Priests Push Pedals, Pound Pavement to Fight Poverty

Marathons, bike tours and other distance events are a popular way to raise funds for charitable organizations, and summer is the most common season for them. In recent weeks, Episcopal Relief & Development was the beneficiary of the athletic endeavors of three clergy: the Rev. Gary Manning, the Rev. Ben Nelson and the Rev. Betsy Tesi. Representing various regions of the U.S., they had in common their dedication in gearing up for a physical challenge, and the desire to use the opportunity to touch people in need around the world.

Gary, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, was inspired by his recent rediscovery of bicycling to lead an 11-day trip around the Diocese of Milwaukee. Titled “Tour de DioMil: Pedaling the Perimeter for Folks on the Fringe,” the ride had three purposes: To help Gary achieve a “reasonable and challenging” cycling goal; to encourage and raise awareness of smaller, more isolated churches on the outskirts of the diocese; and to raise funds for three causes supporting those living in poverty, including Episcopal Relief & Development’s clean water programs.

The tour launched on August 30 from St. Simon the Fisherman Episcopal Church in Port Washington. Trinity parishioner Betsy Jeffery rode with Gary for the entire journey, and 19 other cyclists joined for various portions, including Elizabeth van der Weide of St. Andrews, Madison, coordinator of the Diocese of Milwaukee’s Haiti Project (another tour beneficiary).

The group pedaled between 40 and 80 miles daily, battling humidity and hills, enjoying scenic countryside and receiving warm welcomes from each church visited. On the first of two rest days, in Richland Center, the team members were interviewed on local radio station WRCO along with the Rev. Don Fleischman of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church . By the time the team arrived back at St. Simon on September 9, they had covered a total of 538 miles and enjoyed the fellowship of nine parishes around the diocese.

When asked which one memory stood out from the experience, Gary wrote, his response was “The people I met, the stories they shared and the welcome the Tour received.” In each place, the group was greeted with “the best gift any pilgrim could receive — the hospitality of fellow pilgrims … For me, experiencing the Episcopal Church for the first time [when he first became an Episcopalian] was like coming home. I reconnected with that feeling every time I walked through a set of church building doors on the Tour de DioMil.”

Contributions to the Tour will continue to be accepted online through November. Checks may be also be mailed to Trinity Episcopal Church (please write “Tour de DioMil” on the memo line).


Last March, Ben, rector at All Saints Episcopal in Kapa’a, Hawai’i, was raising funds for Episcopal Relief & Development through the Georgia Half Marathon, and already looking ahead to the Kauai Marathon in the fall. An injury weeks before the September 4 race threatened to throw a wrench in the plan, but not only did he pull through and run the full 26.2 miles, he also inspired supporters to pledge hundreds of dollars for Episcopal Relief & Development.

The son of an Episcopal priest, Ben had long been aware of the agency (then known as the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief). But it wasn’t until recent years that events such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina “opened my eyes” to the organization’s work, he said. “Something just clicked.” He and All Saints began engaging more with Episcopal Relief & Development, including after the devastating March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which especially touched parishioners (many of whom are of Japanese descent).

While running the marathon course on September 4, Ben dedicated every mile to a supporter. As he finished each one, he said, “I’d start thinking about the next person on the list, and it just made the miles go by.” High points of the day included attempting (but missing) a high five with ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes, passing hula dancers and taiko drummers along the route, and crossing the finish line with his daughter, age three and a half, racing alongside.

In contrast with one previous, somewhat painful marathon experience, Ben said, “This one was fun! There was a sense of joy about it, and I think a lot of it was raising funds for Episcopal Relief & Development. It gave a sense of purpose. It was also an opportunity to raise awareness in the diocese about the needs in the world — running’s a fun way to do it.”


Betsy is currently assistant priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene, Oregon. As an emergency services chaplain, she competed in the First Responders Challenge of the Nation’s Triathlon on September 11. As part of St. Mary’s 9/11 Remembrance Project, she raised funds for two response organizations, including Episcopal Relief & Development.

Being back in the Washington, D.C., area on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was “awesome,” Betsy said. In 2001, she was a new student at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria when the tragedy took place. The experience forged a deep bond among her class, and the area became like “home” to her. “Seeing my city back to normal after all this time, and having tons of fun made it the perfect full circle,” she shared on her blog.

With the triathlon taking place days after storms had swept the area, the Potomac River was dangerously high, forcing cancellation of the swim segment. The race began with the 40-kilometer cycling segment, and despite abundant puddles on the course, Betsy’s bike “was seriously blazing… fast!” She finished in just over an hour and 14 minutes, a personal record for her.

Unfortunately, halfway through the 10-kilometer run, cramps slowed her down for about a mile. After she suffered through the next mile, they eased up and she regained momentum, but missed by just five seconds her goal of finishing in under an hour. Still, Betsy’s run time was also a personal best, and she placed in the top 32% in her age group and gender in the overall event — much better than she had hoped.

At the end of the day, though, the best part of the experience for Betsy “wasn’t the sheer speed of the course (even though I love riding my bike really fast),” she said. “It was meeting all the other people and talking to all those doing the race for a cause.…Races just seem to bring together a ton of really nice people who like to help others out.”

“We’re very blessed to have these compassionate and dedicated priests be such visible advocates for us in their parishes and dioceses,” said Brian Sellers-Petersen, Director of Church Engagement at Episcopal Relief & Development. “Our heartfelt thanks go to Gary, Ben and Betsy for choosing to benefit our work and spread the word about our mission. Because of their efforts, more people worldwide will be able to gain access to clean water and other essentials to help them become healthier and lift themselves from poverty.”


Photos: Top — The Tour de DioMil launches from St. Simon the Fisherman Church in Port Washington. Left to right, David Drexler, Debra Jenson (both of St. Mark’s Beaver Dam); Deacon Coleen Smith, St. Paul’s Milwaukee; Betsy Jeffery, Trinity Wauwatosa; Fr. Gary Manning; and Corrine Drexler, St. Mark’s Beaver Dam. Courtesy of Elizabeth van der Weide. Left and bottom left — Ben Nelson nears the Kauai Marathon finish with his daughter; Ben with friends before the race start. Courtesy of Ben Nelson. Bottom center and right  — Betsy Tesi in the lineup to begin the 10K run; after the race with her official time. Courtesy of Betsy Tesi.