This Memphis Ministry Is on a Mission to Help the Homeless—One Burrito and Hug at a Time
Learn how Urban Bicycle Food Ministry is breaking the "cycle" of homelessness.
Where most people see a burden and inconvenience when it comes to America’s most vulnerable, Reverend Tommy Clark saw an opportunity—an opportunity to help those who couldn’t presently help themselves.
The idea to start a weekly outreach program to support and feed those living on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee was started in July 2012 when Clark was a student at Memphis Theological Seminary. Encouraged in his studies to further the Gospel, Clark sought out to spread love in an unusual way on one random Wednesday night, using just his bicycle and a dozen burritos stuffed into his messenger bag. That specific night of service and goodwill eventually led to the creation of the nonprofit organization known as Urban Bicycle Food Ministry (UBFM).
8,500 working hours, 80,000 burritos and supplies, 17,000 miles pedaled through one city, and 40,000 person-to-person interactions. No, this isn’t a glimpse at the average life of a food delivery worker in the concrete jungle. It is, however, a view into what volunteers have been doing at UBFM for the past five years. Since its inception in 2012, the organization’s form of "radical hospitality" has been changing the lives of Memphians, and they’ve done it only using their bicycles and a giving spirit. As Lyle Udell, Executive Director of UBFM, puts it, being at the front line in the fight against homelessness may have never happened if Reverend Clark hadn’t taken the initiative to fulfill what was on his heart that Wednesday night.
"It’s very special because the message to the people we serve is that we’re going to come out and find you," Udell told Southern Living. "Soup kitchens are great, but this sends the message that there are people who actively love you and want to show you that you still matter and show the love of God to you. We’re going to come find you—doesn’t matter whether there’s rain, sleet, snow, or cold. It’s important for us to keep that consistent message."
The self-described "church without walls" and Christian-based ministry has continued Reverend Clark’s longstanding tradition of delivering food, supplies, and hugs every Wednesday and Saturday night to the homeless, in spite of his absence.
When Reverend Clark moved to Columbia, Tennessee, to serve as pastor at McCains's Presbyterian Church, Udell was asked to take over and handle the day-to-day operations. However, despite starting his own UBFM operation in Nashville, Reverend Clark still comes back a few times every month to ride around Memphis with Udell and other volunteers.
"These are people who get intentionally ignored all over the world," said Udell. "We try to build relationships and show them that they’re worth it. That’s the core vision of what we strive to do for people who have essentially been thrown away by society. Although it’s not solving the world’s problem of homelessness, the burrito-on-a-bike idea is providing a vehicle to reach someone with God’s love and to be the hands that feed these people."
Presently, the organization hand-delivers anywhere from 200 to 300 burritos, hot dogs, and other food items. On any given Wednesday, Udell said they could deliver upwards of 300 items, whereas on Saturdays they pass out 150 burritos to the homeless. All of the food is prepared in the kitchen at First United Methodist Church in downtown Memphis, and they prep each bike and rider in a vacant building adjacent to the church. Of course, even with the wrapped burritos and bikes, UBFM wouldn’t be the community hero it is today without its volunteers.
Udell, who started out as a rider himself in February 2014, along with his then-14-year-old daughter, Allison, said that riders come from all over to participate, both young and old. The reason a fleet of bicycles, which have been donated by businesses in the area, is used as the primary mode of transportation is simple: Bikes allow for a more intimate and less threatening experience with those who are already on edge and possible suffering from mental illness and anxiety.
"With bikes, we can go so many places that a car can’t get to, including alleys," said Udell. "It’s more efficient and respectful to our friends on the streets."
This ongoing charitable spirit has not only impacted volunteers and the people UBFM feeds every week, but the mission work has also affected Udell and changed his insular view on homelessness in this country.
"I never got up from the church pew to meet these people and see beyond the label put on them," Udell said. "The vast majority are out there through no fault of their own. There are also people out there because of mistakes they’ve made in life, but who am I to judge them on whether or not they get a second chance? It’s all about removing that label and looking past it, and taking the time to get to know someone and see the value in their life."
For Udell, seeing the value in their life can be something as simple as, say, a burrito, a hug, or just remembering a person's name. Acknowledging those they help while looking them directly in the eye is something that Udell and the volunteer riders try to do with every interaction. But they also extend their hands and hugs beyond food.
"What’s particularly heartbreaking is finding women on the street or families," said Udell. "We do our best to refer them to women-friendly missions or organizations for help. One of the things we readily bring with us on the ride, in addition to the food and clothing items, are hygiene kits."
UBFM has assisted those who are homeless with finding gainful employment and housing opportunities (if they ask), thanks to a budding relationship with Community Alliance for the Homeless, a Memphis-based agency that works tirelessly to end homelessness and provide funding and resources to the underserved population.
"It takes a village when it comes to identifying, engaging, assessing, and serving those experiencing homelessness within our city," Dana Brooks, Planning Director for Continuum of Care, stated in an email. "UBFM has been a key partner in our efforts by using their relationships with those sleeping outside to educate and connect people to our homeless system."
As far as UBFM’s vision for the future in combating homelessness, Udell hopes, through their work with two other homeless-based ministries, Room In The Inn and Iona Community of Faith, led by Lisa and Barry Anderson, respectively, that they can eventually renovate the empty building next to them into a day center. For those who are seeking help, Udell envisions the day center being a place of fellowship and love, and, most importantly, a protective shelter from the harsh elements outside. In addition, he’d like it to be a place where they can bathe, wash their clothes, lock up their belongings, and receive mail.
UBFM is a long way from implementing their vision into concrete plans for the day center. But with your help, they can be one step closer to their goal and much closer to a solution for the homeless problem plaguing this country. All it takes is one donation or a couple of hours of your time.
The ministry currently accepts monetary and clothing donations, especially during the brutal winter months when there’s a greater need for coats, gloves, blankets, scarves, and socks. They also welcome anyone living in and around Memphis to join them for a first-hand experience of what outreach and giving back to those less fortunate is like—on a bike.
"It’s a Christian-based, multi-impactful ministry, but anyone who wants to serve with us can do so," said Udell.
Udell also added that there’s no reason UBFM’s charitable model can’t be replicated in other cities. Currently, they have riders mimicking the program in Chicago, Nashville, and Des Moines, Iowa.
"There could be a Tommy Clark in Birmingham, Jackson [Mississippi], or Atlanta," he said.
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