Former LF pastor bikes the Mississippi River Trail for Congo

Imagine walking for miles and miles just to get to a health clinic to have your basic medical needs met. Only 108 clinics are available in an area about the size of Minnesota, where about 1 million people are served.

“That’s the reality for many people in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Dennis Carlson.

Dennis served as the associate pastor at Grace Covenant Church in Little Falls for eight months beginning Nov. 1991. He is now the pastor at Faith Covenant Church in Farmington Hills, Mich. His church, along with several others support a rural health clinic, located in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo, in between the Ubangi River and the Congo River.

His love for the African country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, was deeply rooted in the fact that his wife, Mary Lynn, grew up there. Her parents, Gordon and Geneva Christensen were missionaries in Congo for 40 years, Dennis said.

To encourage and inspire people to support rural health care clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a group of cyclists biked the Mississippi River Trail, from the headwaters of the Mississippi River to the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. The cyclists included (from left): Larry Babb, Dennis Carlson and Rod Carlson.

Dennis and Mary Lynn were missionaries in Congo, as well, in the 1990s. Their children, Timothy and Kristina were born there.

But in September 1991, they had to evacuate because of civil unrest in the country. Even though they returned later, Dennis and Mary Lynn had to evacuate once more with their children in 1997.

Because of their love for the people and the country, Dennis started riding his bike to raise funds to build and maintain rural health clinics.

“I’m blessed with good health, so this is the least I can do. After having lived there and our children being born there, we are acutely aware of the needs there,” Dennis said.

Last year, Dennis’ brother, Rod Carlson, joined him in his vision to raise funds for Congo through bicycling. The two joined The Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa and biked 420 miles, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, July 24-30, 2016.

“While Rod and I were the only ones biking for Congo, we biked among 10,000 other bicyclists,” Dennis said.

This year, the biking brothers decided to bike the Mississippi River Trail. Dennis’ brother-in-law, Ron Peterson and their friend and navigational guide, Larry Babb, joined them, as well.

“Larry investigated the trail thoroughly ahead of time and routed it on his computer system,” Dennis said.

Most of the over 300-mile-long route was done mostly on state, national and locals roadways. The only exception was the Paul Bunyan trail, Dennis estimated lasted for about 100 miles south of Bemidji.

The four cyclists left the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park, July 26. Six days later, they arrived at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.

Sheryl Peterson, Dennis’ and Rod’s sister and Ron’s wife, drove the support van.

“The support van is so important. It carries all of our bags and whatever else we might need,” Dennis said.

In fundraising for Congo, Dennis has partnered with the Paul Carlson Partnership. The program was created in honor of Dr. Paul Carlson, a medical missionary, who was martyred by rebels in 1964.

Dennis hopes his biking will inspire other people and give them a vision for Congo.

Dennis said $10,000 will support one rural clinic for a year. The money raised is used to build health clinics that are made of mud with a stick thatch roof and help operate them successfully.

One of the most basic needs to run the clinic is electricity, which is delivered through the use of solar panels. That way refrigeration can be used, as well.

“Most vaccines need to be refrigerated. If you’re going to bring it into villages to help kids to not get potentially fatal diseases, they need to be vaccinated,” Dennis said.

Another important aspect to good health is access to clean water. Water is often collected from rivers or streams with flowing, but murky water. As a result, many Congolese men, women and children, suffer from water-borne illnesses.

“Clean water is number one in terms of health. If you don’t have clean water, you’ll never have a healthy population,” Dennis said.

This year, a lot of effort has been placed on providing clean water to the villages where the clinics are located. Sometimes it is accomplished by drilling a well, but for the most part, there are springs. A spring is then tapped and capped to make it safe and sanitary, Dennis said.

The local people are also trained in how to maintain clean water.

“The clean water serves the whole community and provides clean water to the clinic. That’s needed for even the most basic form of health care,” Dennis said.

Part of the program is to help people get to the clinics. The road system in the area can be quite rough and at times, even straight out dangerous. Some of the bridges only consist of high beams, forcing vehicles to cross perfectly.

“If you don’t keep those tires right on the high beams, you’re going to fall into the river,” Dennis said.

Along the way to the State Capitol, Dennis and his team stopped in several cities along the way.

Saturday, July 29, they stopped at the Grace Covenant Church in Little Falls.

“It was wonderful to be back,” Dennis said.

Biking for a cause is something that makes it more fun, Rod said. Nature is seen better than it is from a car.

Those who are interested in donating, may visit www.paulcarlson.org/donate.