By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
UNION CITY — On a recent Tuesday Peggy Robinson was interviewed by someone from NBC Nightly News in New York City.
Robinson, a long-time member of Second Baptist Church here, is becoming used to the media attention which has extended to media in other countries.
It probably started around Sept. 9 when a video of her and her fellow “Bag Ladies” who make mats for the homeless out of plastic bags was posted online. Produced by WPSD-TV in Paducah, Ky., the video and story appeared on WPSDlocal6.com and the station’s Facebook page. The video went viral with currently 14 million views.
Or it may have started Aug. 25 when a Jackson TV station reported on the Bag Ladies.
Since then about 800 e-mails — as many as 150 a day — from all 50 states and multiple countries including Australia, England, India, France, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Mexico, and Kenya, Africa started flooding the church. The church’s e-mail address was mentioned at the end of at least one TV station’s online story about the Bag Ladies.
TV and radio stations also kept calling the church. Robinson started sharing the opportunity for interviews with fellow Bag Ladies Patty Arnold and Janice Akin. Akin was interviewed by ABC News in New York City. The TV stations will often use the video made by an affiliate located close to Union City to complete a story.
Randy Pool, director of Mississippi River Ministry for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, who is involved in the ministry, also joined the group of spokespersons for the Bag Ladies. He was interviewed for a story which appeared with photos in a newspaper in France and by a TV station in Missouri.
To appropriately respond to those asking for help by e-mail, Akin and others made an instructional video and posted it on the church’s website (see below). That was completed a few weeks ago. Now a link to that page is included in many e-mails, said Beth Edmaiston, church secretary.
Edmaiston and the other two church secretaries, who admitted that at times they have been overwhelmed by all of the e-mails and phone calls, also have printed out all e-mails so the Bag Ladies can help them refer people to others who can help them. The church secretaries were glad to report that the number of e-mails have tapered off some.
All of the interest in the ministry is a surprise to everyone involved. The Bag Ladies have made the mats for about two years.
Robinson, who leads the Bag Ladies, said she learned about the ministry from Pool during an associational Woman’s Missionary Union conference. The project was developed by national WMU about eight years ago. At Second Baptist about 25 Bag Ladies from about four churches meet each Thursday morning to work together as they enjoy each other’s company.
The fact that the mats protect homeless people from the ground as well as provide some cushion is an attraction as well as the recycling of the bags, leaders agreed. Pool has distributed them in Memphis through several ministries there. Also, the Bag Ladies have distributed them locally and sent some to Louisiana after the recent floods. The mats from Second include a tract on the plan of salvation.
“Everybody seems to want to be in on what God seems to be lifting up,” said Robinson. For instance, a church in Kentucky bought and sent 5,000 new bags to them.
“Nobody can really take credit for it which is good,” added Robinson, referring to all the interest.
She has learned that many reporters are put off by the church involvement and any reference to Jesus so she has begun working in those references with wisdom.
Edmaiston noted that one e-mail that touched her the most was the one from a person in Rome, Italy, who wrote in English of stepping over homeless people. She wrote that now she felt she could help them.
Robinson said that after all of the media attention wanes, the Bag Ladies will continue to meet though now they often discuss the e-mails they have received that week and how to connect folks requesting help to those offering help.
For instance, they often ask people if they are affiliated with a church so they might help meet some spiritual needs of the person e-mailing them, Robinson added.
One unusual fact is that many who live here are not aware of the global attention directed at the Union City church, said Robinson. That’s okay too, she added.
“If we can get somebody else doing this then that is doing a lot,” said Robinson.