Local pastor to bike 2,500 miles to Chicago

SNELLVILLE - He's done it before, now he's doing it again.

This time, Andre Willis is biking almost 2,500 miles from Snellville to talk show host Oprah Winfrey's studios in Chicago.

"While getting to Oprah is icing on the cake, the goal and objective is much more serious than that," Willis said.

The 56-year-old, who church members, family and friends call Pastor Dre, is the man behind Peddlin' 4 Life, an effort in which the amateur cyclist puts the tires of his 10-speed bike to miles and miles of pavement to raise awareness of homelessness, illiteracy and physical challenges. On the upcoming trek to Chicago, Willis is raising money to build a resource center for his Snellville ministry, New Life Tabernacle Praise and Worship, and the ministry's ongoing City of Life Foundation Project.

Previous bike rides include a 3,450-mile trek from Bostwick to Chicago and then to the White House in 2006 that took four months.

Willis doesn't just talk the talk, though; he's walked the walk. As the title of his first book - "Been There, Done Dat" - explains, Willis isn't just waxing poetically when he talks about the challenges faced by the nation's homeless populations. For four years, he lived out of a cardboard box on the streets of Wilson, N.C.

"It's been some years now, but I, too, was the one looking for a handout," he said, "but all in a different sort of way."

Willis called himself a "dignified homeless person," meaning he didn't hold a sign reading, "Will work for food," and didn't stand on street corners asking passersby for money.

"Rather, I tried for the most part to be somewhat private," he said. "I was looking for a way out of the mess I had placed myself into, unintentionally of course."

Willis found himself without a place to call home after what he called a bad marriage and job loss.

"It was quite an embarrassing position to be in, to say the least," Willis said, "and one that I hailed as private because I didn't even allow my family to know my condition. That has all turned around now."

But the face of homelessness, he said, has changed.

"They're teachers, doctors, lawyers and more with degrees and all like me during my younger years, a victim of our own circumstances and behavior," Willis said. "No longer is it just those who are mentally or psychologically challenged who are faced with homelessness."

Willis will be escorted on his ride to Chicago by a trainer, a nurse and a main driver. The team has planned pit stops in 14 cities along the way for book signings and speaking engagements. Depending on the weather - Willis won't ride in the rain - the trip will take about 37 days.

The pastor will depart from the New London Plaza in Snellville at 5 p.m. Saturday and is hoping to be joined by other bikers for a parade send-off, complete with a police escort, courtesy of the Snellville Police Department.

"We're asking everybody, bikers of all sorts, motorcycles, regular bikes, mopeds, 10-speeders and if you don't have a bike then come walk and help us make a statement to Oprah and the world that somebody cares," Willis said. "We need everybody, pastors, teachers, students, to come out in front of the media and say to Oprah and the world, "Snellville cares.'"

SideBar: If You Go

· What: Bicycle Parade to send off pastor Andre Willis

· When: 5 p.m. Saturday

· Where: New London Plaza at 2485 E. Main St. in Snellville

· Cost: Free

· For more information: Visit thecityoflifefoundationproject.org