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Hope and courage across America

By Christina Quick

People often do a double take when they see Assemblies of God evangelist Bob Mortimer pedaling his bike down the freeway.

Mortimer, who lost both legs and his left arm in an accident more than 30 years ago, doesn’t mind the surprised glances. He welcomes the opportunity to share his story with anyone who asks.

Powering a handcycle using only his right arm, the avid cyclist just completed a cross-country trip that traversed miles of challenging mountain terrain. His wife, Darla, and their children, Nicole, 20, Grant, 15, and Chanel, 10, accompanied him on the trip. (Chanel remained off the road when the shoulder was narrow or travel was otherwise deemed unsafe for a 10-year-old.)

The family didn’t set out to prove anything or promote a particular cause. Mortimer, who spoke in churches and other venues along the way, says his only goal was to spread a message of hope and courage through Christ.

“I don’t see myself like other people see me, but I do understand how people could see us and be encouraged,” says Mortimer, who dubbed the coast-to-coast journey Hope and Courage Across America.

In many ways, hope and courage sum up Mortimer’s approach to life. Affable and optimistic, the 54-year-old tackles challenges with humor and steely resolve.

When Mortimer speaks to a crowd, he often takes along a ball cap with the word “Handy” printed across the front.

“This is my handy cap,” he deadpans, breaking the tension with the one-liner.

“It is the only handicap I have. No matter what we go through, no matter what we lose, the only handicap we’ll ever have is the one we put on ourselves. A handicap is something we create when we don’t allow God to fulfill His plan in our lives.”

A motivational speaker and preacher, Mortimer’s message resonates with the diverse audiences he addresses, from school-children and church groups to prisoners and wounded soldiers.

“When I accepted Christ I became a whole man,” he says. “I learned that what makes me whole is not in my shoes. It’s in my heart.”

The long road

Mortimer’s bike ride started May 17 when he left Gig Harbor, Wash., en route to New York City. But his real journey of hope and courage began decades ago.

Raised in an atmosphere of substance abuse, Mortimer started drinking and using drugs at an early age. When he was 16, he tried to wake his father and found him dead from a drug overdose. Even that tragic discovery didn’t deter Mortimer from pursuing his own destructive habits.

In 1976 Mortimer, then 21, and his brother Tom stumbled out of a bar in Olympia, Wash., to begin a 50-mile car ride home. Before they reached their destination, the vehicle swerved off the road, slammed into a utility pole, and slid down an embankment.

The brothers emerged from the wreck unscathed, walking around the crash site in amazement, laughing at their dumb luck and joking about the memories they’d just made.

They never noticed the downed power lines dangling over the dark road until Mortimer’s left arm made contact with one. In an instant, Mortimer’s legs buckled as 12,500 volts of electricity surged through his body. When his knees hit the ground, the charge arced out of them with a force that literally shredded his flesh.

His limbs scorched and mangled, Mortimer fell facedown across the live wires, badly burning his torso before the electrical circuit finally broke.

Tom stared in horror at his brother’s motionless body, certain he was dead. Then he heard a weak moan.

To this day, Mortimer can’t remember anything about the 12 hours before or after the accident. Tom and others have helped him piece together the series of events that forever altered his life.

Mortimer does remember the excruciating skin grafts, the 12 surgeries and the agonizing task of signing paperwork three times for three amputations. First his left arm was surgically removed above the elbow. Two weeks later he lost his right leg. Several months passed before his left leg was also taken.

Each loss was a blow that plunged Mortimer deeper into despair. When he was finally released from the hospital six months after the accident, he returned to booze to numb his emotional pain.

“When I looked in the mirror, I saw stumps where I used to have limbs and scars where I used to have skin,” Mortimer says. “I thought nobody could accept me, love me or even want to sit next to me.”

A reason to hope

Four years passed before Mortimer met Darla, a friendly, attractive woman who smiled past his wheelchair and invited him to church.

“I was head over wheels in love the minute I saw her,” he quips, smiling at the memory.

He asked Darla for a date, and she said yes.

For his part, Mortimer agreed to attend a service at the Assembly of God in Auburn, Wash., thinking it might further his relationship with Darla. He never dreamed it would also lead to a life-changing relationship with God.

