Reality TV Has Nothing on This Outreach
For 300 consecutive days, 59-year-old AG minister Leighton O’Connor is traveling throughout the continental United States, up into Canada, over to Alaska, and even beyond the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean and then back down through the southern U.S. by himself, in his Jeep, and documenting every step of the way while also impacting countless lives for Christ.
This journey through major cities and the deepest wilderness is far from a typical “doing-a-weekend-outreach” evangelism effort. But take a closer look at what is driving — in more ways than one — this ministry effort, and it’s not difficult to see how O’Connor’s calling could easily make for an entertaining and uplifting reality show . . . and with daily updates and live tracking, in a way, it is.
A priority for O’Connor for years has been caring for and bringing awareness of those who are homeless. He’s the founder of Mission for Hope, which is tied directly to this 30,000-mile outreach.
Having made a somewhat similar 200-day journey across the United States in 2019, this trip will see at least 50 predetermined stops to distribute hundreds of blankets (provided by sponsor BeanTown Blankets), Bibles, hygiene kits, and pairs of socks to the homeless.
“And there are also those unexpected stops,” says O’Connor, who is a consummate planner. “Although I do have every stop mapped out, I remain open to divine opportunities; there are times when I feel God wants me to just stop at a store, load the Jeep up with supplies, and give them to the homeless in a particular community.”
O’Connor says that volunteers send out the aid packages to a representative, church, or ministry in each of his planned stops, timed to arrive before he does. He explains that for this trip, which began June 6, he resigned his assistant pastoral position at Calvary Christian Church in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, and moved out of his apartment. Now, his apartment belongings and the aid packages share space in a storage unit.
“So far, I’ve made nine scheduled stops, including Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Calgary in Alberta, Canada,” O’Connor says. “I’ve also made a couple of those unplanned stops as God has placed different cities on my heart along the way.”
However, what O’Connor has frequently experienced is that many of the homeless people he has had the opportunity to bless to this point, already have a Bible and are quite familiar with it. But he still uses those opportunities to pray with people and provide them with the necessities he has.
Jared Myrick, a former AG pastor in Delta Junction, Alaska, recently began working as an AG U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries missionary associate, teaming with the Downtown Soup Kitchen Hope Center in Anchorage. He met O’Connor for the first time when O’Connor drove in to distribute supplies to the homeless.
“I could recognize right away his heart for the homeless,” Myrick says. “I could tell he really cared.”
Myrick, who notes that Anchorage has a real problem with the growing numbers of homeless, says that it was raining when O’Connor arrived, but that didn’t keep him from assisting — jumping right in to help at the center, helping to serve wherever needed.
“He just has a servant’s heart,” Myrick says. “And these people can be hard to love apart from a call from God — they smell bad, cuss you out, all sorts of things — but to see him, how he handled things, his patience . . . it was just awesome to see how God is using him.”
The purpose of the trip also surrounds and involves Jeepers — people who own Jeeps. O’Connor is the founder of the Christian Jeep Association (CJA) — an organization that has grown to 39 chapters since its inception in 2019.
Many of his stops along the way have CJA chapter presidents living in them. O’Connor has asked that the chapter in each community help assist with the outreach to the homeless during his stop in their city. He says the turnout at times has only been a handful of three or four Jeeps, while other times it has been as many as two dozen.
However, what has turned into a doubling of the ministry opportunities is that during the outreach, O’Connor also plants seeds of faith — or greater faith — into the lives of the CJA members. As O’Connor knows, the word “Christian” in Christian Jeep Association, is defined quite differently from one person to the next.
“I lead them in prayer multiple times during our outreach, and we often have opportunities simply to talk, which can lead to discussions about life and God,” O’Connor says about the CJA members who assist. “And just like churches hold ‘blessing of the bikes’ for motorcyclists, I offer to pray over and bless people’s jeeps, that God would guide, bless, and protect the owners and those who travel in them.”
A side benefit to O’Connor’s visits to communities is that the Jeepers he has contacted to help with the outreaches are able to experience first-hand ministry to the homeless.
Myrick says making those connections with the Jeepers was a real blessing for him. He believes, now that the Jeepers have seen the need and how they made a difference, that they will become a part of making a difference going forward as well.
“The Mission for Hope is also about awareness,” O’Connor confirms. “I have a Mission for Hope message on the back of my Jeep — I’ve been approached a number of times with people wanting to donate to the cause.”
O’Connor says that he distributes wrist bands, decals, a special “blessing” decal, and other items to help Jeepers stay connected to the ministry. “And whenever I see a jeep that’s parked, I’ll slip a ‘Nice Jeep!’ CJA business card and wrist band on their window or door.”
For those outside of the Jeep world or who aren’t into “self-sufficiency,” overlanding may be an unfamiliar word. Overlanding is what O’Connor is doing Monday through Friday for every week of his journey — it’s roughly defined as off-grid or off-road camping. Frequently an overlander’s sleeping quarters is a tent on top of or extending out of the back of the vehicle. Water, food, emergency supplies, communication equipment, heavy-duty batteries for power, portable toilet — everything needed to survive — are part of the kit in an overlanding journey. Remote, independent, self-sufficient, and isolated all describe overlanding.
Why rough it like this? Aside from enjoying the wilderness and saving thousands of dollars on hotel and food costs, O’Connor is posting updates to multiple social media platforms of his overlanding experiences, which hundreds, if not thousands, are following. His celebrity in the overlanding world is also beginning to grow, giving him access to even a wider demographic. He currently has posted dozens of videos to Tik Tok documenting his journey and has a live online map tracking his travels.
“This is just another way to communicate the gospel,” O’Connor says. “I include Scripture verses on many of the pictures I take and post of God’s incredible creation. I also have people contacting me all the time about my setup and talking about tech, my travels, and so on.”
O’Connor says he posts to about 60 different Facebook groups, creates YouTube shorts, has three different Instagram accounts, two Twitter accounts, and posts to Tik Tok. Not only does he post photos and ground video, but he also produces drone videos — all of which gather more and more people’s attention, which leads to interaction. And as O’Connor knows, communication is the first step to relationship, and relationship brings about opportunity for him to share his faith, even if just a few seeds/words at a time.
“Someone has to plant the seed of the gospel in people’s lives,” O’Connor says simply. “I may never see the fruits of my efforts, but in time, someone will.”
Currently, O’Connor is set to complete his 300-day, 30,000-mile ministry journey on April 1, 2023, in Boston’s North Shore.
And to address the “elephant in the room,” yes, the skyrocketing cost of gas and groceries led O’Conner to do additional fundraising. He admits that he hates to even look at the gas pump when filling up, but says he’s had to pay up to $8.52 a gallon ($2.25 a liter) while traveling in Canada, and over $6 per gallon in Alaska — though, thankfully, the price has been going down over the last several weeks.