ATG: Bike ride raises awareness

this post originally appeared on the front page of the monday, october 24, 2011 edition of the Ashland Times Gazette   BY JIM BREWER T-G Staff Writer

LOUDONVILLE — Tom Roepke is still proudly wearing a wristband bearing the slogan, “Life Wins.”

He was given it by Aaron Brown, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin, Mo., at the start of an 803-mile, 12-day bicycle adventure across the south designed to bring attention and raise funds for victims of widespread tornadoes.

Brown saw the devastation wrought by the tornado that struck his city in May. Within his church, six parishioners were killed and 99 families lost their homes.

“Imagine Joplin, a city the size of Mansfield, having a portion of it the size of Ashland completely leveled by a massive storm,” Roepke said. “That is how bad it was.”

“Despite all of this tragedy, Aaron gave us encouragement as we started off on our bicycle journey.”

On the journey were 13 people, including four pastors.

“Of course, attention to those hurt by the tornado was our primary mission,” said Roepke, who lives in Ashland. “I am extremely pleased to have raised over $5,200 for them through my efforts, including major donations from the Rotary clubs in both Loudonville and Ashland. Collectively, our entire group as of last Monday had raised over $66,000.

“We were also successful in bringing attention through our tour, as we received coverage by the Weather Channel, and were interviewed in a feature story by Robin Meade of CNN,” he said.

The trip was a big undertaking for Roepke, youth pastor at the New Hope Community Church in Loudonville.

“I had really never ridden in a cross-country bicycle action before,” he said. “Yet by our third day, as we crossed southwestern Missouri, Arkansas and southwestern Tennessee, we actually rode 100 miles in the same day,” he said. “We ended up going 100 miles or more four days in the bicycle crossing from Joplin to Atlanta, Ga., where the trip ended with our participation in the Catalyst ministers conference.”

He also noted that the 19-day trip marked by far the longest time he and his wife, Melinda, a health careers instructor at the Career Center, had been apart in their 32 years of marriage.

“I am grateful for Facebook and Skype for enabling us to keep in touch,” he said.

In addition to witnessing tornado damage in Joplin and equally devastated Tuscaloosa, AL., Roepke set foot in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where Martin Luther King preached, and enjoyed riding on a bike path more than 100 miles long connecting Tuscaloosa and Atlanta.

“We road this bike path, which was beautiful, forever and ever, and then, when it ended, suddenly found ourselves riding across inner-city Atlanta, a change which caused us to make major adjustments,” he said.

He is using the trip and experience “as a way to emphasize to the youth in my ministry how sometime it is necessary for us to forego our comfort level and what we are used to to take a risk to benefit others. The folks in Joplin, who lost so much, stressed to us that ‘Life Wins.’ Just hearing that message was worth the risk and the discomfort I felt.”

The folks in Joplin, he added, have decided to rename Joplin High School, which was leveled by the tornado, Hope High School.