Right now, a group of 15 bicyclists is making its way along an 1,800-mile stretch of the United States—the Underground Railroad. They’re officially at the halfway point of International Justice Mission’s 5 Weeks for Freedom, a campaign to raise funds for and awareness of modern-day slavery. Their path is taking them from Mobile, Ala., to Buffalo, N.Y. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. and biking by 7 five days a week, the group takes a break on weekends to speak at churches along the way. We caught up with Brittney Andrist, a college student from Canada and one of the riders, while the group was in Kentucky.
How did you get involved with IJM and 5 Weeks for Freedom?
About a year and a half ago, I was more interested in learning more about human trafficking and the work of what is being done about this issue. I came across [IJM President] Gary Haugen’s book [Just Courage]. Ever since then, I fell in love with IJM, and have been determined to set my life to join that fight against human trafficking and violent oppression of people. I saw an ad on IJM’s website, and it was the Venture Expeditions ride to raise awareness of this issue and support IJM. I signed on, and I didn’t have a bike! I didn’t even have a bike until five months ago. So that’s how it all started.
Has it been difficult to jump into something so strenuous as riding 1,800 miles in five weeks?
I have been in pretty good shape. I am actually a criminal justice student for policing, so physically, I am in good shape. But I don’t think anything can really prepare you for five weeks on your bike. You’re going an average of 75 miles a day, and you’re sitting on your bike, going up hills. No matter how strong you are, it’s tough. But I think the mental process behind it all, and the motivation of what we’re raising awareness for, it really is symbolic of the hardship of what others go through. We’re going against it. It’s a mental process, really. Physically, it’s exhausting and your emotions are raw, but it’s a symbolic way of being very spiritual, and just really getting into it and being passionate about it it. It’s challenging. It’s not going to be easy.
Did being a criminal justice student play a part in your decision to join Five Weeks for Freedom?
Absolutely. I want to be a police officer because I want to help people in any way possible, whether it’s biking across the United States or joining the police force. That’s my passion, and that’s what I get joy out of: helping others and helping people in need. Really, it’s something that brings joy to my life, and that’s how I feed that need in my life.
How has traveling along the Underground Railroad been significant, given that you are now riding to fight modern-day slavery?
There is a lot of meaning behind it. It is a different form of slavery, but it is still oppression against people. The full history that goes up, from south of Mobile, Alabama. Birmingham is a big landmark, too. It’s huge, it’s very symbolic. You’re working very hard to get to this place and you can just imagine what it was like back then for the people that were oppressed to go to freedom.
You’re with this group of people day in and day out on this difficult journey. What are the relationships like amongst the other riders?
You develop such a close relationship with people that have the same passion like you do. It’s one thing to be interested in a sport or to work in the same place, but it’s another thing to have a relationship based on what your heart desires, what you’re passionate about. The relationships on this tour, it’s amazing how they’ve grown. I will be friends with them for a very long time. You go through so much, too. You’re with them constantly, and there has to be a space where you’re tired, you’re exhausted, you may be very emotional and you need somebody to talk to. Those are the people you’re going to talk to, so you develop that really close relationship very fast. When we first started, it was like I knew these people for years. It’s been wonderful. You have to encourage each other, and you have to uplift each other when someone is having a bad day or someone falls off their bike. You’re there for them, and it’s very emotionally and spiritually satisfying. Everyone cares very passionately about God’s work, and that’s what our mission is. When you can be on that level spiritually, it really helps a lot. We do devotions every day as well, and it’s a great thing we have to do because that’s what keeps us moving, reminding ourselves of why we’re here.
What’s been the most profound moment of the ride so far?
The first week we actually had Sean Litton join us. He’s the [vice president of justice operations at] IJM, and he was with us for a week. He would tell us these stories about when he was overseas and the people he rescued. He was a frontline man, he was in the work of what was going on over there and speaking justice for these people. You can just hear it in his voice, you can hear how he talks about it. It really got us motivated to think, “OK, as I’m climbing this hill, I’m fighting for people who don’t have freedom.” It really kept me going every day, and just a reminder every day of: “This is why I ride. I don’t care how hard it is. I don’t care how hot it is outside.” There’s a reason behind it. So Sean Litton was a huge inspiration for me, because he definitely put it into perspective. We’re riding for people we don’t really know, and he kind of put a face to it.
What has been the most difficult point of the ride for you?
The first week was really emotional for me because I was still out of my comfort zone. I’m not a biker, the traffic was really busy, we didn’t really have a shoulder on the road to ride on and I hadn’t ridden on highways before. I’m usually a strong person otherwise, when I’m in my comfort zone, but I was completely out of my zone, so it was really hard for me. But at the same time, I think it was really good for me because it told me that I can’t do everything, but I can overcome it. I have to show weakness sometimes. That would have been my hardest time during the ride. The hills were pretty bad, too.
What do you hope will be accomplished through 5 Weeks for Freedom?
I just want people to know about it because there are so many people who are just totally unaware of it. If we get the word out there, things will be done about it. We really need to get people educated, because when people are educated they will fight against it and something will be done about it. It is possible.
To learn more about 5 Weeks for Freedom, as well as “meeting” the other riders and to see if they’ll be making a stop in your town, visit 5WeeksForFreedom.org.