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Former suburban pastor Steve Spear runs through central Pennsylvania during his cross country run from California to New York.

Suburban pastor raises money for clean water in Kenya

by Anna Bisaro
Dec 11, 2013



Spear hugs friend and colleague, Michael Chitwood, after completing seven marathons in seven days to get to Chicago on schedule.

He was one mile from the finish line of a run from Santa Monica, Calif., to New York City.

Tears swelled as Steve Spear recalled the memory of seeing his 25-year-old son, Zach, in downtown Manhattan on Sept. 6.As they embraced, Spear said in his ear, “I can start feeling normal again.”

It had been 150 days and some 3,081 miles since Spear, 49, had felt normal - meaning, not on the run.But on that September day, surrounded by family, friends and other Team World Vision runners, Spear’s race across America to raise money for clean water in Africa was coming to an end.

Spear has spent the last three months speaking at events and planning future fundraising efforts for the non-profit Team World Vision and re-acclimating to the routines of daily life.He left his position at Willow Creek Community Church in Wheaton to complete his cross country run, but he recently accepted a new position working with Team World Vision in Chicago.

“The run chose me,” Spear said. “It was not something I wanted, but I couldn’t not do it.”

The call

Spear hated to run.

A close friend of his ran the 2006 Bank of America Chicago Marathon as one of the members of Team World Vision. With its inaugural year as a charity team in the marathon, Spear’s friend was one of about 90 members. This October, Team World Vision sent about 1,400 runners and raised close to $14 million.

After the 2006 race, Spear’s friend asked if he would want to participate with Team World Vision the following year.

“I can write you a check, I don’t need to run,” Spear told his friend over and over. “I hate running, I don’t want anything to do with running.”

Spear was already a supporter of World Vision, Team World Vision’s parent organization. World Vision is a Christian, humanitarian organization that works to tackle poverty around the world. One of those ways is through an extensive child sponsorship program, which Spear already supported, and through clean water projects like wells.

After four months of side-stepping his friend’s invitation, Spear decided it was time to surrender to his fears and step into the unknown – something Spear, a pastor, regularly would preach to his congregation at Willow Creek.

For his first marathon, and every one thereafter, Spear set four goals: hate running less each time he ran, train well enough to make it to the finish line, finish the race before the course closed and raise the funds he pledged to raise.

Spear has completed countless races for Team World Vision including the Comrades Marathon – an 87 km ultramarathon - in South Africa in the spring 2010 where he raised about $150,000.

But, his biggest challenge was yet to come.

While on an “innocent” 15 mile run in November 2010, “a notion or whisper dropped in my head,” Spear said. The voice told him, “You are to run across America for the good of others.”

“It completely, 100 percent freaked me out,” Spear said. “I put that idea on the pavement right then.”

But the idea kept coming back. For months he suppressed it every time it emerged.

Eventually he confronted the thoughts and discussed the possibility with his wife, Frances. Then, in April 2012, he made the formal decision to run across the country.

The cause

In August 2012 Spear traveled to a rural village in Kenya to learn about the projects funded by World Vision. Spear wanted to be able to tell people where their money was really going to when they donated to his efforts, he said.

“I’ve asked countless people to write the biggest check they’ve ever written in their lives,” Spear said. And now he can tell them exactly why.

While in Kenya, Spear met one of his sponsor children through World Vision, then 7-year-old Winnie. Spear and the World Vision representatives were the first white people Winnie had ever met. Through a translator, Spear talked to Winnie and her family for several hours.

Before Spear left Winnie’s village, he walked with her to the local water source to fetch the midday supply. Winnie used to walk more than half a mile to the closest water source to fetch water, three times every day. The river Winnie fetches water from is the same river she bathes in. It’s the same river that she and her mother use to wash clothes. It’s the only water source for the village’s livestock, thus also where they are likely to defecate.

The walk for water upset Spear very much, he said. Probably in the best shape of his life at the time, Spear struggled to carry the water jug back to the village. As they walked, he noticed Winnie’s mother had a bit of a hunch, from the weight of the water jug she had been carrying her entire life. And worse yet, the water they fetched three times every day was contaminated and likely caused severe cases of diarrhea and other water-born diseases in the village.

After his visit with Winnie, his running goals became clearer. “I run a few miles to take away a few miles,” he said. Every mile he runs, is one less Winnie, or girls like her, have to.

Spear set his goal to raise $1.5 million – an amount that could provide clean water for 30,000 people for life.

World Vision estimated at the time that 800 million people on the planet were without a clean water source. Spear said 800 million was too hard to fathom. “But I can picture 30,000,” the size of a smaller Chicago suburb.

'Run for Water'

Spear left from Santa Monica, Calif. on April 8, 2013 covering 35 miles on his first day. Following the historic trail of Route 66, he battled high winds, torrential downpours, steep mountain climbs, blisters caused by the desert sand and heat indexes of more than 100 degrees.

Throughout the summer, Spear averaged more than four marathons per week. With his wife, daughter Chelsea, and small, rotating support group in tow, the group traveled across the country in RVs, making regular stops at churches to talk and fundraise along the way.

In the week leading up to a Chicago fundraising rally, Spear ran seven marathons in seven days, completing about 185 miles, to make up for time he had lost while sick in Oklahoma.

Aside from that sickness, some unexpected blisters and an initial 10 pound weight loss, Spear remained healthy throughout the run, sustained mainly by an estimated 1,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Oreo McFlurries from McDonald’s. Other favorite foods included PowerBars, Snickers, Twix and mashed potatoes.

Spear struggled with patellar tendinitis during training for the run, but he did not have any serious problems during it. Sometimes his body experienced pain as he trekked, but never anything debilitating, he said. He took each 170 mile or more week one at a time.

“The pain reminded me of my weakness,” Spear said. “I had to leave it to a power greater than myself.”

But, the mental games are a different story.

“I wouldn’t run to finish a mile, but to make it to the next tree,” Spear said.

Spear made it to New Jersey in early September.After almost five months of running, he was excited to finally be on what he thought would be flat ground.Trudging up a hill, just three days before the finish,

Spear said he cursed God for putting him through the torture of climbing yet another steep road.This was New Jersey - it wasn’t supposed to be have hills.

“I was so discouraged by that hill and I felt so alone,” he recalled.

At the end of his tantrum, he noticed a cyclist riding towards him. “Are you Steve Spear?” he asked when he got close enough.The cyclist then led Spear to the town, one mile up the road, where a small group had gathered to cheer him on as he finished his 35-mile DAILY run late into the evening.

Moments like that surprised Spear along his 3,081 mile odyssey, and they kept him going.

“I wanted to give up more times than I care to admit,” Spear said.He tried to always remember “every hard spot has an expiration date.”

Spear said the moment he felt he had really made it was when he first glimpsed the George Washington Bridge in New York City.

The future

“I still have another million to go” - not miles, but dollars.

So far, Spear’s Run for Water has raised about $300,000. He is hopeful he will reach $500,000 before the end of the year.

Spear’s efforts from this summer and other Team World Vision well projects have already provided Winnie’s village with clean water for life, but Spear does not feel his job will be done until he raises all $1.5 million he originally set out to raise.

“I have a sense that I will know when I’m done,” he said.

And yes, Spear is still running.

His last race of 2013 will be his fourth annual “reflection run” on his birthday, Dec. 31, where he runs one kilometer for every year he has been alive. This year, he will run 50.

To donate to Spear’s efforts and Team World Vision, visit: