100-year anniversary of Catholic Charities in the U.S. The ride — called Cycling for Change — began in Washington state on Memorial Day and concluded in Key West, Fla., on Sept. 4. They finished in 99 days and celebrated with a Mass on the 100th day.
Participants rode four to seven hours every day, and rested every seventh day. The core group consisted of 12 riders. Several other cyclists joined the ride for different segments of the country. Altogether, over 400 people participated.
“When Jason came to me with the mission, I was a little hesitant,” said Lenore Christensen, Jason’s wife. “However, I saw the passion in his eyes about helping this cause — to be a voice for those in poverty and to promote the good work of the Church.”
The Christensen family and countless others tracked the riders’ progress online and supported them through prayer.
“Jason needed my strength in prayers — not only for his safety, but also for the 40+ million people living in poverty and for our Church that is trying to do something about it,” she said.
It took Kansas City’s Catholic Charities three years to organize Cycling for Change at the national level.
“They created the route and mapped it out. They looked up Catholic Charities organizations along the route, and called to find lodging for the riders,” said Rochelle Schlortt, communications director for Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs.
“We slept in parish basements, family houses, Catholic universities, the occasional motel and outside in sleeping bags,” said Jason.
Riders also participated in service projects along the way. They visited a homeless shelter in Tacoma, Wash., worked at a food bank in Ennis, Mont., and spent time with children at the Centro Hispano Católico in Miami — just to name a few.
Christensen said that daily Mass sustained him during his time on the road.
“It was a fabulous, peaceful way to conclude the day,” he said. “And we didn’t always have access to a Church. We went from trailer parks to state parks.”
What made the ride even more of a triumph for Christensen was that he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last year. Because of this condition, Christensen took time off in the middle of the ride to be with family and see his doctor.
Despite the setback, there were a number of high points for Christensen — including his meeting with a man named Lawrence at a Catholic transitional housing facility in Seattle. Lawrence had been sober for six months after living on the streets for 15 years. Now he plans to open his own coffee shop. Christensen said the man’s energy and spunk reminded him of himself.
Another emotional moment was when riders stopped at the Hospitality Center of Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, Wash. A veteran named Robert, who had been homeless for years, thanked the riders. Then he told them he wanted to make a donation. Christensen and the crew were uncomfortable about accepting anything from the veteran, who was clearly not a “man of means.” But Robert insisted — bringing the parable of the widow’s mite to mind.
“When you’re riding 70 to 90 miles a day, you have a lot of time to think,” said Christensen. “There is such amazing beauty in this country, and I’m not just speaking about the Columbia River Gorge. It’s in the love of the people we saw. We met a lot of people who were living on the margins. They have great reason to be downtrodden, yet there is a lot of hope out there.”
Christensen also witnessed how grateful people are when they’re given a little bit of help.
“Our problems are nothing compared to what others encounter every single day of their lives when trapped in poverty,” said Lenore. “I never stopped to think about the magnitude of what the poor encounter every day. Just trying to figure out where to eat, how to pay the bills, how their children could get what they needed — it’s unimaginable.”
Ultimately, Cycling for Change raised $500,000. More than 3.5 million people heard about the ride through media coverage.
“I’ve always believed my discipleship is in solidarity with the poor,” said Jason. “That will always be with me. I believe we honor Christ when we care for the poor.”
Christensen laments the many misconceptions about the poor — misconceptions that melt when one actually engages them. His fellow riders all experienced a real conversion after sitting down and eating with people at soup kitchens.
“All too often we say we’ll take care of the poor by making a contribution,” he said. “Our Holy Father has said that is not enough. We all have to engage in that caritas, that charity.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.
Colorado Springs’ river of hope
One of the projects closest to Jason Christensen’s heart is Marian House — the largest soup kitchen in Colorado Springs and a poverty reduction center. Marian House is a part of Catholic Charities, and it benefited from Cycling for Change’s ride through Colorado Springs.
“Everybody who comes to Marian House is fed,” said Christensen, a member of Legatus’ Colorado Springs Chapter and former director of Colorado Springs Catholic Charities. The facility serves hot, nutritious meals for between 600 and 700 people 365 days a year.
If guests want to take part in poverty reduction services, they’re given rights and responsibilities. Marian House helps those who are willing to help themselves, Christensen explained.
A master case manager assesses each guest in 22 different categories, analyzing each person’s housing, education, life skills, mental health, transportation, child care, employment/income and medical health profile. The guest is then rated on a scale from one to 10. They’re reassessed every 30, 60 and 90 days.
“Most people come in under a four,” Christensen said. “We try to move them as high as we can.”
Christensen uses the analogy of a crew team. If one person drops an oar, the entire boat spins around. The same is true of each person’s life. If one of the above categories is not working well, it can push them into poverty.
“We decided to honor the dignity of the whole person and go about helping them in a systematic way,” he explained. “We want to get beyond the stabilization model to self-sufficiency.”
—Sabrina Arena Ferrisi