(Lessons learned during hikes 1-3 of the 2021 Spring Fundraiser for the ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship Norcal, Inc. Central Valley North.)
It’s been more than a month now since Nadya and I finished the Fundraising Hike-A-Thon. When this event was planned several months before lacing our boots on, we felt confident that hiking 80 miles, in eight counties, in eight consecutive days was not just achievable, it was comfortably within our ability. In our minds it almost seemed like we were going on vacation. What could be better than spending just over a week hiking to raise money for the ministry? Little did we suspect the rude awakening we would receive. In this post I would like to share with you my thoughts about the first three hikes.
Hike #1 – Calaveras River Bike Path in Stockton (San Joaquin County) – 18 miles
Our first hike was supposed to be a 16-miler through the heart of Stockton in San Joaquin County. I chose this hike because there was almost no elevation loss or gain; it was a flat, straight hike. And actually, the first seven miles of it were fun! Because we were on a pedestrian highway, we had no traffic to contend with and it was fast walking, which meant that we were making great time. But what allowed us to go so fast, also got the last laugh at about the eight-mile mark…the cement.
“What Have I Gotten Us Into?”
I would later learn from a retired podiatrist that walking on cement puts about 300 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI) on your feet. By comparison, a dirt trail puts 30 pounds of PSI. The difference between the two is how your feet feel when you’re done. “Two things kept me in business all these years,” my doctor friend told me, “shoes and cement. God meant us to walk barefoot on dirt.” And here we were walking 16 miles on cement in waterproof hiking boots and wool socks, in 90-degree weather and no shade. Brilliant.
By the time we arrived back at the car, our 16-mile hike had turned into 18 miles, and we could barely walk. I distinctly remember thinking, “What have I gotten us into? This is only the first hike!” Reverend William Secker once said that “the worm of pride is always injurious to celestial plants.” Our feet attested to the truth of that statement.
As hard as the cement we were walking on
At the end of 2019 we had momentum on our side. We were expanding into new areas with Good News Clubs, one of which was going to be Stockton and another of which was going to be neighboring Mountain House. We had trained a church, had gotten permission from the District, and had even had a face-to-face visit with the principal of the school we wanted to start the club in. Everything was a go! And then, in January, the church had to back out and COVID hit in March. This was our third attempt in four years to get into Stockton with ministry, and it was our third “fail.” Stockton in many ways has been as hard to get into as the cement we were walking on.
And so I found myself thinking about feet, pride, and hard ground, and in-between the thinking we prayed. We prayed for churches and volunteers, for finances, a full-time staff worker, and for young people to participate in summer ministry. And we prayed that God would take the hardness of that area and open it to the Gospel. The harvest is plentiful in Stockton; it is the largest population center in the Central Valley North area, but the laborers are few, so we prayed to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest (Luke 10:2). Stockton is hard, but there is still soft ground and receptive hearts, especially among the children. We are praying for workers to sow the seed into the soft receptive hearts.
Hike #2 – Dry Creek Trail in Modesto (Stanislaus County) – 4.5 miles
I knew I was in trouble the night before, when I got out of bed and collapsed to the floor. The next morning confirmed that we were in far worse condition than we had thought the day prior, but we forced ourselves out of bed, doctored our feet, wolfed down some breakfast, and drove to the trailhead. I had hiked a good portion of this trail years earlier when my parents lived in Modesto, and so I was pretty aware of what we were getting into. There was much more shade, the trail was much shorter (a mere nine miles), and there was a restroom available, so there were no surprises. But the one thing I had not counted on was the condition of our feet. We had changed socks to a lighter weight, and I at least had switched to a different pair of shoes, in an attempt to find the right combination, but to no avail. Once again, we were humbled to realize that something so “insignificant” could consume our entire thought process. Our legs and lungs were just fine, but the condition of our feet affected our entire well-being.
A friendly face at the start
As we pulled our car up to the trailhead, a friend and co-worker, Dianne Warn, greeted us with her characteristic gentle voice and kind demeanor. As she saw us limping toward her she winced as if the pain was her own. Dianne has seen her fair share of hardship, from multiple bouts of malaria and scabies on the mission fields of both Africa and South America, to a more recent brush with COVID-19, but she always has a positive outlook, and is always turning her circumstances into an opportunity to encourage others, and to share the Gospel.
God knew that we needed a friendly face at the start of that second hike, and even though we struggled to move, her mere presence took our minds off of ourselves and gave us a reason to smile. We walked and talked, and walked and prayed. We prayed for the children of Stanislaus County, for her children and ours, and for God to send more workers into the harvest field there. We ended up cutting our hike short at 4.5 miles, and her husband Steve brought us back to our car but, all in all, it was a good time because of the fellowship.
And so on this hike I thought quite a bit about feet, and about the importance of fellowship (Hebrews 10:25). We are Child Evangelism Fellowship. The ministry in our area was founded in Stanislaus County. When I entered the work in 1996, I was the director for CEF of Stanislaus County. We have the greatest number of clubs in this county, the greatest number of supporting churches, and the greatest number of volunteers. Is it any wonder then that in Stanislaus County we reach the greatest number of children than in all the other counties combined? A cardinal rule of hiking is that you never hike alone. This is so that if something happens to one, there is another there who can encourage and help out. It is no accident that our most successful clubs have more than the bare minimum of workers. And it is no coincidence that those clubs are in Stanislaus County. Where fellowship is alive, ministry thrives.
