Couple finds riches untold by serving the less fortunate

Couple finds riches untold by serving the less fortunate

They met at a campus bar called the Wigwam through a most unusual pickup line: How would you like to change the world in Jesus' name?

Sylvia Slivon was intrigued. The year was 1969. Anti-war protests were the norm, and political change was in the air.

The man who popped the question was graduate student John Ronsvalle, a thoughtful campus rabble-rouser who led the fight for student representation on the University of Illinois senate and board of trustees. He was also a Christian dedicated to fighting poverty locally and around the globe.

Slivon, for her part, was a brilliant English education major, a Christian and civil rights activist who helped organize the first campus blood drive.

They soon joined forces, personally and professionally. After completing their degrees, they married and founded the nonprofit service organization Empty Tomb to marshal church resources for the poor worldwide. And 35 years later, it remains their life's work.

Early on, friends advised them to use politics, not charity, to fight poverty – "when we started, charity was a dirty word" – but at Sylvia's insistence they kept their focus on churches.

They chose the name Empty Tomb to recall Jesus' resurrection and the responsibilities of those who believe in it.

The 14 founding churches came from all corners of Christianity – liberal to conservative, Catholic to mainline Protestant to small evangelical congregations. Some members didn't believe there were poor people in Champaign-Urbana. Many hadn't ventured north of University Avenue. Others simply didn't know where to start. Empty Tomb became the catalyst, supplying clothes, furniture and help to those in need.

"They were very important at a critical moment when Christians in this country were very confused and divided on how you address social ills," said founding board member Milo Kaufmann, a retired UI professor. Empty Tomb provided "a way to get involved."

The Ronsvalles work as a team. Sylvia, 57, describes John, 68, as the "thinker" and herself as the "speaker," though John demurs that she's the only Phi Beta Kappa in the room.

For 17 years their annual reports have documented the declining rates of church giving to anti-poverty and mission programs, and the huge impact even a modest increase would have on childhood deaths worldwide. Their research has won national acclaim.

From the start they chose to live among the people they served. When Empty Tomb opened in 1972 in a donated house on West University Avenue in Urbana, they lived upstairs.

They had an open-door policy and never locked their apartment. One day they came home to find someone carrying out their pots and pans. Then Sylvia noticed a client wearing her high school ring.

"They decided, 'Maybe we can love people and still keep our doors locked,' " Kaufmann said.

They scraped by on food stamps, a $75-a-month stipend and a '56 Ford pickup supplied by Empty Tomb. They each owned two pairs of jeans and a few T-shirts, which they wore everywhere, including weddings.

Their Bible study group would sometimes go to Dairy Queen for a 10-cent cone. The Ronsvalles would always find some excuse to skip it: "Between us we did not have a dime," Sylvia said.

Both had come from middle-class backgrounds, but they weren't subsidized by their parents. Their families were a bit perplexed by their chosen vocations.

John's mother ran a candy-making business in upstate New York that she hoped he would take over someday. John attended Syracuse University and then a year of medical school at the State University of New York before switching to seminary school, feeling a pull to study spiritual matters.

Sylvia was one of four children born to middle-class parents in Oak Park. She had a fairly typical 1950s childhood, going to movies and Marshall Field's Walnut Room with friends.

Once her uncle, who was vice president of Libby Foods, mistakenly assumed Sylvia worked at a cemetery called Empty Tomb.

"I thought that was more respectable, so I let him think that," her father told her.

Though attracted to missionary work, young Sylvia always pictured herself as a novelist, perhaps volunteering at a place like Empty Tomb – not running it.

"This is not how I would have scripted my life," she said.

Thus, when John broached the subject of moving into a public-housing project in 1980, his wife wasn't so sure.

Then one night they had dinner with the Rev. W.H. Donaldson, former pastor of Salem Baptist Church, who helped coordinate Empty Tomb's "family to family" dinners to promote interracial understanding.

A speaker with great presence, Donaldson reminisced about growing up black in the South. He told them how his mom once hid him in a coal bin when a lynch mob was looking for someone to blame after a white person was insulted. He spoke with no bitterness, but his words were stunning.

"It was so clear to me," Sylvia said. "This man whom I respect so much experienced all this and he did not have any choice. As we walked out, I thought, 'I have a choice.' I turned to John and said, 'We have to move to Bradley Park.' "

The couple moved into the housing complex near Fourth and Bradley a month later and lived there until it closed in 1999. Their goal was to "just live," but that was difficult.

Almost immediately, the couple launched a four-year fight to fix sewers that backed up regularly. Their car windows were broken. Sylvia had to shoo away men smoking crack outside her apartment. After one trip to the grocery store, the couple came home to see a man tackled by police on the front lawn.

Still, she said, most problems were caused by people who didn't live there. Their neighbors were "lovely people," many relocated when their property was claimed through eminent domain. They were "just as frightened to live there as we were," she said, something that surprised her despite eight years of working with the poor.

"I realized how prejudiced I was. Everybody wants the same thing mostly: safe, decent places to live."

The Ronsvalles now live next door to Empty Tomb, at 308 E. Church St. They bought the tidy, two-story white house in 1999 after the city moved it there to make way for a Boneyard project. The Ronsvalles took it as a sign from God.

They've already signed it over to Empty Tomb, with the provision that they can live there until they die. They each earn $20,000 a year plus health insurance from the agency.

Empty Tomb has a staff of 16 and a strong core of volunteers, and the Ronsvalles hope it survives long after they're gone. They're excited about a new Mission Match program that raises money for churches hoping to increase mission work. Locally, the desperate poverty they saw in 1970 has eased, though they're helping more people "living on the edge," Sylvia said.

"We'll just keep showing up to work as long as God allows," she said.

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