The message Mortimer encountered at church touched him deeply. The truth of God’s love and forgiveness flooded him with hope. When the pastor offered to pray with anyone who wanted to receive Christ as Savior, Mortimer rolled his wheelchair to the altar.

“I sat there, and God just spoke to my heart,” Mortimer says. “I realized if He wanted my life, He should have it.”

Determined to give God his best, Mortimer stopped using drugs and alcohol. Within six months, he and Darla were married.

“For me the missing limbs have never been an issue,” Darla says. “In many ways, God has used it as a blessing. If he had legs our ministry wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Mortimer’s ministry began through the simple act of sharing his testimony publicly. Though he had a job as a tax accountant, it wasn’t long before he was also juggling a steady stream of speaking requests.

Eventually, Mortimer sensed God calling him to set aside other pursuits and devote his time to ministry. He has been a full-time evangelist and motivational speaker for 20 years now. He often speaks in school assemblies, inviting students and their families to attend an off-site church service that evening.

Remarkable journey

For Mortimer, the bike ride provided another method for sharing the hope he’s found in Christ. Weaving in and out of cities and rural communities, he came across many people who related to his story because they, too, were facing difficult challenges.

During a stop at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, the Mortimer family met a woman who tearfully told them of her young daughter’s disabilities. The woman said she had seen Mortimer on the news and had told her daughter, “If that man can do all those things with no legs, you can do a lot of things, too.”

“We are a nation of hope and courage through Jesus Christ,” Mortimer says. “We’ve not only shared that message, but found it in the people we’ve met and the churches we’ve visited.”

The Mortimers chronicled the details of their journey on a blog, hcjourney.org/journeyblog. As the posts reveal, the trip wasn’t always easy. The family faced everything from a heavy snowstorm near Montana’s Glacier National Park to blistering sun across the Great Plains. They coped with lost and broken gear, flat tires, illness and fatigue. But they pressed on through it all, advancing an average of about 40 miles a day.

“I do not have the option of getting off my bike and walking,” Mortimer says. “I have to either totally quit or keep going.”

There were a few times when the family called it quits temporarily. One such instance occurred two weeks into the journey as they tried to cross Snoqualmie Pass in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. As they advanced up the mountainside, a severe storm pelted them with rain and hail, forcing them to abandon their course and duck into a restaurant.

As they sat down to lunch, a woman seated nearby jumped up and frantically asked if anyone could help her choking baby. Nicole, a nursing student at Northwest University, instinctively ran to the mother’s side and performed the pediatric Heimlich maneuver, saving the child.

The incident encouraged the Mortimers. They viewed it as a sign that God was guiding them and using even their setbacks to impact lives.

“We’ve had scheduled ministry stops along the way, but we’ve had even more unscheduled ministry opportunities,” Nicole says. “We’ve met people in waiting rooms and body shops. We even sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a cashier at a grocery store.”

Nicole says it seems strange when people remark that her family inspires them.

“To me we’re just an average, typical family,” she says. “But I also know that together we’re making a difference, so it makes me want to get out there and do even more.”

Team effort

Mortimer is physically fit and independent. He even drives with the aid of a prosthetic arm and some custom alterations to his pickup truck.

Mortimer has biked with his family for the past several years. In 2004, he and Darla cycled across their home state of Washington.

Their latest venture required several years of planning and a great deal of support from others. Everything the family used for the trip, from an RV and truck to gas and bike equipment, was donated.

Friends, relatives and volunteers provided hands-on help along the way. Mortimer’s sister, Jeanne, joined them for much of the journey, filling various support roles.

Many supporters posted notes on the blog to let the team know they were praying for them. Others stopped alongside the road to pray with them or cheer them on.

One stranger, who had passed the family in her car, e-mailed to tell them what an encouragement it was to see them conquering an enormous mountain.

The scene was a fitting metaphor for Mortimer’s life, and for the lives of all who push past obstacles to fulfill their destinies in Christ.

“You just go out and do something,” Mortimer says, nodding toward the distant horizon. “You don’t know what people are getting out of it.”


CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Refrigerator Art (cquick.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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