Hike #3 – La Paloma Road (Merced County) – 10.6 miles
Between Stockton and Modesto we had walked 22.5 miles. Since we had to average 10 miles per hike to get our 80 miles in, we were ahead of schedule, but as I sat in my easy chair the night after finishing the Dry Creek Trail in Modesto, I saw absolutely no way that we would be able to continue. And so I let out a cry of despair (really more of a big sigh and a whimper) and told Nadya, “I can’t do it. We’re not going to be able to finish this, and I am going to have to explain to people why we weren’t able to finish. They’ve already sent their money in, and I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I just can’t do it. I’m done.” As author Kiersten White once wrote: “It felt like the blisters on my feet had coupled off and started forming blister families.”
Past the Point of No Return
Nadya and I first had experience with La Paloma Road when COVID hit in the spring of 2020. We were stir-crazy, after five weeks of sheltering in place, and so we hopped in our self-isolation machine and drove out to La Paloma Road with our bikes. That first week we biked about six miles of the road from west to east. The next week we drove around to the other side of the road and biked/walked the rest of it from east to west. It was a beautiful spring day! The grass was green, the breeze was cool, the sky was clear, and only a rancher in his truck was to be seen the entire time. Other than my bike breaking down in the middle of the ride (hence the walking part of the road), it was wonderful to be out of the house and away from the world for a while.
This was the picture in my head in the winter of 2021 when I chose La Paloma Road for the Merced County portion of the Hike-A-Thon. But as we drove to the starting point on May 12, 2021, it was not green, there was no wind, and the forecast was for a high of 95 degrees. What’s more, the road is gated on both ends, which means that no one can easily get to you if there is a problem. But somewhere between my, “I just can’t do it”, whimper, and waking up the next morning, Nadya got it in her head that we were going to do this hike, whether or not it killed us. And so there we were, having already drunk 32 ounces of Gatorade, standing on the inside of the gate ready to go.
We could tell right away the big difference between the cement roads of Stockton and Modesto, and the hard-packed dirt of La Paloma Road. After about a mile we got into a good walking rhythm and, though our feet still ached, we were at least able to manage the pain, which was encouraging. Because the road was a one-way hike, we knew that if we couldn’t make it the entire way we would need to turn around and go back to the car by the five-mile mark, otherwise we were committed. I always joke with people who say they can’t hike far that “you only need to get halfway there, then you have to finish,” and now my own statement was daring me to test it out. Several times I suggested that we could turn around and go back “if she wanted to,” but I could tell by the set of Nadya’s jaw that she didn’t. At the five-mile mark I said that if we were going to go back, we “had” to turn around now, or else we would be committed to finishing. We both crossed that imaginary line, and just like that we were past the point of no return.
We finished that hike and it was, by far, the most satisfying of all eight hikes, not because it was so beautiful, but because we endured. And so I thought about two things during and after our time on La Paloma Road; feet and endurance (Hebrews 10:35-36). Many times in ministry we just want to quit. When COVID happened it totally upended what we were doing. For the past twenty years we had been starting and conducting Good News Clubs in public elementary schools. Our entire focus and all of the momentum centered around the schools, and when that was taken away we felt rudderless and at a loss for where to turn next. To some degree it made us question whether or not it was worth continuing, whether or not we should quit. But we didn’t quit, we just pivoted. God opened new doors for us to walk through, and while we didn’t reach the numbers of children that we would have liked to in 2020, we did reach some, and some came to know Christ. We endured and God honored our trust in Him.
On that hike we prayed for Merced County. Merced itself is sandwiched between Turlock and Fresno, and has always been a place to drive through. It is not as wealthy as Turlock, and not as populated as Fresno. It’s just kind of dry and dusty, like the La Paloma Road in May. We prayed that day for God to open up the doors of Merced so that the children there will be reached with the Gospel. Perhaps some churches there will open their hearts to adopt a school and teach a Good News Club, and maybe some young people will commit themselves to investing in a summer of ministry in various parts of the county. Last year we had our first Good News Club in Merced County in more than 20 years (Gustine), and we are praying that it will be the first of many. I am certain that, if we persevere, we will see God change the dry dirt of no ministry in that county to the green grass of a vibrant one.
These first three hikes were a rude awakening for us physically, but we learned several life lessons along the way.
1. Don’t let pride cause us to fall. Ministry is not because of our great skill, and we don’t boast in where we’ve been.
2. Fellowship is essential. Don’t do ministry alone!
3. Perseverance is necessary. Perseverance means that there is difficulty, and difficulty precedes victory. Don’t ever give up!
By the end of these first three hikes we thought that we had given our all and we were ready to quietly end the fundraiser, but there were a few stalwart supporters who, although we had not finished in our allotted time frame, encouraged us to finish the hikes anyway. But those stories I write about in another post, which you can access HERE.