Church Program Gives Away Bikes to the Undocumented, Poor

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - 12:01 AM

(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.

Construction workers Miguel Martins and Jorge Hernandez watch volunteer mechanic Montez Johnson tune up a donated bike.

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.


Comments [5]


Way to go Congregational UCC! You make me proud to be part of the United Church of Christ family!

As for the community that is around the church -- what have you done for your fellow human race lately? What can you do to help others? And, what are you willing to sacrifice to help people in need?

Here's a church community living out Jesus' command to love your neighbors as yourself.

Jun. 02 2011 01:39 PM

What a great project!
The only thing that I think would make it better, would be if they could put front and rear lights on all the bikes that went out the door. Even more than helmets, I think that lights are vitally important for safety, especially for the people mentioned who work late shifts.

May. 24 2011 12:27 PM
Mary MacElveen

This is great reporting by Jennifer Maloney of Newsday. I applaud this pastor for handing out these bikes so that these people can get to work. Brought forth in this piece was Suffolk County's pathetic bus system that does not work on Sundays. The working poor and disabled need a way of getting to work. Shame on Steve Levy and all politicians for not fighting for a better bus system. I challenge all of them to go without a car for one week. See how well they do.

May. 24 2011 12:04 PM

promoting bicycle use in suburban places like patchogue does not only support the large immigrant population, it also shows the way for a much needed reform of the way we live and move in suburbia. here, the goals of immigrant integration and simply good planning for healthier and sustainable communities align and we should all support efforts that promote this sustainable future.

May. 24 2011 09:27 AM

Every time a read that someone with a last name like "Bianco" said that "undocumented" people "should not be here", it makes me think that he obviously forgot his blood didn't originate in the American continent. Undocumented people are just looking for a better life for themselves and their family. In addition, with a bicycle, they are accomplishing this and helping the environment, unlike those of us who drive our cars down the street to the grocery store. I am so glad there are still good people in the world who care about their needy neighbors.

May. 24 2011 08:50 AM

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