This is part two of a series on the diaconate we’re calling Diakonia looking at the amazing variety of voices within the ministry of deacons by diaconal candidate Dani Gabriel
In this installment, Dani interviews The Rev. Stephen Bentley from the Diocese of San Joaquin
Previous Series Installments
Part 1: Living with Jesus
Part 2: Interview with Bishop Curry
The Rev. Deacon Stephen runs a bike shop. He provides free bikes for folks who have a ways to go to work and school and no money for transportation. Even if they do have money the transportation is not that accessible. There’s not that many buses in Stockton and they’re not that frequent. I am spoiled by rapid transit four blocks from my house, as well as a car. Imagining what it would be like to get through my day if I also had to contend with a lack of transportation has is overwhelming. It’s one of the many ways we humiliate the poor in this country, creating barrier after barrier to doing the things we demand as tickets to security and upward mobility. When you have a sick kid, you not only have no health insurance you can’t get to the hospital. You might get a job, but if the bus passes you by one morning you lose it. And just try getting groceries.
Stephen’s project seems like a really interesting way to start to address these problems. It sounds pretty empowering: you own the method by which you would address your transportation problem. Stephen collects old bikes and bike parts, and builds new, tough “frankenbikes.” If you have a bike but it’s in disrepair he’ll fix it. He’s distributed over 350 bikes in the last three years and repaired thousands. His shop is called the HUB, which stands for “Helping Urban Bicyclists.” He’s drawn in volunteers from churches and the community.
Steve has covered a lot of ground and seen a lot of things. He has a level of determination to pursue this work that I have seldom encountered. He clearly sees justice as the end goal, not bicycles. His intern, Tom, says “It’s like Cheers over there. Someone’s always stopping by, having coffee.” The key is, he tells me, everyone is respected. And Steve is someone you can count on.
Dani: My first question is: what drew you to the diaconate?
Steve: A priest noticed the things that I was doing in church that appeared to be forms of leadership, working with youth group, putting together projects, and outreach types of things, and the priest asked if I would be interested in pursuing the diaconate. It took me about a year to really discern, because I did not think that that was a role that I wanted to play in the church. I was happy being a lay person. But he apparently saw much more than I did in what I was doing, and it took about a year before I addressed it with him.
Dani: Wow. So what changed your mind?
Steve: The thought that changed my mind was, “am I doing this for me, or am I doing this for the church?” As a lay person sometimes you feel like what you’re doing is especially for you because you get the accolades for what you’re doing. But when you’re doing things as [an ordained person], then everything that you’re doing is for the church, and it’s not especially for you, and you’re not getting the accolades for it. The church and God are getting the glory for that.
Dani: What do you think is the most important thing that a deacon does?
Steve: Finding out what the needs are on the outside of the [church] doors and bringing [them] inside, bringing them to the smaller church so that they know that the greater church is out there, out in the open needing to be addressed.
Dani: That’s beautiful, the smaller church. So will you talk a little bit about what you specifically do, what your ministry is?
Steve: That’s kind of a tough one. It’s easy to see what it is I do because the doors are open, I’m building bicycles for the community. That is the [obvious thing] we do. We build bicycles for the unemployed, the underemployed, those who need reliable transportation to reach the resources that are necessary for them on a day-to-day basis. So our job when the doors are open to our particular ministry, which is called The Hub, Helping Urban Bicyclists, [is] making sure that people who need to get to their daily, weekly, monthly programs and jobs [can do that].
But that’s just a small portion of what we do. When people come in the door, we always have to discern what it is that their needs are. Do they need this prayer? Do they need to be listened to? Do they need food, clothing? Whatever it is, we are patient enough to have those doors open and whomever walks past the door is how we minister to.
Dani: Can you say more about the history of Hub and how you started it?
Steve: As deacons we are placed in our particular parishes, and we are to look at that community and see what is missing from the community, basically. And what I saw in the community was there that were a lot of people trying to get to their resources and not having an adequate way to get there.
I’m a bicyclist, and my bicycle runs in perfectly good shape. I used to work for two different bicycle companies and retail shops. I knew the performance of a bicycle and how it’s supposed to be [taken care of], so my bike was always in good repair. But I would see a lot of people who did not have their bicycles in good repair and they couldn’t afford to have it done.
The cost of labor in some of these retail places, they’re phenomenal. Many people have no funds whatsoever and might have a bike that’s in disrepair. They may dump that bike, steal another bike that seems to be in good repair, and ride that. So someone’s missing a bike; someone has a new bike.
So my efforts were to try to become the stop-gap in having bicycles stolen by making sure people who need that transportation are [getting it] for free.
Dani: So do you fix people’s bikes when they come in? Or do you salvage bikes and fix them up and give them to people? Or both?
Steve: Both. We receive bicycles from various places; from people’s garages; from people who may have decided they no longer need a bike; those who may have a bicycle that’s in parts, and they just don’t want to have anything to do with a bicycle anymore. Sometimes we take those repair parts, and we build bicycles so that we can offer that bicycle to someone who does not have one.
