You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
While our politicians are locked in gridlock debating how to treat immigrants and refugees, my hometown of Houston is busy welcoming strangers, immigrants, and refugees.
Nearly one in four Houston area residents were born outside the United States. Over 100,000 of these immigrating residents are entrepreneurs who seek a better life for themselves and their families. In 2017 about 2,000 of them arrived as refugees after escaping horrendous situations back home. They fled gangs and civil wars. They lived in refugee camps. They lost everything. Refugees come to Houston to start a new life. They stay to enrich our community.
Houston, the Most Diverse City in the Nation
In addition to being the most diverse city in the United States, Houston is also renowned for our heat and our traffic. When someone arrives in Houston from such desperate situations, adjusting to life in a metropolitan area of six million people, limited public transportation, and three-digit summer temperatures can be daunting.
Bill Mintz, a retired public relations executive, thought there must be some low-cost way to help these new neighbors navigate the city. He wondered if people would donate bicycles to refugees. Then volunteers could repair the donated bicycles before donating them to new refugees in need of chap transportation. The result – Freewheels Houston, a ministry of Christ the King Lutheran Church in the Rice Village area with volunteers across the city, was established in 2015. Their the goal is to provide freedom for refugees by getting them free bikes.
Building on a Foundation of Outreach
Mintz is a member of Christ the King Lutheran Church. His congregation has a long history of serving the greater Houston area and partnering with other faith communities to benefit the common good. So it was easy to get the congregation to officially sponsor this new non-profit venture. Members caught the vision and rounded up the first bicycles for the project.
The next challenge was storing and refurbishing the donated bicycles. That problem was easily resolved by renting space in a storehouse facility not far from the church. Then there was the challenge of refurbishing the bicycles. Christ the King is located adjacent to Rice University. The congregation has funded and provided office space for a campus pastor for years. The town-gown relationship was already well established. Students associated with Rice Bikes, an on-campus, student-run business, and other volunteers eagerly agreed to do the work of restoring the donated bicycles to like-new condition. They work on the bicycles in the rented warehouse space.
The final piece of the plan was to get the bicycles to the new-to-Houston refugees who needed them. Again, because the congregation is already deeply engaged in the life of the city, it was relatively easy to connect with those who were working directly with the new refugees and immigrants arriving on a regular basis. Refugee Services of Texas, Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, YMCA International Service, Alliance for Multicultural Community Services and Catholic Charities have all become partners in the project. Other organizations such as BikeHouston and Bike Barn also caught the vision and provide assistance.
Refugees on the Move
Since starting Freewheels in 2015 the organization has provided around 300 used bicycles to refugees who use them to get to work or school. New refugees start looking for work almost immediately. Doing that in a city with limited public transportation and sweltering summer heat is a challenge. Imagine trying to make a good first impression on a prospective employer after walking several miles in 95-degree heat.
Freewheels Houston provides a way to start again. Teenager Isaac came to Houston with his family from a refugee camp in Tanzania. They fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The bike he got from Freewheels Houston reduced his commute time from an hour to a few minutes. The family is resettled three miles from his new high school.
Abdul was an electrical engineer in Afghanistan. He, along with his wife and daughter, arrived in Houston in 2016 after escaping the death and destruction that was part of every day life in Afghanistan. Once the family was safe in Houston, he could enroll in classes to become a master electrician. He used the new bicycle provided him by Freewheels Houston to commute to classes. His electrical skills are much needed as Houston rebuilds following Hurricane Harvey last August.
Freewheels Houston is looking for more volunteer mechanics to help refurbish bikes on Saturdays. If you have that skill or are willing to learn, please contact Freewheels Houston at: https://freewheelshouston.org