Steve Spear

During Friday's 25-mile leg of his cross country trek to raise money for clean water in Africa, Pastor Steve Spear runs north on Route 47 in Yorkville on July 19, 2013. (Scott Strazzante / July 19, 2013)

Former suburban megachurch pastor Steve Spear declared years ago that his sneakers were made for walking, not running. Even when someone pointed out running's potential to raise money for charity, he scoffed and offered to write a check.

But peer pressure can be a powerful force. And according to Spear, so can the sight of a little girl walking miles a day to fetch water that might kill her.

"I'm not one of those people who loves to run," said Spear, 49, a former west suburban campus pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. "I really want to hate it less each time I do it."

Since early April, Spear has run and walked 35 miles a day, five days a week, as part of a 3,000-mile, five-month trek across the U.S. By the time he reaches his destination, he hopes to have raised $1.5 million. He estimates that would provide clean water for an African community of 30,000 residents — about the size of his hometown, St. Charles.

This weekend, on his way from Los Angeles to New York, he is jogging through the Chicago area, with plans for a hometown rally on Saturday and three appearances during worship services at Willow Creek's main campus in South Barrington.

His journey also has taken him to churches along the way, where he encourages congregants to face down their fears just as Jesus' disciples did in the New Testament story about crossing the Sea of Galilee in a storm.

"Fear oftentimes holds many of us back," Spear said. "Surrender that fear to God and accept and face that. That's been my whole story with running for the last six years. I had to surrender to run that first marathon."

It took a year of encouragement from a fellow Willow Creek clergyman before Spear agreed to put one foot in front of the other in a race. Shortly after the Rev. Paul Jansen Van Rensburg ran a race to raise money for World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization, he urged Spear to start training and join him. Spear replied "never in a million years."

"He told me it was a great cause. I told him I could write a check," Spear said.

But Jansen Van Rensburg kept nagging. He had heard Spear preach, urging people to step out of their comfort zones and step into the unknown with no fear. If Spear just donned running shoes, Jansen Van Rensburg thought, it would change Spear's life. More importantly, it would change the lives of others, he said.

"There are people with no voice," he said. "How could God in heaven use Steve's voice to change those lives?"

In 2007, Spear finally acquiesced, started training and joined Jansen Van Rensburg on Team World Vision in the Chicago Marathon. After that, the two went for a 56-mile run in South Africa. In August, Spear took his first trip to Kenya where he saw who his running could help firsthand. Women and girls walked miles to and from their village hauling gallons of contaminated water that wasn't safe to drink because that's all they could get. He decided he wanted to provide enough clean water for a village the size of St. Charles.

"The lack of clean water and sanitation is the No. 1 preventable cause of death on planet Earth," said Michael Chitwood, the national director of Chicago-based Team World Vision. "It's a huge need. When we raise money for clean water we're not raising money for some abstract idea or even the hope of finding a solution. We already know the solution."

The benefits of clean water also have a domino effect, Chitwood said. A child's chance of survival is doubled and school attendance rises because they aren't busy fetching water and they're not sick. With at least $300 million invested in wells, dams, pipelines, purification systems and other measures, World Vision runs the largest privately funded water initiative in Africa, experts say.

Spear's clean water mission would take $1.5 million. The occasional marathon wouldn't be nearly enough. He would run one daily across the U.S.

Chitwood said he's no stranger to insane fundraising stunts. Supporters have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier or competed in Ironman triathlons. But Spear's quest stands out.

"I like to judge the insanity of something by how many people have done it," Chitwood said. "We've got some pretty committed people, but this is insanely committed."

Spear said that commitment stems from the cause, not a passion for running or a desire to reach the Brooklyn Bridge next month. In fact, he hasn't run the entire route. He has walked about 20 percent, but kept the running schedule "aggressive enough to make it across the country in a reasonable amount of time." He also takes weekends off to address church audiences and recover from fatigue.

But the physical exertion doesn't matter as much as the difference he can make, he said. So far, he has raised about $130,000.

"We still have a whole lot of ground to cover and a bunch of miles to still run," he said. "We're hopeful."

He and Jansen Van Rensburg will reunite for an onstage interview at Willow Creek this weekend. There, Jansen Van Rensburg hopes to explore the internal transformation that he predicted in his friend.

He hopes Spear's return will inspire worshippers to ask themselves how they can take that leap and make the world better — a message that's central to Christianity, but often gets lost as people become overwhelmed with their own first-world concerns.

It's not about setting records, Jansen Van Rensburg said. "It's about offering the best of ourselves to a broken world."

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