Recycling plastic shopping bags most often means finding a bin at a local grocery store to drop them.
For members of St. Paul Chong Hasang Catholic Church in Harker Heights, it means saving them and using them to create sleeping mats for the homeless.
Piles and piles of the bags found their way to St. Paul’s parish center on a recent Tuesday evening. In a process reminiscent of an assembly line, the bags were first straightened, then cut into strips. Those strips were tied into long lengths and rolled into balls.
From there, skilled hands used large crochet hooks –– size P or Q –– and diligently count 55 stitches in each of 24 rows.
The concept for the mats came from parishioners Lisa Hodges some years ago. “I got the idea from my mother, who does it with her church in Louisiana.”
She brought the idea to Deacon Alfred Ponce and his wife, St. Paul’s parish secretary, Deb Ponce.
For his part, Deacon Al recalled when he was studying for the diaconate. He made a retreat that involved staying with the homeless. He was touched by the way they gathered between the massive concrete pylons that support I-35 in downtown Austin.
On Sunday, various churches would bring food and snacks and the homeless would stand in line to accept this generosity. Inspired, Deacon Al came back to St. Paul Chong Hasang and shared his experience with the people.
The Ponces took Hodges’ idea and built upon it. Twice each year now, volunteers come together to make the mats, with others — like the parish’s homebound members — making them throughout the year.
Angela Lemza came to the mat-making session for the first time Jan. 23. “I heard about it at evening Mass,” she said. She took crochet hook in hand and picked up the system quickly.
Deb helps newcomers learn how to make the mats. “It’s very basic,” she said. Some of the more experienced participants like to create patterns with the colored plastic, or add handles to the mats, making them easier to carry.
“It’s not for me, it’s for them,” Hodges said, explaining how the mats have evolved a bit since the project started, based on comments from the homeless people who receive them.
The mats can be washed with water, as well, allowing them to stay clean, Hodges said. Some homeless even wrap themselves in the mats against the cold.
When the mats are delivered to the Church Under the Bridge in Austin — along with loads of other donations — “The homeless know we have them,” Hodges said.
The Church Under the Bridge isn’t really a church, but a gathering place for the homeless beneath Interstate 35. Each Sunday, various organizations bring food and other items for the homeless.
St. Paul Chong Hasang has been going twice each year for the past few years.
“We had 14 or 15 people go the first time we went down,” Deacon Al said.
When the volunteers traveled to Austin on Aug. 25, the caravan of vehicles contained nearly 100 people and loads of donations.
The volunteers will journey to the Church Under the Bridge with the current batch of mats on Feb. 25.
Another group of parishioners will pray in the parish adoration chapel the entire time the travelers are on the road. They pray for the volunteers and for the homeless, some of whom deal with drug addiction, alcoholism or mental illness.
The volunteers from St. Paul’s use the time at the Church Under the Bridge not only to serve, but also to evangelize. “It’s about being there for them,” Ponce said.
The volunteers give out rosaries and “just about every pamphlet you can imagine,” Ponce said. To watch the homeless file past bins filled with clothes, shoes — even cowboy boots — packages of snacks, and boxes of toothpaste, touches the heart, he said.
After the February trip, the group will be encouraged to reflect on their experience. They will stop for lunch at a restaurant in Round Rock, sit at tables and share what they have seen and learned.
Then, they’ll start making more mats for next time.
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