In the movie Field of Dreams, baseball players mistake Iowa for heaven. In real life, cyclist Lorna Halaas called her state “the kingdom of God.”
Halaas, bishop of the ELCA Western Iowa Synod, was among the 30,000 who participated this year in the Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, commonly referred to as “RAGBRAI,” July 22-29.
Halaas joined forces with her state’s other two ELCA bishops, Kevin Jones of the Northeastern Iowa Synod and Amy Current of the Southeastern Iowa Synod, to use RAGBRAI as a fundraiser for ELCA World Hunger and for the anti-hunger programs of their synods’ congregations.
Because this year marks the 50th anniversary of RAGBRAI’s founding, they set a goal of $50,000—and raised nearly twice that, finishing at $92,596.
“The Sunday after RAGBRAI ended, [in the lectionary] we were in the Gospel of Matthew, in Jesus’ parables: The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” Halaas said. “During RAGBRAI, you’re riding your bike, getting support from one another, from the farm families and towns along the route. They all roll out the red carpet for you; kids are running out to give you a bottle of water. There are signs like ‘Shift gears, hill coming’ and ‘2 miles to a mango smoothie,’ and it’s like the kingdom of God cheering you on and lifting you up.”
“It was a really poignant way to live out the good news of Jesus.”
Sponsored by the Des Moines Register, the event is billed as the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle tour. It began in 1973, when two Register columnists invited some friends on a six-day ride across their state.
A half-century later, RAGBRAI has evolved into an Iowa tradition, an eight-day celebration that uses a different route every July, with an average total distance of 468 miles.
This year’s ride was the longest at 510 miles, and also the hilliest, Halaas said. “Iowa is hot the last week of July, and incredibly humid, and it’s way more hilly than anyone feels like it is when you’re driving in a car.”
Current agreed. “It was challenging, but it was a really poignant way to live out the good news of Jesus, and that’s something I really celebrate,” she said.
A project of unity
Current came up with the idea of a three-synod RAGBRAI team two years ago, shortly after Jones’ election.
“We had a meeting of the three Iowa bishops, and Bishop Current suggested we do something big and crazy together,” Jones recalled. “She said, ‘Why don’t we do RAGBRAI?’ When someone says something like that kind of lightly, and it’s way out in the future, you say, ‘Sure, that would be great.’”
Then, Jones recalled, in fall 2022, Current reminded her colleagues, “You guys said you would do this.”
“In Iowa and in the country right now, there are so many things dividing us, but we thought that what has always unified Lutherans everywhere and in Iowa is coming together so that people don’t go hungry,” Current said. “ELCA World Hunger would be our focus, and not only could we also support the communities and congregations we’d ride our bikes through, we could lift up anti-hunger ministries that were already happening.”
The bishops brought varying levels of cycling expertise to the event. Current said she’s “always kind of appreciated going on bike rides” and used to be a trail rider, but that was years ago.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to do something together.”
Halaas was a serious rider in her student days, trekking across North Dakota and Minnesota, but spent less time cycling as work demands ate away at her spare time.
Jones estimated that when he began RAGBRAI training, he had ridden a total of six miles in the previous two years and that, after buying a new bike 10 years ago, his longest ride was about 16 miles.
The bishops’ RAGBRAI team included Jones’ wife, Amy; his brother Keith; Jeff Thiemann, president and CEO of Portico Benefit Services; and Nathaniel Adkins, pastor of First Lutheran Church in Fairfield, Iowa. The team pledged to ride either 50 miles or half of the day’s designated mileage, and all rode at least that much, bolstered by a support team that featured Halaas’ husband, David, Thiemann’s wife, Pam, and Current’s husband, Samuel Giere.
“Our synods haven’t been competitive with one another, but siloed, individual,” Jones said. “It’s nice to model that the three of us get along, that we’re friends, that we rely on each other—that’s an aid to doing ministry.”
“It’s been just remarkable how people are energized and excited about the fact we did this together,” Jones added. “We came together; it wasn’t a competition; it wasn’t a challenge to see who could raise the most money. It was, ‘See, this is what we can do as a state.’ It’s so wonderful to be able to do something together, this unifying type of program.”