TULSA, Okla. — Street people lying on the grass and perched inside concrete nooks watch as a long, yellow moving truck backs under a downtown bridge.
Interstate 244 rumbles with traffic overhead as men, women and children from the Park Plaza Church of Christ slide open the truck’s back door and pull down a metal ramp.
In less than 30 minutes, the visitors from a more affluent part of town unload and organize a hefty bundle of equipment and supplies: Frozen hamburger patties and fresh buns. Chairs and round tables for dining. Hygiene products such as lip balm, razors and deodorant. Donated seasonal clothing items. Even a popcorn maker.
Night Light Tulsa, a ministry that grew out of a Park Plaza Church of Christ small group, feeds people under a bridge in Tulsa, Okla. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
The scene repeats itself each Thursday night as Christians from 15 minutes — and a world — away fire up an industrial-sized grill, arrange foot-washing and prayer stations and endeavor to connect with neighbors.
“We are down here in hopes of showing God’s love in action,” Anisa Jackson, one of the ministry founders, says in an orientation meeting with regular and first-time volunteers.
Jonathan DuPont says the ministry’s organizers “never want nothing in return except your good company.” (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.) Night Light Tulsa
, as the ministry is called, is about loving individuals, giving hope and touching souls, Jackson explains before the volunteers gather in a circle and pray.
She encourages volunteers to consider spending time washing guests’ feet — a way to follow Jesus’ example and help protect against disease.
As the sun sets in the shadow of Tulsa’s skyline, a line of about 200 people — many of whom sleep outside or at nearby shelters — forms on this dead-end stretch of pavement behind the county jail.
“They never want nothing in return except for your good company,” says Jonathan DuPont, 27, devouring a burger and chips as he describes how financial problems left him homeless for about six months.
“We are down here in hopes of showing God’s love in action.”Anisa Jackson, Night Light Tulsa volunteer
‘THE DOORS JUST OPENED’
Night Light Tulsa grew out of a small group of Park Plaza members who get together regularly for Bible study and fellowship.
A similar effort in Portland, Ore. — known as Night Strike (see video below)
— inspired members to take action in their own community.
Benjamin Grounds, son of Jason and Sarah Grounds, accelerated the Tulsa endeavor when he asked to celebrate his eighth birthday June 7 by feeding the homeless.
“I just felt bad for them,” Benjamin says above the buzz of a generator under the bridge.
“I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do a birthday party by feeding the homeless?’” recalls Sarah Grounds, taking a break from washing feet. “A very wise woman said to me, ‘Don’t burn out his fire. Let it burn, and encourage it.’ So we did.”
The next week, the Groundses’ small group made sack lunches and distributed them downtown.
Benjamin Grounds, 8, with his mother, Sarah, volunteering with Night Light Tulsa. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
After that, a core group formed to develop Night Light Tulsa.
“Of course, we figured we would be serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and maybe washing a couple of feet down here,” Sarah Grounds says. “The doors just opened. It’s just been an outpouring of love and support ever since.”
Chris Worsham, a Park Plaza member and veteran law enforcement officer, identified the bridge near Brady and Maybelle streets as a prime location.
It’s at the end of a dead-end street, so the weekly feast does not disrupt traffic.
Tulsa animal control officials found out about the ministry and began dispatching an officer to the bridge — not to round up the guests’ dogs and cats but to distribute bags of pet food.
“If there were more things like this, it’d be a better world,” animal control officer Pete Theriot says of Night Light Tulsa.
‘I KNEW YOU WOULD COME’
Kevin Nieman, in the orange T-shirt, grills burgers under the bridge. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
The sweet smell of smoke from the grill permeates the night air as a sweat-drenched Kevin Nieman flips burgers — 300 in all on this night.
It’s a warm evening, but that was not the case a few months earlier when a major ice storm caused organizers to contemplate staying home.
“We really debated going or not,” says Nieman, the Park Plaza church’s counseling minister. “Several of us went with four-wheel-drive trucks with pizza and warming kits, hoping not to see anybody under the bridge.
“Two homeless guys were waiting for us in single-digit weather,” he recalls. “One of the guys came up and shook our hand and said, ‘I knew you would come.’ That experience confirmed for us that we need to be here every Thursday night.”
“The Lord has blessed me,” says Vietnam veteran Steve Lovelace, who was baptized as a result of meeting the Night Light Tulsa volunteers. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Down on his luck, Vietnam veteran Steve Lovelace says he made a makeshift home out of tree limbs and sod last year.
When Night Light Tulsa began feeding people under the bridge, the former POW says he showed up to eat and felt genuinely welcomed.
“Usually, it’s hurry up and feed them, and it’s a degrading thing,” Lovelace, 61, says of how homeless people are treated. “It’s almost like bringing people — or cattle — to market.”
But with this ministry, it’s different, he says.
So different, in fact, that after he straightened out his veteran’s payments and got into an apartment, he started attending the Park Plaza church, studied the Bible and was baptized.
Now, he volunteers with the church’s furniture ministry and recently joined a Park Plaza mission trip to help the inner-city Hollygrove Church of Christ
in New Orleans.
On this night, he’s manning the Night Light Tulsa clothing station — helping pick out and distribute garments to street people struggling in a way he understands.
“It’s so many miracles,” he says of how his life has changed. “The Lord has blessed me.”
Mike Nicholas and Sarah Grounds wash the feet of Dak Young and Crystal Haney under an interstate bridge in Tulsa, Okla. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)