Few people can say they've visited more than a couple countries in less than a year, but one Seventh-day Adventist has bicycled across eleven since last August in an 8,600-mile journey meant to spread the church's message of hope.
George Silva's trek began in his native Brazil, where the 49-year-old kicked up his bike stand in Boa Vista and pedaled through northern South America.
Silva pedaled or pushed -- once, for four hours straight after facing five flat tires in one afternoon -- his bike through most of Central America, cycling through several southern-tier states of the United States to arrive in Atlanta this morning.
Around 10 a.m. local time, Silva was swarmed by Adventist Church members and delegates, many of them from Brazil, as he arrived at the Georgia Dome, where the church is holding its 59th General Conference Session until July 3.
Silva's journey to Atlanta is the seventh in a series of such trips, totaling more than 18,000 miles, that the cyclist and runner has embarked on since joining the Adventist Church in 1992.
Silva Finds God
Silva, who said he was often depressed and troubled as a young person, once nearly resorted to suicide before a chance encounter with an Adventist literature evangelist, who challenged him attend a church.
Disheartened by the overwhelming number of denominations, each with seemingly incongruent beliefs, Silva shelved his search. Years later, Silva again felt impressed to find God. The next day, another literature evangelist visited Silva's home, giving him the address of the local Adventist church. "For the first time, I felt comfortable in a church," Silva said. "The same day, I asked to be baptized."
Shortly after accepting the Adventist message, Silva, then training as a runner, said he felt impressed to use his athletic talents for God. "I heard [God] say, 'You run every morning for yourself. Now, I choose you to run for me.'"
A Knife in Each Hand
Silva later began biking so he could cross more territory in a shorter period. On his way to Atlanta, he averaged 75 miles per day, biking continuously for seven hours, then taking a three-hour break to rest and eat before another seven hours of cycling.
When asked whether crossing the Panama Canal posed challenges, Silva said finding a boat ride across was barely a hurdle compared to passing through a treacherous, guerilla-controlled wooded area just beforehand. Locals warned him that the guerillas would likely kidnap him, but backtracking wasn't an option in Silva's mind. He didn't have money for a plane ticket to fly over the area, so he pressed on.
Noticing a man riding a motorcycle toward him, Silva panicked. "I thought he was coming to kill me," he said. But instead, the man guided him to the beach, where Silva took a boat across the Canal to Central America.
"I believe that when I get to heaven, Jesus will introduce me to the angel who guided me through the jungle and brought me from Colombia to Panama in one piece," Silva said.
While on the border of Brazil and Paraguay, Silva said he was attacked by a would-be thief wielding two knives, who threatened to take his belongings and his life. Silva began praying and pleaded with the man to spare his life, even offering him a copy of the New Testament.
"When he took the Bible -- a knife still in his other hand -- he was immediately paralyzed," Silva said, adding that the man, visibly shaken by the experience, told him he was impressed to find God.
Sleeping Under Bridges
Silva believes God also protected him from the elements during his journey -- temperatures ranged from below zero to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Once, a hailstorm destroyed local crops and property, but Silva, equipped only with a tent, said he escaped unscathed. Another time, Silva, who was used to sleeping under bridges in damp conditions, found a dry mattress under a bridge. "I pitched my tent over that mattress, and it was just like a hotel room," he said with a laugh.
As he biked through their countries, locals were curious, Silva said. "They asked me, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you leaving your family, your country?' I always told them that Jesus is coming soon."
A number of people decided to follow Jesus after hearing his testimony, he said.
Silva, who doesn't speak English but plans to continue biking through the U.S. into Canada after his stop at Session, said he's not worried about the language barrier. When he left Brazil, he spoke only Portuguese, but picked up Spanish along the way. "Very soon I will speak English," he said.