by Kelsey Mitchener
Last February John Shirk wanted to give his little girl a bicycle for her birthday. He didn’t know at the time that Emma’s present would start a large-scale ministry based out of a repurposed Chicago paint factory.
With the help of a friend, Shirk restored and repainted his daughter’s ninth-birthday bike. Enjoying the process and the reaction it inspired, the pair thought bicycle repair might be a good outreach effort: an opportunity “to try to bless other folks by restoring and distributing bicycles,” Shirk says.
So Shirk, a Chicago church planter with Urban Encounter, began feeling out his friends’ interest levels in the idea. His small Friday-evenings house church rallied behind the idea, as did his friends in the art community and some fellow bike mechanic “gearheads.”
Another ally formed in Grace and Peace Community Church. John needed space to store and repair bikes, and they offered to share an 80,000-square-foot factory warehouse they were planning to remodel–a massive facility Shirk says he originally thought “was overkill” and “excessive.”
“At the time the project was pretty small, and the building was huge,” Shirk explains, “but it was free, and in the city you can’t be picky.”
So Shirk lined up the 25 bikes that he’d managed to gather through word of mouth, Craigslist, and Facebook–a solid starting collection, but one that felt swamped by the space.
That’s when a semi-trailer packed with more than 300 bicycles showed up.
“We were thinking small, but God had other ideas,” Shirk says, thinking back.
Pastor Jim Brown of Grace Community Church, a Grace Brethren church in Goshen, Ind., had mentioned the fledgling ministry to his congregation one Sunday, challenging them to support the project. Within three days the church had amassed hundreds of used bikes, a handful of new ones, and cash for bike helmets.
Now Shirk and his team were glad not only for the space to store the bikes, but the space in which to clean, paint, and fix them. “There aren’t many places in the city where we could store 300 bikes, let alone have room to work. But God knew that’s what we would need, so He worked it out even before we needed it,” Shirk says.
Now the project’s aim, according to Shirk, is to distribute the bicycles to those in need or those in ministry in order to “help them advance the work they’re doing.”
The warehouse doubles as a pick-up point for local distribution. Most are being given away through World Relief, which had been on the lookout for inexpensive bikes for immigrants, refugees, and the poor. Others have been distributed to local churches and ministries which serve those in need. Some have also been used to encourage and assist folks ministering in the city. A few bicycles also went to individuals who browsed the bikes, then handpicked one to fit their specific needs.
One young woman, for example, wandered through the warehouse before settling on an upright model–one that would take strain off her wrists following surgery. She’s one of Shirk’s friends, and exactly the kind of person he wants to reach with his bikes. A Buddhist lesbian, she’s been hurt by Christians in the past, according to Shirk. Working alongside her on the bikes, though, Shirk says, he “was able to give her a bike that meets her needs and to talk with her about the love of Jesus. Then she spent the next two days being exposed to the family of God doing the works of Jesus, loving their neighbors.”
The idea is that giving a bicycle in Jesus’ name will advance the Kingdom.
“She commented that this was helping her see that she shouldn’t judge all Christians based upon her bad experiences,” Shirk says. He believes that while proclaiming the truth is important, acts of love and service are what give those proclamations credibility. “The ultimate hope is lives transformed for eternity, but we can also transform lives today through love and the gift of transportation,” he stresses.
After the initial burst of donations, there are many logistics to consider, including how to maintain a steady stream of bikes to be restored and distributed. “With the incredible success of the first week, we’re trying to figure out what comes next,” Shirk says, comparing the ministry’s quick start to “riding a tsunami.”
Next steps include finding funding for helmets, locks, parts, and other supplies. Shirk also says they may need a contact in the city with administrative skills who could help manage the project.
“Right now it’s a matter of finding people to make it happen,” Shirk says, but he feels certain that the ministry will only continue to grow. “Watching God supply the facility and the first 300 bikes gives us confidence that He can supply everything we need going forward.”
Kelsey Mitchener is an editorial assistant at the Brethren Missionary Herald Company. A native of Marion, Ind., she is a 2010 graduate of Taylor University.