May 9, 2014

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Biking across Iowa for the heart and soul

When Father Joe Schneider climbs onto his 27-speed Trek Pilot and dips its front tire into the Missouri River, his summer vacation has officially begun. Then he pushes off and bikes across Iowa.

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, better known as RAGBRAI, began in 1973 when two reporters from the Des Moines Register decided to pedal the width of the state—from Sioux City to Davenport—in a quest for writing fodder.

The seven-day, eastward voyage winds bikers through a different route every year, averaging 67 miles a day. For the past 31 years, Father Schneider has been among them.

It’s a chance for the 66-year-old pastor of St. Mary Parish in Manchester, Iowa, to ditch his clerics and his priestly responsibilities. For one July week, he looks like all the other bikers—helmet, jersey, sunburned nose—and he is treated as one. Few realize he is a priest.

“I’m just one of 20,000 bikers,” he told me. “I’m able to leave the office behind. I can just be myself. I’m not the priest. Some [bikers] call me Joe. And if someone asks what I do, I usually say teacher.”

Fresh air and freedom wash over him—lungs filling, heart pumping, forearms tanning. “I feel really energized,” he said.

Father Schneider begins each ride at 5 a.m., when it’s still cool, and bikes into the sunrise. “You pray all the time. You find yourself singing a hymn—‘Glory and Praise to Our God,’ ‘How Great Thou Art.’ ”

He’s been to nearly every small town in Iowa and recalls routes as if they lined his palms: the hilly 90-mile stretch from Lakeview to Webster City; the flat stretch on Highway 20 when it rained all the way from Waterloo to Manchester; the big curve in Quimby where a state trooper stopped a biker for texting as she rode; the strong south wind from Coralville to Sigourney, where an Amish clan countered the humidity by handing out ice milk.

On Sunday, the prairie churches fill to capacity, road-weary travelers resting in worship. At night, the bikers set up tents in parks or fields. A local Catholic family enlisted by the church secretary often invites Father Schneider to stay in their home, serving lasagna and offering up a basement couch or guest bedroom.

Those little kindnesses—cold shower, hot meal, soft pillow—illustrate the generosity of strangers, said Father Schneider. “It shows you the real goodness of Iowa people.”

He’s known that generosity his whole life, which began under difficult circumstances: a 20-year-old mom and her 17-year-old boyfriend, an alcoholic who would father 24 children.

At age 4, the future priest and his younger brother, Charlie, wound up in St. Mary’s Orphanage in Dubuque, operated by the Franciscan sisters. “It was survival of the fittest,” Father Schneider said, yet it also planted the seed of his vocation, thanks to Father Bill Menster. The Navy chaplain entertained orphans by dressing as a cowboy and playing Stephen Foster songs on guitar—“The Blue-Tail Fly,” “Oh, Susanna.”

Two years later, a married couple pulled up in a ’53 Pontiac to adopt Joe and Charlie. They gave the boys a happy childhood in Cedar Falls—milk and cookies after school, Sunday Mass, family rosary, support and stability.

This month, Father Schneider marks his 40th anniversary as a priest and looks back on the many graces he’s been given—and he looks forward to his next RAGBRAI. “I’ve encountered God in many ways.”

He boils it down to a simple philosophy: “Love comes from God. God gives you that gift, and you can’t keep it to yourself. You have to give it away.”
 

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.)

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