Former reporter Gary Fallesen reaches out with Climbing For Christ
The idea came to Gary Fallesen 10 years ago as he was training for a summit climb to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.
Why not combine mountain climbing with missionary work? That idea was pesky and kept coming back to him, becoming too loud to ignore.
So Fallesen climbs mountains in far-off places around the globe carrying a Bible in his backpack and a message in his heart for people not well-acquainted with the Christian faith. In short, Fallesen is a missionary reaching out to people in extreme places.
The result is Climbing For Christ, which grew into a nonprofit that started in 2002 with Fallesen, his wife, Elaine, and a few supporters. It now has 600 members in 35 countries. In 2007, it also started its first chapter outside the United States in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In 2007, the group also needed a full-time executive. So Fallesen, 48, left his 27-year career as a sports and outdoors writer for the Democrat and Chronicle to become the paid president of the group he formed.
Giving up a successful career was not an easy decision, Fallesen says. But this is a career that grew out of the work that consumed his vacations and free time.
“Very simply, what we do is try to take the Gospel to mountainous areas of the world where missionaries — what we call normal missionaries or regular missionaries — cannot or will not go,” the Hilton resident says.
The expeditions are small, usually no more than 10 people, most of whom are experienced climbers. The destinations are in mountainous places seldom visited by westerners, let alone Christians. Since 2005, Climbing For Christ has led “evangelical expeditions” into rural Mexico, Tanzania, South Africa, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This year’s travel plans include trips to Nepal, Haiti, Indonesia and Africa.
The goal is not reaching a mountain top. It is finding opportunities to minister and help people isolated by where they live. Climbers carry Bibles in native languages. They also carry needed supplies and a desire to help the bodies and souls of the people they encounter.
“Somebody’s got to go to the least, the lost and the last, and for Gary, that is people in the mountains,” says the Rev. Larry Stojkovic, senior pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Greece, where Fallesen is a member. “These are people in need. These are people who God loves and wants the church to reach. So when God says, ‘I want you to go,’ you’re either going to say ‘no’ and delay, or like Gary, you’re going to go.”
Fallesen describes the missionary work as fulfilling appointments made by God. The approach is not an evangelical hard sell to an unwilling audience. Instead, the mountaineering missionaries look for opportunities to meet physical needs and to share the teaching of the Gospel through natural human curiosity.
“Obviously, if these people have not heard the Gospel message, the chances are there is a lot of (physical) need there as well,” he says. “So by going in and building churches and schools and providing health care and all of the basics … it gives you an opportunity to share the spiritual side as well.”
The organization’s efforts in a small hillside village in Haiti could be a template for the mission. The goal of the 2006 expedition was to climb the highest mountain in Haiti (Pic la Selle) and distribute Bibles to local residents.
The village pastor was holding services in a church of three thatch walls with no roof and a dirt floor. The organization was able to raise $10,000 to build a new church in the village that is also used as a school for more than 100 children.
“As we climbed up the mountain, we met the pastor of the village and he said that he had been praying for two years for help,” Fallesen says. “I got what I call ‘God bumps’ on the back of my neck because I realized that I was the help he was praying for.”
Climbing For Christ also raised money to provide medical treatment for a 14-year-old boy in the village whose leg became infected after a fracture. Fallesen says the boy lost his leg but survived what could have been a life-threatening infection.
Brian Arnold, 24, of Greece, has made three trips to Haiti. The trips changed his appreciation for the people of that troubled country as well as his life in America.
“These people just embrace you and love you,” he says. “It makes you appreciate what you have. We have so much.”
Arnold says he remembers participating in a local wedding ceremony, which lasted about five hours.
“We worshipped with them for about five hours,” he said. “We can’t speak the language, but we can share our lesson of Christ by the way we act and treat each other.”
The organization is planning to explore new missions this year. An expedition is planned in April for Nepal and the base camp of Mount Everest targeting climbers and their Sherpa guides.
Fallesen will also revisit Indonesia and Haiti, two countries that have seen a great deal of violence and political unrest. But Fallesen says he has yet to feel threatened or in danger during his mission work. His son Jesse has accompanied his father on several trips.
Elaine Fallesen, Gary’s wife, said she knows there is an element of danger in mountain climbing and also where her husband chooses to do it. But she says she does not worry.
“Now that he is climbing with a purpose, I’ve never had a twinge of fear because I know that God has called him to do this,” she says. “I just know he is in the Lord’s protection everywhere he goes and he sends his angels with him.”
Gary Fallesen says his work and the work of his volunteers is the reason for the risk.
“It’s mission, not mountain. It’s people, not peak. It’s service, not summit.”