By John W. Kennedy
Mar. 18, 2012
Rich Dixon figures he wasted a decade of his life moping and angry following a fall off his roof that left him disabled. While putting up Christmas lights in 1987, Dixon passed out and landed on his head. The resulting spinal cord injury caused permanent paralysis.
Although Dixon returned to his job teaching junior high math at a public school 18 months after the accident, it took him much longer to come to grips spiritually with what had happened. (See “The Monster in the Mirror,” Pentecostal Evangel, July 24, 2011.) Other than work, Dixon isolated himself. He had no desire to socialize or exercise.
Everything changed in 2000, when Dixon began attending Timberline Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Fort Collins, Colo. That same year, Dixon started dating his future wife, Becky. And upon the recommendation of a counselor, Dixon also tackled journaling his feelings, accepting the reality that he couldn’t do certain activities anymore.
Around the same time, at the repeated urging of friends, Dixon took up handcycling, in which he cranks peddles with his hands and arms rather than feet and legs.
“People had been trying for years to get me involved in recreation,” Dixon says. “If I couldn’t do it the ‘normal’ way, I didn’t want any part of it.”
However, once he tried handcycling, Dixon found a new purpose.
Soon, riding his bike across the country became a priority on his “bucket list.” The dream became reality in 2011. But by then Dixon switched the focus from what he wanted to accomplish to a charity ride in which he could spur others on in the midst of life’s travails.
Dixon found the perfect benefactor in Convoy of Hope. He learned about Convoy of Hope at Timberline, which participates in the compassion ministry’s annual One Day to Feed the World (in which congregants donate up to a day’s salary to help feed the poor and suffering).
The Dixons traveled in a van from their home in Fort Collins?to Lake Itasca, Minn. Dixon peddled south on his specially constructed handcycle adjacent to the Mississippi River, from its source in The North Star State to its mouth in New Orleans. Along the 1,500-mile route, Dixon had ample opportunity to talk to others about overcoming trying times.
“There is hope in seemingly impossible circumstances,” Dixon says. “People can step out and achieve a dream.”
Despite his handicap, Dixon has grown physically fit and has handcycled more than 20,000 miles. Dixon, who turned 60 in 2011, realized he might not have that many years left to complete such a river odyssey.
By riding he raised more than $20,000 for Convoy of Hope — and corporate donors matched the figure. Eleven local businesses underwrote the traveling expenses for the couple. The logistics of the adventure took some faith, as most days the Dixons embarked not knowing exactly where they would stay the night. Usually they found a motel.
Dixon averaged more than 40 miles a day on the eight-week journey, accompanied by his specially trained service dog, Monte, a yellow Labrador retriever. He stopped at various points to address 30 groups, including soccer teams, a regional pastors conference, at-risk youth, and senior citizens.
In addition to inspiring others, Dixon found that the Convoy trek across the hamlets dotting the Mississippi offered him rewarding insights.
“I was continuously struck by the generosity that we encountered,” Dixon says. “The popular news media message is that this country is divided, that people are greedy. But we found people who were gracious, generous and eager to help us out.”
For instance, in Rolling Fork, Miss., a town of 2,000 people, the Dixons couldn’t find lodging with wheelchair-accessible accommodations. So a local resident arranged for Rich and Becky to stay at the community hospital, providing them with gift baskets — including one for Monte.
While the journey presented its own trials, Dixon says overcoming circumstances beforehand proved equally as challenging.
Becky credits Dick Foth, who is on the Timberline teaching team, with keeping the spotlight on the dream, even when it didn’t look like it would happen. Last spring, Rich became ill with an infection and had to spend 10 weeks resting in bed. Dixon’s doctor questioned the wisdom of attempting a major ride, but Foth prayed with the couple and encouraged them to trust God.
In late June, with Rich still bedridden, the Dixons prayed in faith for the unknown individuals they would meet on the route who needed to hear how God had transformed Rich’s life. Rich recovered and began his journey on Sept. 12. Becky quit her job of three years as president of a Fort Collins nonprofit in order to accompany her husband on the long ride.
“We met so many people hungry to hear a story of hope,” says Becky, who has been married to Rich for 10 years. “Not only at the places where Rich spoke, but also at gas stations, restaurants and motels. We had many one-on-one conversations along the way.”
Foth notes that those serendipitous encounters of strangers seeking counsel and prayer from the Dixons proved to be as worthwhile as raising money to feed hungry children through Convoy of Hope.
“It’s always inspirational when you see someone who has faced uphill battles who still has a heart for others,” Foth says.
Since retiring from teaching in 2009, Dixon has authored Relentless Grace, derived from his transparent journal entries that show how God transformed his life of despair. Recently he launched a new phase of life as a motivational speaker. Unlike those early years after the tragedy, Rich Dixon now is cheerful, self-effacing and compassionate.
Kirk Noonan, Convoy of Hope senior director of communications, says Dixon sets a good example of self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater cause.
“Rich shows that nothing is impossible,” Noonan says. “He decided not only to get mobile, but to get in really good shape, despite the challenges and limitations he faces. If all people used their gifts and talents to do something helpful for other people, this world truly would be a different place.”
“Yeah, Rich is a guy who has to sit in a wheelchair, but that’s not what defines him,” Becky says. “He wants to make a difference in this world, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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