A group of teens and young adults who have been bicycling across the country to raise awareness about Chinese persecution of Falun Gong meditation practitioners stopped Tuesday in Baltimore.
"We are so blessed to have freedom of belief," said the team leader, Annie Chen, a 19-year-old sophomore at Michigan State University.. "We who have a voice need to speak for the voiceless."
Falun Gong is a spiritual movement based on "truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance," advocates said. The Communist Chinese government has banned the practice, and has been accused of torturing its followers.
Twenty-six cyclists, ages 11 to 28, stood in the War Memorial Plaza Tuesday afternoon during a stop in their 3,000-mile journey from Los Angeles to Washington.
Riders left the West Coast June 1 and will have made 19 stops in major cities over 45 days when they finish this week, the group said. Riders have already visited cities including Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Philadelphia, and said they will complete their journey in the nation's capital, where they will ask President Barack Obama for his support in putting pressure on China to end the human rights violations.
Jessica Zhu, a 17-year-old high school senior originally from Baltimore, said she hopes the president will make their cause a priority.
"If he says something, everyone will end up knowing about it in America. Once everyone knows, that will put the pressure on China to put an end to it," she said.
Zhu said her father was denied a visa in 2013 to visit China because of his Falun Gong practices and therefore could not visit his father before his death. For this reason, she said, she cannot visit China and doesn't know much of her extended family.
"We all believe the persecution in China can end," she said. "I want people to know that just because it's in China, it doesn't mean it's removed from everything else. It's a humanity thing. We all have to care for each other."
Borong Tsai, 15, who lives in Frederick, said his passion for the cause led him to skip the last three weeks of school at Frederick High School to participate in the Ride To Freedom. He said he'd make up work later.
"When we do the exercises, it keeps our mind clear. We think only positive thoughts. It really cleanses our spirit and mind," said Tsai, who said he has practiced Falun Gong all his life.
Tsai said the travelers stay in campgrounds or hotels and practice Falun Gong as a group every morning before traveling. With some riding in vans while others bicycle in shifts, they cover about 100 miles a day.
Zhu said that she learned how to ride a bicycle just last summer and that her desire to participate in the ride exceeded her fear of the challenge. According to Zhu, Falun Gong principles have come in handy in the group made up of mostly strangers.
"It reminds us that we have to look within at our own problems," she said. "If something goes wrong, we can blame it on so many different things, but we have to remember that maybe why it happened is a shortcoming of ours."
Amy Xue, who practices Falun Gong in Baltimore and is not affiliated with the riders, said she has been following their trip online and was moved by their visit.
"I so admire those kids," she said. "They're so courageous."