BETHANY, Okla. (BP) — It started with a magazine article that Eileen Atkins read about church members making mats out of plastic bags and giving them to the homeless.
It sounded like something the women in her church would enjoy doing, so Atkins told them about it, thinking someone else would take charge. To her surprise, the women asked Atkins when she was going to start the ministry.
“I didn’t want to do it because my husband had just had cancer surgery, and I thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this now,'” Atkins recounted. “But God didn’t let me go, so we started making mats a few weeks later.”
Now, more than five years and 170 mats later, the “bag ladies” of First Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla., are going strong with their ministry to the homeless in Oklahoma City.
Every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon, anywhere from five to 15 women get to work sorting, cutting, looping and making what look like yarn balls, all out of recycled plastic bags.
These balls of plastic bags are then crocheted into washable, moisture-resistant 3-by-6-foot mats. Each mat takes an estimated 65 hours to create and consists of 600-700 plastic bags.
“It’s a labor of love,” volunteer Nelda Schneider said. “I am a ‘bag lady’ and proud of it because I can’t do much for the Lord now because physically I can’t do things like I used to do, but I can do this.”
Charlotte Boyle, who is fairly new to both the group and First Baptist, said she’s “very blessed that there is a way that I can help.”
“I can’t see well, and I have a lot of arthritis and limited mobility,” Boyle said, “but I can help here by pressing bags for the other ladies.”
What Boyle means by “pressing bags” is taking each plastic bag and folding it neatly in a way that allows the next person to cut the bag to make 2.5-inch loops that are used to roll into a ball.
Pattsy Littlefield, who has been with the ministry since the beginning, said she enjoys the fellowship “and that I can do something for somebody else. Every week when we get together to make mats is just a blessing to me.”
At 94, Duretta Drake is a master crocheter for the bag ladies, saying, “I’m a senior-senior citizen,” with a laugh.
Like many of the volunteers, Drake does most of her crocheting at home. Some who offer their time to make the plastic bag mats are homebound, so women from the church take the needed materials to them to make the mats at their convenience.
The mats are distributed to the homeless through another ministry at First Baptist that takes sandwiches, soup and clothing items to three different shelters in downtown Oklahoma City.
Each Monday as the ladies begin mat production, have a devotional time with the Lord. “It hits us between the eyes every week,” Schneider said.
The women involved in the ministry make sure each mat made has a special design so that each one is unique. The women divide bags into such categories as store, texture and size. They have even used old plastic table cloths, showing there is no limit to their resourceful ways.
After a mat is completed, all of the women pray over the mat and the future owner of the mat. “One of our prayers is that people that get these mats will know that we love them, somebody loves them. Because sometimes I think they feel unloved. But we love them,” Atkins said.
Atkins said it isn’t just the bag ladies that are responsible for the production of the mats, but that each person who has touched the bags from the beginning of the process when they are donated, to the end of the process when the mat is handed out, “everybody has had a hand in it. It is a team effort.”
The “bag ladies” of Bethany always accept donations of plastic bags. They also love new volunteers, especially ones who can crochet, as some volunteers can’t crochet anymore due to health issues.
“It’s just amazing that the Lord has done this, and I say that on purpose,” Schneider said. “The Lord has done this, not just us.”