Team Samaritan House rider draws strength from teammates in battle with brain cancer

Anya Semenoff

Last June, Luis Bernardez finished his second Ride the Rockies with Team Samaritan House. Having just recently retired from his job working as a physicist in California, he was ready to enjoy a new chapter of life in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife, Kellie. Luis assumed he would eventually return to the annual Colorado cycling tour but thought that aspiration could wait for someday farther down the road. Then in December, he received news that altered every plan: He was diagnosed with glioblastoma — brain cancer.

Luis knew he had no more time to waste waiting for someday.

“When you have time to live and do stuff, you tend to put things off a bit. And so this year, I decided I would try to do it again,” said Luis, 57, during a phone interview with Denver Catholic.

Following a near-immediate surgical procedure to remove the tumor in December, Luis underwent 42 days of chemo and nearly seven weeks of radiation. The intensity of the treatment made it hard to imagine undertaking a weeklong, 432-mile cycling ride through the Rocky Mountains.

“At first, he didn’t want to do anything, and then he started thinking about things,” said Kellie, Luis’ wife of 21 years. “It’s a different ride for him. In the past he’s been able to work out and get in shape for it, but this time it’s just to experience the whole thing.”

Ride the Rockies started in 1986, a creation of The Denver Post. The annual tour follows a different route each year in June, and typically involves cycling over 400 miles in total distance over six or seven days.

Team Samaritan House has fielded a team in the ride for nine consecutive years to raise money to support families and individuals experiencing homelessness. Started by team captain Tom Schwein and co-captain Tom Dea, it began with only six riders in 2010 and has grown steadily, with 50-60 riders participating in Ride the Rockies this year, according to Dea. Each rider on the team is asked to raise a minimum of $1,500, with all funds going to Catholic Charities’ Shelter Services in four locations in northern Colorado, including the counties of Denver, Larimer, and Weld, as well as a location on the Western Slope. Fundraising continues through October, and Team Samaritan House has a goal of $250,000 for this season.

For co-captain Dea, it is a blessing to meet and include the many different people that God brings together to support the team.

“Luis got involved the second year in 2011. He was a college friend and he was in my wedding, and I was in his. Luis is an exceptional athlete and he was excited to join the team. I invited him  and am thankful he accepted,” Dea told the Denver Catholic in an email sent from this year’s Ride the Rockies route. The race ran June 9-15.

When Kellie told Dea about Luis’ glioblastoma diagnosis, Dea was shocked, but still wanted to welcome his longtime friend to return to the ride for a third time.

“Not knowing whether he was willing to accept the challenge was hard, but once he agreed, I was stoked for the opportunity to spend a week with my college buddy,” said Dea.

The encouragement from Dea and the other Team Samaritan House riders, as well as from those who have donated to Catholic Charities in support of Luis’ ride, has been felt by both Luis and Kellie.

“Everyone so far has been very happy that he’s able to ride at all, and they’re very happy they’ve supported this whole organization in general, the whole Team Samaritan House and all of Catholic Charities. It’s been wonderful for all of them,” said Kellie.

Though not a practicing Catholic himself, Luis acknowledges a tangible sense of faith in the prayers offered for him by Dea and his teammates, and in all that surrounds him.

“[Faith] is more contemplative now,” said Luis. “Of course, God is all in on this, as far as things go. It does seem like God is there every day. I just seem to look around and He seems to be ever-present.”

Moving forward, Luis will continue chemotherapy treatments for as long as possible and won’t put off appreciating the time he does have.

“Because of the cancer, it makes you feel like you need to do the things that you want to do,” said Luis. “It’s kind of like the bucket list. You gotta get rid of those things.”

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash