Hickory pastor bikes cross-country to raise awareness of human trafficking

Whatever your plans are for this first day of June, they’re likely not as ambitious as those of Mark Andrews, pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Hickory. He’s leaving today on a summerlong bicycle ride across the United States.

Andrews’s journey begins at the North Carolina coast and ends in Oregon.

The ride, a time of personal renewal, should take the 57-year-old about two months to complete. He’s not just pedaling for himself, though. He wants to raise awareness and funds to help stop human trafficking, the definition of which, according to The National Center for Victims of Crime ( www.victims of crime.org) is “the illegal trading of human beings for commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor.” Simply stated, it’s modern-day slavery.

Andrews was born in Brazil, where he lived with his missionary parents until age 7. Since then, he’s called several areas of North Carolina home, going where his father served as pastor and then as a Methodist minister himself.

Hickory and St. Luke’s have been home just about three years for Andrews and his wife, Denise, an academically- or intellectually-gfted (AIG) specialist for Burke County Public Schools. Denise will join Andrews on his trip, but not on the seat of a steel-frame Schwinn. “She’ll go along as driving support. We’ll meet for lunch and at the destination for the day,” said Andrews.

Depending on weather, the couple will do some camping. Andrews has carefully studied cross-country cycling maps prepared by people who’ve completed the ride. “I’m following a route that has been highly traveled by other cyclists,” he said. “I’m staying away from densely populated areas.”

Andrews knows his path, places to camp or find lodging, and the location of bike repair shops. He said the most common problem with bicycles is flats. He also suggested that the most challenging part of the journey will be the Missouri -Kansas area where “it’s flat, windy and hot” and the Rockies – “a different challenge.” Andrews added that he’ll be carrying one bag “to hold tools; a rain jacket; food, such as snack bars and energy gels; and water and sports drinks.”

The most the pastor has traveled in a day is 100 miles. He’s completed state rides in North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee. “The times I’ve done it, it’s been the best vacation ever,” said Andrews.

He said he started riding a bicycle in the 1970s when he was first married and “poor.” “Gas prices hit a dollar,” Andrews said, smiling. “I bought a bike to commute to work.”

In the early 2000s, Andrews was pastor at a Belmont church where he met some serious cyclists. He felt spurred to renew his friendship with the pastime, and now calls himself “an avid recreational rider.”

Andrews scribbled riding cross-country on his bucket list awhile back, thinking it might be something he’d do in his retirement. Denise influenced the timing of the challenge when she told him, “You can’t wait until you retire to do this. You don’t know if your body will let you.”

Andrews’ brother died at age 46, and two of the pastor’s high school friends already have passed away. “I can’t help but wonder how much that influences my feeling that you have to live now,” said Andrews.

The time is right and the church is supportive. And there’s the matter of a cause that’s come to weigh heavily on Andrews’ mind. According to the U.S. Department of State’s June 2012 “Trafficking in Person’s Report” at www.state.gov, “it is estimated that as many as 27 million men, women, and children around the world are victims of what is now often described with the umbrella term “human trafficking.”

In the mid-2000s, Andrews attended a preaching seminar in Nashville, Tenn., during which representatives from Magdalene, a Nashville residential program for women survivors of prostitution, addiction, trafficking and homelessness, shared their mission. “I realized that prostitutes are often victims of their circumstances rather than criminals,” said Andrews. “Often they are women who were bought and sold.

“My eyes were open,” the pastor continued, “and I was drawn to articles and news about human trafficking.” Andrews also became aware of the efforts of the national United Methodist Women to end modern slavery, the group going so far as to work with law enforcement to encourage victim rescue and then to be on hand to provide support, especially in cities where the Super Bowl occurs.

“The Super Bowl is one of the highest money-making weekends for human traffickers,” Andrews said. “People go online or call to place orders to pay for sex while these people are wherever the Super Bowl is.”

Andrews said he’s looking forward to meeting people as he crosses the United States. “This will allow me to have a conversation about what I’m doing,” said Andrews about his goal of raising awareness and money to end human trafficking.