Filling The Void: eight years of serving Tulsa homeless
BY BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2012
11/17/12 at 5:54 AM
Elizabeth Jones suddenly found herself the center of attention at noon Friday, when she received the 50,000th meal given to the homeless by the Filling The Void ministry.
Kelly Swan, founder of the ministry, and other volunteers gathered around her in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church Caring Center downtown, prayed with her and gave her gifts.
"I sure wasn't expecting this," Jones said as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
"I love you all."
Jones said she moved from Arkansas to Tulsa about seven years ago, sometimes carries a sign to advertise Nelson's Buffeteria, and volunteers at the Day Center for the Homeless.
Ask her about children and grandchildren, and she is quick to pull out her photos.
She was one of more than 100 downtown Tulsa street people who received bag lunches Friday.
Each bag contained an Arby's roast beef sandwich, Chick-fil-A chicken strips, a McDonald's cherry pie, bottled water, a fruit bar, fruit rollup, cheese stick, cookie, potato chips and a scriptural devotional.
Before the bags were handed out, volunteer Brad Brooks played a guitar and sang, and Swan gave a brief evangelical message.
Swan launched Filling The Void eight years ago after an encounter with Roy, an unkempt, unbathed man who approached him at Sixth Street and Main Mall.
Swan tried to avoid the encounter but could not. He shook himself loose and hurried away.
"But with each step I took, I felt more and more like a hypocrite," he said, his mind filled with Bible verses about helping the poor.
He turned around, caught up with Roy, took him to lunch and prayed with him. He never saw him again.
Swan told his friend Erin Bjornberg about the encounter, and later that week they bought five sack lunches and set out on their lunch hour to find someone to give them to.
Other co-workers heard about it and began to help.
They served 400 meals in 2004, 1,500 in 2005 and 4,500 in 2006. They expect to serve 9,000 this year.
Over the years, more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bag and deliver the meals.
Sandwiches are purchased fresh at a discount from Arby's and other vendors.
About 100 to 150 meals are handed out each Friday at the Caring Center.
In 2008, the ministry spread to Denver, and this year Filling The Void Dallas was launched. Other cities are being considered.
The ministry maintains a small office downtown to collect, store and assemble the meals.
Individual donors provide most of the money to buy the meals, with some support from churches and corporations.
Swan, who works in media relations for WPX Energy downtown, said people should not confuse panhandlers with the truly needy, who he said were grateful, gracious and eager to give back.
The ministry began putting out an offering bucket four years ago, and since then has collected $2,400. All of it has gone to the Denver ministry
"That just blows me away," Swan said.
"We want to see people go from meals to miracles," he said.
"That's why we offer to pray with them. It's the divine intervention that's going to make the big difference in their lives."
He said the ministry has seen people get off the street and into regular housing and employment.
Swan said he encourages other people to get involved in ministries to help the poor.
"We've been at this for almost a decade now, but there's so much more to do. These are tough times for a lot of people."
Volunteer Chris Hyslop said a lot of people don't know how to help the poor, or are afraid to do so.
"This is an easy way to serve the homeless," he said.
Original Print Headline: Milestone meal
Bill Sherman 918-581-8398
Surrounded by volunteers during a prayer, Elizabeth Jones cries Friday as she holds the 50,000th meal given out by Filling The Void since the program started eight years ago. She's also holding other gifts she received during a meal handout at the First Baptist Caring Center at Third Street and Detroit Avenue. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Kelly Swan preaches before meals as part of the Filling The Void program, which is in its ninth year. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World