Meet Charlie Chatterton and the Brake the Cycle Gang

Why one Connecticut parish sleeps on floors, eats hot dogs, and pedals like mad to fight poverty

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By Kerry Weber


From the comfort of Charlie Chatterton’s red Saturn, the winding roads and rolling hills of central Connecticut are relatively easy to navigate. But on this warm summer day, Chatterton’s not looking to relax.

“They’re still on the road,” he says, hanging up his cell phone. “I might get to ride today!” His work schedule prevented him from joining the cycling team earlier, but he brightens at the prospect of putting in a few late-afternoon miles.

Men and women riding bikes and wearing matching green, orange, and white shirts dot the hills. On any given day, they are engineers, teachers, insurance agents, physical therapists. Today, however, they are teammates. Together, they make up an advocacy group called Brake the Cycle of Poverty, which uses cycling to raise awareness of poverty and injustice through a series of presentations at parishes throughout Connecticut.

About a dozen cyclists from the team are winding their way through the last of the 45 miles they will travel on this day. Most, like Chatterton, 43, are parishioners at St. Bridget parish in Manchester, Connecticut. He pulls his car next to the support team vehicles already on the side of the road and hops out. Th rowing a silver helmet over his curly, sand-colored hair, he grabs his bike off one of the waiting cars.

Sue Ryan, 62, a member of the support team, jumps into action, quickly getting into Chatterton’s car and pulling out to free the shoulder for the cyclists. “You have to be flexible and you have to have your wits about you, because you have people depending on you,” Ryan tells me. She and several others have spent the week making lunch runs, laundering piles of sweaty clothes, and playing a kind of leapfrog with their vehicles as they provide the riders — a group that includes her husband John — with water, snacks, and safety.

The team heads toward My Father’s House, a former vacation camp and now a retreat house and affordable-housing development. White, rustic cabins circle a grassy lawn where team members set about stretching, securing bikes, unpacking cars, and snacking on pickles. They take turns showering and emerge wearing matching gray T-shirts with “Brake the Cycle. Think about it, talk about it, take action” written in forest-green lettering. Fresh and clean, the cyclists pile into the cars on the way to St. Bridget of Kildare parish in Moodus, where they will give the evening’s presentation.

In the parish’s peach-colored gymnasium, Bob King sits down with a plate of baked beans and a hot dog. He and his team are justifiably hungry. King estimates the team will complete a total of about 270 miles by the end of their ride the next day — not bad for a man who took up riding only five years ago.

In 2003, after completing JustFaith, a national program that educates parishioners about Catholic social teaching, King, now 63, was inspired to take action. He decided to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development-sponsored Brake the Cycle of Poverty bike ride from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. His hope was to bike from Manchester, Connecticut, to Baltimore, Maryland, where he’d meet up with the national CCHD team for the final stretch into the capital. He even managed to convince seven other riders and six supporters to come along. “I told ’em, ‘Look at a map. It goes from Connecticut down to Washington — it’s got to be all downhill,’” laughs King.

After a successful trip, the car ride back to Connecticut gave the team time to think. “We all began to say, ‘What are we going to do next? Do we really have to go outside our state to have impact?’” recalls King.

Shortly thereafter, King and his teammates began to learn more about poverty in their area and talk about how they could help make a change. Th e conversation evolved into an annual, weeklong bike trek, during which they crisscross the state delivering a polished presentation about poverty, voicing concerns to politicians, and visiting dozens of poverty centers.

But they knew there was one thing they wouldn’t do: solicit money. “This problem is not going to be solved with donations. It’s going to be solved with each Catholic deciding what his or her responsibility is to those who don’t have what we have,” King says with passion, adding, “That’s a tough sell.”

The story told by King and his team is of the people who fall through the cracks — people who are forgotten, hungry, sick, poor. It’s not always easy to get people to listen, but King’s not giving up anytime soon. “We accept invitations from any community. Sometimes we even have to push them to give us an invitation,” smiles King, fork poised above his dinner. His wife, Mary, grins: “We work our way in, how’s that?”

The group’s dependence on others has also been humbling: “We’re like the Apostles going out with just their sandals,” says Ryan. “It’s amazing when parishes are willing to be so open.”

Dan D’Amelio organized the team’s visit to his parish in Moodus, and is certainly glad he did. “So many people are caring, but they just don’t know what to do,” he says. “Events like this are helpful because they show people there are things that can be done.”

During the presentation, various members of the team jump from their seats, taking turns describing the needs and challenges facing the poor, and the ways in which their audience can take action. They recite the facts and figures, but their message is genuine because they’ve taken the time to meet the faces behind the statistics. “We get a meal and sit down with the clients [at soup kitchens] and talk with the clients, [asking them], ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What would you do differently?’ That’s how we gather our education,” says King. “This is a unique opportunity to engage people who need our voice to tell their story.”