If we have people that they’re just coming by, and they just need to have something done to the bicycle, then we take care of that as well.
Dani: That’s cool. How many folks do you think you have given bicycles to, or fixed their bicycles?
Steve: Over the three years that we’ve been open, we probably have given out about 350 bikes.
Dani: Wow, that is a lot!
Steve: Yeah, not too bad
Dani: “Yeah, not to bad?”
Steve: Yeah, and the amount of bikes that we have repaired would probably be in the thousands. And that could be light repair, something from inner tube breakage, to a full mechanical replacement of parts.
Dani: Do you feel like you’ve had to do a lot of outreach, or that word has spread through the community?
Steve: In the beginning it takes work. You have to create partners and also create some credibility in your community. Not everybody understands what it is that you’re trying to do. Particularly if you’re saying, “Well, we’re doing this for free.”
So you get a lot of people saying, “You’re not accepting money for this?” Well, you can make a donation, of course. We’ll accept financial donations, but maybe the people that we work with do not have funds. But we may have people that come in that want to support what we’re doing, and they’re the ones that are paying money and offering funds that help support the mission.
It takes a lot of work to create and build relationships. And I would say easily the first year of operation, and even probably before then, was creating those partnerships.
Dani: Wow. Are there any stories you would feel comfortable sharing about folks who have come through and gotten a bike?
Steve: There’s several, and there’s a couple of them that sorta repeat itself. There’s been a couple of instances where we’ve had people who have received the bicycle from us with the idea that they were going to move forward in their lives. And they have moved forward receiving a car, home, all of that, and then bringing the bicycle back to us because now they want to pay it forward.
Dani: That’s awesome. How do you think that deacons can transform the church and transform the world?
Steve: I think that, first of all, a deacon has to realize that it’s not about them. It’s not about who you are, it’s about what your community needs and quite frankly, it’s about how do we interpret what Jesus is saying in scripture and how do we actually put that to practice?
Dani: What is powerful about the diaconate, in particular?
Steve: I think the easiest way to say it is, it’s God’s work in real time.
I have to deal with the real folks, the things that are happening day to day, the people who are crying on the streets, those who are dirty, hungry, they’re asking with their hand out. Those folks that are in the office, they don’t see that on the day to day, and when they hear about it, it’s more of a “Ew, that’s kinda nasty. I don’t want to have to deal with it.”
But being a deacon, if that’s where you are, and that’s where you’re working , and that’s what is real to you, then you have to deal with that. Sometimes you have to forget what those people in authority are saying, and forget how [church] people may feel about something, and do what it is to take care of the people that are in need. Does that make sense?
Dani: So why do we need deacons? Why can’t we have just priest and laity?
Steve: Well, laity needs to be trained, and I think that’s where deacons come into play. Priests pretty much take care of the parish and the people within the four walls of the church, so you need someone who is outside the doors of the church, or leading outside of the doors of the church. Because that’s what we’re doing when we’re [giving the] dismissal, is we’re telling the congregation, “Follow me, go outside and let’s take care of what’s out there.”
Priests don’t do that. They are tending to the flock. We’re looking beyond that, and going out into the world and bringing the flock in. Bringing in more sheep, bringing in more goats, bringing in more cattle of every sort.
Dani: So what is your best deacon moment? What is the best moment you’ve had as a deacon?
Steve: I haven’t had it yet.
Dani: You haven’t had it yet?
Steve: No. I tell my wife this, and I tell everybody else this: Every day is a new normal. So, I won’t know what is the best until I’ve had it. I’ve had good experiences, and I’ve had aha moments, and I’ve had moments where I feel really good about what it is about what I’m doing; but I haven’t had any best moments. They’re all good, and they’re all positive, and they’re all loving.
Dani: I had a question, which was, everyone’s saying “The world is changing, the church is changing, no one’s coming to church, no one even knows what the church is.” So my question is, what is your vision for changing diaconate in a changing church?
Steve: Well we in downtown Stockton, we say that The Hub is a church. Where we are, and what we’re doing three to five days a week, building bicycles and doing what we do, that is church every day. Because we’re touching people, and ministering to them, and sharing the word of God, right there in that place, at that time, at that moment.
We’re not really necessarily concerned about putting an ass in the pew. We’re concerned about taking care of the people that are out there hurting.
Dani: Have you found folks in your church curious about the diaconate and have you started to meet more people who are interested?
Steve: There are a lot of people that will look at you and say, “You know, because of the kind of life you live, I may have to reflect upon myself and think about, should I go to church, or should I concern myself about more Godly things, should I make some changes in my life?” People come back to church, simply because they have been moved by the things that we’re doing.
And they may not stay. But they’re exploring, they’re making that next [step] in their own personal journey. And if they happen to stay in the church for five minutes, and they hear [something] that speaks to them, or challenges them, then that’s what we’re there for.