Run for the Wall Finds Chaplains in Ministry Mode
As hundreds and hundreds of bikers traveled in lined pairs in a visually and audibly impressive pack across the United States, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. (May 16-25), few would have guessed that within that mass of riders were three AG U.S. Missions chaplains and nearly a dozen more HonorBound Motorcycle Ministry bikers.
The 30th annual Run for the Wall ride, founded by Vietnam veterans, has become a ride of recognition, honor, and healing that spans 3,000 miles and concludes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — also known as the Wall.
Curtis Hubbell, 50, who has participated on the ride for 15 years and is the senior chaplain on the ride and a U.S. missionary, says the ride isn’t a protest, but a mission.
“Originally the ride was predominately about prisoners of war and those missing in action,” Hubbell explains. “Now it’s more of a vet’s rights and issues type of ride. The Vietnam era guys are concerned that no vets ever get treated like they were when they came home.”
What many of the participants may not understand — especially first-timers — is the “issues” Hubbell mentions are not necessarily just political issues, but personal ones.
“Once you get away from the coasts (West and East), you get to see the real America,” Hubbell says. “On nearly every overpass, people are standing, waving flags, and have signs welcoming veterans home — all the way across the country.”
U.S. missionary chaplain R. Duane Gryder confirms that many veterans have never been welcomed home or have had gratitude for their service expressed. As they see these expressions of gratitude over and over again, many veterans find that they are still dealing with the stress of war and need to talk.
“Much of our time is consumed with sitting on street corners and just listening to veterans unpack their stories, sometimes for the first time,” Gryder says. “Some bikers don’t even realize that they have issues to unpack until they take part in the ride and are surrounded by all these other veterans.”
The chaplains make themselves available each morning before the day’s ride and each evening following it. They meet with platoon leaders, check on riders, offer prayer when appropriate, and walk among the riders, looking for telltale signs of those struggling with stress/Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Although the hundreds of riders in formation are inspirational to watch, the task of remaining in tight formation, side-by-side, for hundreds of miles a day, provides an additional physically and mentally demanding element to the ride as it requires full attention by each biker. Gryder explains that they remain in a tight formation, front-to-back, to keep the pack as small as possible and limit the number of vehicles that need to get into the formation — cars and trucks moving in and out of the formation increase the potential for accidents. He also admits that by the end of the ride, all the chaplains were ready for some recovery time.
“To witness the motorcycles arriving takes your breath away. It is like a sea of metal and rubber rolling in waves,” says Chaplain Manuel Cordero, senior director of Chaplaincy Ministries for the AG. “Our chaplains have become a crucial part of Run for the Wall. They take part in memorial services that occur along the way, and minister to anyone that has a need or problem during the run.”
When the ride first began three decades ago, chaplains were not well received. But through a pattern of consistency and compassion, a deep respect and appreciation for chaplains has grown and continues to expand. Now, the senior chaplain (Hubbell) rides in the lead formation directly behind the empty slot, which represents POWs, MIAs, and military personnel killed in action. The remaining chaplains ride in the back of the pack, prepared to respond with the medics to any emergency.
Tragically, the first day of the ride, one of the riders in an advanced element, which prepares the way for gas stops and meals ahead of the main body of riders, was killed in an accident. It was the first death in the 30-year history of the ride.
“As a chaplain, you hope you never have to deal with something like this,” Hubbell says.
However, the response of the chaplains was so compassionate and thorough, it changed the complexion of the rest of the ride.
The day after the accident, chaplains sought out, spoke to, and prayed with the seven other members of the advanced crew. The effort to find each one resulted in one of the riders stopping everything and standing in front of the platoons to share the story and let riders know that the chaplains weren’t just there for the ride, but were there to take care of them.
“That short speech kicked open the door for people to open up to us and let us minister to them,” Gryder says. “The rest of the way, we had so many opportunities to minister to people one-on-one, we were working harder that we ever had — up at 4:30 each morning, talking to people, and then staying up late each night talking to more people . . . between all of the chaplains, we spoke to hundreds of bikers.”
“It was a terrible thing [the accident],” Hubbell agrees, “but it made so many opportunities to minister as people began to reflect on every aspect of life.”
Three of the AG motorcycle chaplains taking part in this ride (Hubbell, Gryder, and Keith Turcotte) are current Assemblies of God U.S. missionaries, former AG pastors, and part of the National Leadership Team for HonorBound Motorcycle Ministry, which is a cooperative effort between AG Men’s Ministries and U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries. HonorBound is recognized as the national motorcycle ministry of the Assemblies of God. One of the groups’ goals is to train Christian motorcyclists in evangelism and discipleship. This year, nearly a dozen members of HonorBound did the Run for the Wall.
A number of the HonorBound riders are ministers, with many in the process of pursuing credentials. However, in order to serve as a chaplain, a minister must first have done the full ride at least once previously.
Although they did not do the actual run from coast to coast, Chaplain Howard Raney, who is also a U.S. missionary and member of HonorBound, and several ministers from Arkansas met the Run for the Wall riders on the East Coast, adding to the number of chaplains and ministers available to bikers who were struggling with their war experiences or simply needed a listening ear. Raney says he makes the trip because he believes it is important for him to thank veterans and to let them know that he loves them and so does Jesus.
“Countless people have come up and thanked me for encouraging them or to let me know they found God,” Hubbell says. “We’re in a time of harvest. Up to this point, there has been a lot of resistance as this is not a Christian run. But there’s definitely a godly influence there now — people trust us and come seeking us on a regular basis. It was a very challenging, but very productive ride.”