The story is often one of unemployment, unjust laws, violence, or a lack of education, living wage, affordable housing, or health insurance — a combination of obstacles that could be overwhelming to anyone. Despite having one of the highest per-capita incomes of any state, 88582 children in Connecticut live below the poverty level, and the state is home to cities with high poverty rates, including Hartford
(30.3 percent) and New Haven (21 percent). This gap between rich and poor in the state continues to grow.

Pam Carmel, 45, stands to offer her thoughts at the presentation. “No matter how hard I try, I can never keep up with some of these guys,” she says, reflecting on the day’s ride. “It’s like that for many people in poverty. No matter how hard they pedal, it’s hard to keep up.”

In the morning, before the riders head out on their final stretch — about 25 miles from Moodus to Norwich, Connecticut — they gather in a circle for prayer, as they’ve done each day during this trip, praying for the safety and health of the poor, as well as for their own. They discuss the importance of the preferential option for the poor, which calls on those with strength and riches to care for the poor and weak.

 

The support vehicles follow the bikers, taking turns pulling over on the narrow roads to account for each member, distribute snacks, and offer an encouraging cheer. The tree-lined rolling hills of central Connecticut create a vibrant tunnel through which to ride. Tiger lilies grow fiercely along the sides of the road, causing fiery streaks in the landscape as the cyclists blaze past. But there are slower moments as well. “When the hills are tough, I say prayers,” says King. “I usually measure hills by how many Hail Marys I say. They keep me focused on why I’m doing this, as opposed to [thinking about] the pain and the heat.”

I’ve been invited to ride with the team for a portion of this final stretch, but it doesn’t take long before most of the cyclists are far ahead and out of sight. I’m tired and hot. The 10-year-old turquoise mountain bike I’m riding is rickety and heavy, and missing one of the gearshift levers. My movement toward the top of each hill is barely perceptible. I’m not a particularly skilled rider, and a part of me feels foolish for being on the road in the first place.

Chatterton — one of the team’s strongest riders — is still cycling behind me. “Keep it up,” he encourages. “You’re doing fine.” But I do not feel fine. I feel guilty for holding him back; I feel like a burden. But Chatterton pedals along peacefully, letting me go at my own pace. He can’t climb the hills for me, but his presence helps, and I’m glad I’m not alone.

“I figure you can either complain about the hills or embrace them,” Chatterton told me earlier. I think about his words as I push a bit harder on the pedals. The road ahead doesn’t look any shorter, but I finally feel like I’m moving forward.

Outside of the St. Vincent de Paul Place in downtown Norwich, Connecticut, a folding table with sandwiches, chips, and fruit stands to one side of a large, raised platform. Later, Bishop Michael Cote will offer his congratulations and appreciation to the cyclists. A plaque will be presented, speeches given.

Inside the building, clients eat at the community meal center, and a few come outside to see what is going on. Th e team is feeling energized, accomplished, and, Carmel admits, a bit sad. After all, the ride is over — sort of. “We’re done for this week, but we still have a mission,” says Lou Terzo, 62. “Th e church we visited last night, they want us to come back. That’s always a good feeling.”

“Last night,” cyclist Anne Merrer, 29, adds hopefully, “one girl at the presentation wanted to start a collection and a justice group at her school.”

Carmel smiles. “It’s a new generation. I told her: ‘You’re going to do wonderful things,’ and she gave me a big hug.”

As we stand there chatting, a voice interrupts. “Excuse me,” calls a woman with short grayish hair. She’s come from inside the St. Vincent de Paul Place, and she rolls up behind us in her motorized scooter. Grinning broadly, she reaches out and taps Terzo and Merrer. “Thank you for what you’re doing for us,” she says. With humble smiles, they reach out, in turn, and grab hold of her outstretched hands. CD

Find out more: Visit the CCHD Web page: usccb.org/cchd

Kerry Weber

Kerry Weber is an assistant editor for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and earned her B.A. from Providence College. Prior to enrolling at Columbia, Kerry was an associate editor for Catholic Digest. She also has worked as a staff reporter for The Greenwich Post and The Catholic Observer and as a producer and reporter for Real to Reel a television news magazine. After graduation, she volunteered for one year as a full-time special-education teacher in St. Michaels, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Her interests include running, reading, social justice issues, hiking, the Boston Red Sox, quilting, road trips, sheep, Nuts4Nuts, good concerts, tea, pie, and the work of Flannery O’Connor and Nick Hornby.