Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Patchogue, NY -- Jennifer Maloney, Transportation Nation) It was early on a Saturday morning, and the gymnasium at the Congregational Church of Patchogue was filled with bicycles. The church was giving them away—no questions asked—to workers who couldn’t afford a car, or who couldn’t get a driver’s license because of their immigration status. As a team of bike mechanics made last-minute adjustments to the donated fleet, Pastor Dwight Wolter welcomed a line of people stretching out the door.
Joselyn Bishop, 38, stepped into the gym and smiled in amazement.
“You’re like a kid in a candy store, girl!” Wolter teased.
“Yes, I am,” she said, laughing.
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Long Island has the biggest commuter railroad in the country, but unless you live and work near a station, it’s tough to get around without a car—especially in Suffolk County, where bus service is limited, and on Sundays, service doesn't run at all.
Joselyn Bishop had come with her boyfriend, José Vazquez. They work at Taco Bell, three or four nights a week, and can’t afford a car. It’s a 30-minute walk from their Patchogue apartment. Joselyn gets off at 11 or midnight.
“I don’t walk by myself because I feel that it’s pretty much dangerous for a female to walk by herself at night,” said Joselyn, who is 38. “When he gets off, we walk home together.” Her boyfriend finishes at 2 a.m.
Giving bikes away was Pastor Wolter’s idea. “It was conceived when I was thinking, well, ‘How can I be useful?’” he said. “So I thought, ‘Okay, let’s get bicycles into the hands of people who need them to get to work.’”
Like many churches, this one has an aging, white congregation in a community growing more and more diverse. In 2008, it hosted the funeral of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant who was fatally stabbed during an attack by group of high school students.
Since then, the church has expanded its mission – from helping the poor to advocating for Latino immigrants. Pastor Wolter named his bike program, “Workers Without Wheels.”
Miguel Martins tried out the bell on a 5-speed mountain bike. He came here from Mexico last summer, and works in construction.
“Here, we can’t buy a car, we don’t have papers, we don’t have a license,” he said in Spanish. “It’s very problematic.” A bike, he said, would make life easier.
Pastor Wolter braced for pushback from the community when he planned his first bike giveaway this spring. He’s a controversial figure in Patchogue. Village officials have not been happy with his advocacy work on hate crimes.
John Bianco, a retired carpenter, was heading into the dollar store across the street from the church. He said he had conflicted feelings about the bike program.
Speaking of illegal immigrants, he said: “They shouldn’t be here. Period… If they want to give them free bicycles, that’s up to them. If it’s up to me, I wouldn’t give them to ’em.”
Joselyn Bishop left the church, pushing a robin’s-egg-blue commuter bike, tears in her eyes. “It’s happy tears, it’s tears of joy,” she said. “I’m happy for everyone, including myself.” She and her boyfriend climbed onto their new bikes, and pedaled home.