BETHANY—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.
She thought this sounded like something the women in her church would enjoy doing, so she told them about it, thinking
someone else would take charge of the group. To Atkin’s surprise, the women asked her when she was going to start this 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.’ But God didn’t let me go, so we started making mats a few weeks later,” Atkins said.
Now, more than five years and 170 mats later, the “bag ladies” of Bethany, First are going strong with their ministry that has a heart for the Oklahoma City homeless.
Every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon, anywhere from five to 15 women meet and 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 3×6-foot long mats. Each mat takes an estimated 65 hours to create and consists of anywhere from 600-700 plastic bags.
“It’s a labor of love,” said volunteer Nelda Schneider. “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.”
But who are these “bag ladies” who devote so much of their time to this unique project?
Charlotte Boyle is fairly new to both the group and Bethany, First. She said of her newfound group, “I feel 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, 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 has been with the ministry since the beginning. Littlefield said, “I enjoy 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 Bethany bag ladies. “I’m a senior-senior citizen,” said Drake 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 home-bound, so women from the church bring the needed materials to them so they are able to make the mats at their convenience.
The mats are distributed to the homeless through another ministry at Bethany, First that takes sandwiches, soup and clothing items to three different shelters in downtown Oklahoma City.
Each Monday, before the ladies begin mat production, they meet for a devotional time with the Lord. “It hits us between the eyes every week,” said Schneider. “I read while they work.”
The women involved in the ministry make sure each mat made has a special design, making each mat unique. The women divide bags into categories by store, texture, size and more. They have even gone as far as using old plastic table cloths. 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,” said Atkins.
Atkins said it isn’t just the bag ladies that are responsible for the productions of the mats, but that each person that 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.
If you ever find yourself in Bethany on a Monday, stop by Bethany, First and you’ll find a room full of plastic bags and women making mats of many colors with love and prayer for those who need them.
“It’s just amazing that the Lord has done this, and I say that on purpose. The Lord has done this, not just us,” Schneider said.