BEVERLY — Leighton O'Connor has traveled to Africa, India and Guatemala to feed the poor, dig wells, and visit the sick and dying. Now the Beverly resident is about to embark on another mission — this time from the cozy confines of his Jeep.
O'Connor is planning to visit 30 cities in 200 days to address the problem of homelessness in the United States. He plans to drive the entire way — more than 15,000 miles total, including a side trip to Alaska — in his Jeep Wrangler.
The Jeep will not only serve as transportation. O'Connor, an Assemblies of God minister, plans to hand out food and even conduct services from the back of the vehicle, a sort of pop-up food pantry and church on wheels.
"God put it in my heart to do ministry in my Jeep," he said.
O'Connor, 55, has been a volunteer minister at Calvary Christian Church in Lynnfield since 2013. He helped to create the Running & Walking Well Ministry, which organizes road races to raise money to build wells in Africa.
O'Connor said he attended a weekly morning prayer session last fall when another church member, Michael McCarthy, started praying for a homeless couple he had seen in Seattle. The woman had reached into a garbage can for a half-eaten sandwich, brushed it off, and handed it to her partner.
"I prayed out loud for these people and that tugged on Leighton's heartstrings," McCarthy said. "He began investing his time learning about the homeless and what we can do to help."
O'Connor intends to visit what he said are the 30 cities with the biggest homelessness problem in the United States. He has mapped out an itinerary that will take him from Beverly to Denver, up to Anchorage, down to San Diego, back across the country through the south to Florida, and up the East Coast back home.
The trip will take six months, from June to December. O'Connor plans to stay in national parks when he can.
At each of his stops, O'Connor said, he will visit local shelters and hand out hygiene kits, coffee, water, fruit and baked goods. He plans to hook up the Jeep with portable speakers so he can conduct church services.
"What these people need the most is to know there's hope and that somebody's thinking of them," he said. "It's great to get a doughnut or a hygiene kit, but they want to know there's someone to talk to."
Along the way, O'Connor said, he hopes to learn best practices for dealing with homelessness. On a recent "practice" trip to Nashville, he said, the city sent out "shower trucks" where homeless people could take showers, clean their clothes and get haircuts. In Seattle, a downloadable app connects to a beacon worn around the neck of a homeless person. The app allows you to read a story about the homeless person and donate to them.
"I hope to bring back information and say, 'This could work for us,'" O'Connor said.
He is hoping to raise about $30,000 through donations and sponsors to help fund his trip. He said he has applied to the state to register his "Mission For Hope" as a nonprofit organization.
O'Connor, a professional photographer and social media consultant, plans to chronicle his trip on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
"It takes a dynamic personality with a very giving heart to do what Leighton is doing," McCarthy said. "The world would be an amazing place if others made this investment in other Americans."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.