Christian Ministry Builds Bikes, Children's Hopes
By Morgan Jarema
Religion News Service
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) The doors of The Motion Initiative have just opened along a stretch of industrial buildings and already Thomas Fish can't walk more than a few steps without being stopped.
"Mr. Thomas, are you busy?"
"Um, we lost a bolt."
"Can I get assigned?"
"I need help."
Wearing a blue apron that hangs nearly to his ankles, 10-year-old William Chiodo grasps a pair of bicycle reflectors and taps Fish's elbow.
"Can I buy these today?" William asks.
"Usually kids tear those off," Fish tells him, incredulous. "If you want them to put on your bike, I'm glad to let you have them."
In another area, volunteer Andrew Harmon helps 11-year-old Dalton Standley fit a bicycle frame with new tires.
"Nice work, dude," says Harmon, 22, a senior at nearby Calvin College. "Now spin it backwards."
Dalton, all smiles, gives the rear tire a spin. Then, something attached to Harmon's belt buckle catches his eye.
"What's that?" asks the youngster.
"The key to my bass guitar case," Harmon answers.
Dalton, all energy until now, stops. His eyes narrow.
"What's a bass guitar?"
So begins another evening at the 4-year-old urban youth bicycling ministry run by United in Christ Ministries.
The Motion Initiative runs its full-service bike shop in four industrial garage bays, where neighborhood kids ages 10-18 are offered mechanic's training, a chance to earn a bicycle of their own, mentoring and bike trips and races with volunteers.
The bicycles, parts and tools are hung, stacked and parked inside the estimated 1,800-square-foot space, all of it donated "from everywhere," Fish said.
"That's one way God has overly blessed us," he said, "with materials."
The ministry also operates a mobile bike repair shop that is taken into neighborhoods. About a third of the ministry's $25,000 annual budget comes from proceeds from public sales of bikes that kids have repaired and expert mentors have tested and approved. The rest comes from grants, donations from churches and individuals and fundraisers hosted by area cycling shops and groups.
The bicycle outreach was started in 2007 by biking buddies Duane Petersen and Alan Close. At the time, Petersen, a social worker, lived in another urban Grand Rapids neighborhood.
"My way of relaxing when I came home was to go for a bike ride," he said. "Out of the woodwork, kids would come and ask me to help them with their bikes. Like the Pied Piper, they would follow me on my rides.
"I was thinking, this could turn into a mentoring ministry specific to kids. It's so easy to lose kids' attention, especially in the video game era. But the kids just keep coming back."
A small area of the bicycle shop's second floor is used for Bible study and devotions.
"Sometimes, we don't talk about Jesus. We just ask, 'What's going on in your life today?"' Fish said. "The bike shop is just a connecting point."
What Fish sees in the neighborhood he also calls home is "a lot of single-parent homes, a lot of absentee parents, most families living below the poverty level. A lot of these kids don't see a whole lot out there as far as their future."
Ministry leaders see the bicycle chain as a metaphor for freedom, in that bikes bring out in children a sense of adventure and hope.
"We want them to know that even though their lives are in this context right now, it doesn't mean they can't dream and grow beyond their circumstances," Fish said.
Fish reminds potential mentors -- and he can always use more of them -- that kids are a work in progress.
"One thing I had to learn is not to expect change, but to have faith that down the road, something could change," he said. "The hardest part is sometimes we don't see the results, but we don't lose faith that there will be."
Kiki Rufus, 16, started hanging out at the bike shop a few years ago during summer vacations with her grandparents, who live in the neighborhood.
She learned enough about bicycles to earn her own, and last summer she worked as a paid intern at the shop, where she discovered she has a talent for bookkeeping.
"Before I came here, I never really had a goal about the future," Kiki said. "But I'm really good at paperwork, billing. I actually like answering the phones, too."
Now, Kiki is considering pursuing a degree in education.
"I'm thinking about becoming a teacher," she said. "You get to spend time with kids, and you do have to mess with tons and tons of paper."
(Morgan Jarema writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)