During a hot and humid summer in 2012, a student at the Memphis Theological Seminary used his passion for cycling to hit the streets and feed the hungry.
“It was raw, hands on and a little dangerous,” said Tommy Clark, 37, of Lewisburg, Tennessee. “It was ministry.”
Launching a class project on a Wednesday nights, he rode his bike around Memphis with 30 bean and cheese burritos in his backpack, giving them away to anyone who looked homeless or hungry.
“Concrete acts of kindness are bright lights in dark places,” Clark said.
This is how the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry began, and it has taken food to hungry mouths across Memphis every Wednesday since.
“It’s not just about homeless people, it’s about hungry people,” Frank Rouse, 47, who runs the ministry, said.“It’s about love and letting people on the street know you care about them.”
Rouse oversees every detail, purchases food from donations, manages their social media, sends out invitations and preps new riders.
Clark joins every other week. Every member of Urban Bicycle Food Ministry is a volunteer, including Rouse — who is an Aircraft Mechanic for FedEx by day.
“On a regular basis we have 16 to 18 volunteers,” Rouse said, noting the number fluctuates based on the weather. “We always need more volunteers.”
Anyone can get involved with the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry by showing up. Some volunteers prepare the food from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Others cycle around town at 8 p.m. Some do both. They will even lend a bike to volunteers who want to ride but don’t own one.
“The people you meet on the streets, that’s probably the greatest experience. Hearing their stories and realizing they’re just like everybody else,” said Gary Garbo, one of the volunteers. “Most of them just appreciate someone recognizing that.”
Urban Bicycle Food Ministry doesn’t just give out food. As donations come in, the Ministry hands out those items. In the summer, it’s bug spray and ice water. In the winter, it’s coats, blankets and clean clothing.
“On average we feed about 100 people per night on the three different routes we ride,” Rouse said.
Urban Bicycle Food Ministry utilizes the First Methodist Church building for its weekly meetings and for the food preparations even though they are unaffiliated. They also ride in groups to be safe. Brent David, 56, known as the “Burrito Nazi” by fellow volunteers, oversees the food preparation. On one occasion, Central BBQ donated meat, beans and slaw for the burritos.
“We give them as many [burritos] as they want. We’ve had guys say, ‘Listen, I’ve got a job doing a demolition over here, but I don’t get paid until Friday. Can I have five burritos so I can eat one a day for lunch?’,” Rouse said.
The Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club donates to the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry on a monthly basis specifically to help pay for the meat. Tulio Bertorini, president of the club, said some of the club members ride with the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, but as a club, they also organize bike rides to donate to other charities too.
“Every penny goes to our ‘friends on the street’ as we call them,” David said. “It’s a way to give back without reciprocating anything.”
Since the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry began, members have seen first hand accounts of poverty and hunger as they’ve cycled the streets of Memphis.
They’ve gone to bus stops to feed hungry women and children waiting to leave town. They’ve traveled to medical parking lots where relatives visiting sick family were sleeping in their cars. They’ve fed homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk.
“Our mission is about love more than feeding somebody. We feel it could be any one of us at any given point. We could be on the other side of this and that’s what brings me here,” Rouse said.
Launching a class project on a Wednesday nights, Tommy Clark rode his bike around Memphis with 30 bean and cheese burritos in his backpack, giving them away to anyone who looked homeless or hungry. Soon, The Urban Bicycle Food Ministry was born.