Bikes in the Church Basement
Bikes in the Church Basement
Since 1996, Neighborhood Bike Works (NBW) has introduced kids to a world of opportunities through bicycles. In after-school, weekend, and summer classes, youth ages eight to eighteen come from West Philadelphia and beyond to participate in NBW’s Earn-a-Bike program, where they learn about bike safety and repair. After fixing up used bikes donated by the community, participants graduate with a bike of their own, a helmet, and a lock.
Neighborhood Bike Works is housed in the basement of the parish hall of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Hamilton Village (Philadelphia, PA).
The kids involved get a sense of true accomplishment in transforming broken-down bikes into a fun and functional means for getting around town—their own personal treasure they get to take home and keep.
Bike Works’ “trash to treasure” philosophy could also describe their transformation of St. Mary’s parish hall basement into a colorful, lively workspace. The basement presents a scene of ordered clutter, with every surface a variation on the theme of bicycles. Tires, tubes, handlebars, and other bones of bicycle skeletons hang from the ceiling and walls. Bright murals painted in collaboration with the city’s Mural Arts Program feature Lance Armstrong and Major Taylor, an African-American cyclist who in the 1890s defied Jim Crow laws to compete, becoming a world-famous racing champion. Even the banisters are fashioned from bike gears and handlebars. NBW has utilized the church’s undercroft as well, as storage for used bikes and parts sold under the auspices of the archly named Divine Bike Church, to earn money for NBW’s youth development programs.
St. Mary’s has welcomed a bunch of noisy, sometimes unruly teenagers into their building.
NBW’s active outreach to the larger community resonates with St. Mary’s own mission. The association has become “symbiotic.” NBW is one of the faces St. Mary’s presents to the world as well as to its own congregation.
Through a singular focus on bicycles, NBW has spawned programs that change young people’s lives and by extension transform communities too. Participants in the Earn-a-Bike sessions take home much more than the cool bikes they fixed up themselves. They gain confidence, work habits, and practical skills that have a lasting impact. Building and repairing bicycles involves both collaboration and the ability to work independently.
NBW’s success can be tied to its attitude toward the youth it serves. Rather than seeing the kids, many of them poor and marginalized, who come to NBW from all over the city as problems, NBW sees them as full of potential community resources.
Earn-a-Bike, the racing team, recreational bike rides, and an array of programs formed with partners ranging from Spiral Q Puppet Theatre to the School District of Philadelphia provide means for kids to realize their own potential as community resources, to see themselves as leaders and problem solvers, and to have fun in the process. NBW also provides a refuge from neighborhood distractions for at-risk kids.
St. Mary’s Church, on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, has proved an ideal location for that refuge.
NBW keeps growing, with a satellite workshop in West Philadelphia’s Haddington section and another on Temple University’s campus in North Philadelphia.
Note: This article was written in 2015. Since that time, Neighborhood Bike Works continued to grow until they needed more room than St. Mary’s basement. Bike Works moved just a few blocks away from St. Mary’s, but the memories and the murals remain.
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This story is part of Lake Institute’s story collection, the Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, which highlights congregations and other religious organizations who have sought to use their assets and resources in creative—and sometimes surprising—ways as an expression of faithful giving.
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