In ancient Israel, Jesus walked, but in the United States of America, Judy Bowman bikes. For more than two decades, the born-again resident of Lynchburg, Virginia, has led mission trips across the country on wheels.
“The purpose is to bring Christians, and we come together as a body of believers to go out and be a witness for the Lord,” she said. “Jesus gave us a command: Go and make a disciple of all nations.”
Biking for Jesus is not entirely uncommon in America. There are groups in at least a dozen states, affiliated with various organizations and denominations. But though the juxtaposition of bicycles and Christ is somewhat funny—it’s like when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, just faster!—it’s also a reminder of what lived religion actually looks like. For many, faith is not reducible to church services on Sundays and Wednesdays, with Bible study as a box to check in the daily slog of a week. People find lots of creative and surprising ways to live out their faith, including riding bicycles all over the country to talk to people about what they believe.
Over the past 20 years, Bowman said, more than 1000 people have joined her on trips spanning 1.8 million miles, including 12 from coast to coast and 25 smaller trips ranging from Missouri to New England. In 1995, when her group pedaled the length of Florida, they earned a bemused write-up in The Dayton Beach News-Journal: “It’s not unusual for visitors to pass through town during the winter while on vacation,” the reporter wrote, “but one group of visitors arrived in an unusual way and brought a message with them.”
Bowman got the inspiration to start her ministry in 1991, after she had already been married and divorced, had multiple careers, and raised a son into adulthood on her own. She was working as a trip leader for a secular bike company, and as one trip progressed, she felt more and more strongly that she had to talk with people about Jesus. When the head of the organization asked her to tone down the evangelism, she decided to start her own group: WHEEL POWER Christian Cyclists, which stands for Witnessing, Helping, Evangelizing, Encouraging, and Loving as we Press OnWard to Eternal Rewards. (Hey, it’s tough to make long acronyms hang together.)
The group sleeps and eats in churches every night when it’s on the road, and it looks for opportunities to evangelize everywhere, from beachside turf to local stores. Once, Bowman wrote on her website, she saved a woman in a Walmart—which, apparently, actually isn’t that uncommon. “Louise, with a repentant heart, surrendered her will and life to the Lord Jesus that morning in one of America's favorite ‘saving places’—Walmart,” she wrote. “But salvation can occur in the local grocery store, post office, bank, at work, when we're on vacation, or wherever we are.”
In recent years, Bowman has backed away from leading trips—she's 65 and has had health problems, and for a while, a young couple was helping her and her son with the organization. But even now, her ministry is evolving: A few years ago, they got some motorcycles. “I’ve done one trip—7,200 miles in 2012 on my three-wheel motorcycle—all by myself,” she said. “I have a little dog who sits in my lap. Her name is Pedals, for bicycles. She’s going blind, but she’s still here, my constant companion and best friend.”
Bowman loves the open road, but most of all, she loves talking to people about her faith. Now, she often spends time talking to churches about evangelization. After all, she said, on that trip in 2012, “I spent three hours at a gas station one day and led five people to the Lord.”