Cookout planned in celebration of Empty Tomb's 40th anniversary

CHAMPAIGN — When Ruby Taylor first needed help with food and clothes for her family back in 1974, Empty Tomb provided.

Over the years, this Christian service organization has continued to help her, she says.

A retired Champaign grandmother of 20 and great-grandmother of 13, Taylor says she's helped out at Empty Tomb as a volunteer and has continued to turn there for help with clothing and diapers for the kids when she's needed it.

"I still go there," she says.

Now Empty Tomb plans to mark its decades-long relationship with its neighbors, donors, volunteers and the community with a cookout, and is inviting everyone to come, says coordinator Shannon Cook.

The cookout, in honor of Empty Tomb's 40th anniversary, will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Sept. 16 outside the building at 301 N. Fourth St., C.

Empty Tomb was founded by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, who met as University of Illinois students and campus activists, and they recognize 1972 as their organization's official starting year because that's when Empty Tomb's "works" began, Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

One of Empty Tomb's key functions is to provide opportunities for Christian volunteers to help meet the needs of people in need in the name of Jesus through such works such as delivering furniture, food and clothing donations, and helping with home maintenance, family support and cash assistance for emergencies to low-income folks who need a hand.

Empty Tomb also tracks church giving and mission support on a national level though its annual publications titled "The State of Church Giving" and has a matching-funds program to encourage Christian churches to use more of their resources on mission work.

Sylvia Ronsvalle, 62, says she and her husband met when she was a 19-year-old English education major and he was a 30-year-old graduate student working on a doctorate in psychology.

They were both involved in activism on campus, with John fighting for student representation on the UI Board of Trustees and senate, but they also shared a deep Christian faith.

"We both believed God raised Jesus from the dead, and there was nothing more important than telling people that," she said.

When they finished school, Sylvia Ronsvalle says, "we weren't clear what to do, but we wanted to mobilize the church. We believe the church is the answer to the world's problems."

Milo Kaufmann of Urbana, a retired UI professor who has been involved with Empty Tomb since its start, remembers John and Sylvia during their student days, with John a conspicuous revolutionary and Sylvia a campus activist.

"I believe God put them together," he says.

Kaufmann said he also remembers hearing John Ronsvalle speak at campus churches.

"In the back of his mind was this vision of Empty Tomb," he recalls.

Sylvia Ronsvalle, an Oak Park native, said her parents raised her to act with integrity and do what she believed she needed to do.

"I wasn't what they expected, but they really loved me," she said.

The Ronsvalles started their organization in an empty house that had been donated rent-free at University Avenue and Romine in Urbana. They lived on food stamps and a $75 monthly stipend and their mission began to evolve as people arrived with needs and donors began dropping off their used clothing and furniture, Sylvia Ronsvalle remembers.

"It really has been a journey of faith," she says.

The couple eventually moved into public housing, living there for 19 years during a time drug gangs threatened the safety of housing residents, Sylvia Ronsvalle recalls. But she agreed with John that it was important to live among the people they were serving.

She and John eventually bought a house next to Empty Tomb's building with the help of an inheritance, Ronsvalle said, and donated it to their organization with an agreement giving them the right to live there.

From its earliest years, Empty Tomb wanted to do its work through Christian churches, but not all the churches wanted to work with Empty Tomb.

"When we first started, there were many churches that didn't think there were poor people in town," Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

The Rev. Malcolm Nygren, retired pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Champaign, and his congregation, got involved early.

"There is nobody I respect any more than John and Sylvia," he says.

Nygren said his church was a middle-class, Midwestern congregation that had no way to try to help the people the Ronsvalles were helping, and Empty Tomb gave them that opportunity.

Leland Andrews of Champaign, a 30-year volunteer with Empty Tomb who got involved through First Presbyterian, says she started by dropping off used clothing. But the organization inspired her to do more. "Little by little, I got pulled into what they were doing and eventually I found myself on the fundraising and development committee and helping out with the Christmas give-away and being a food deliverer," she says.

Andrews remembers how Christian churches helped build Empty Tomb's current building, and how her church took on the building of one of the rooms.

Her husband, Jim, has retired from Empty Tomb's home maintenance committee, but the two of them still deliver food for Empty Tomb and she still helps with special projects, she says.

"We have just appreciated that Empty Tomb fills the spots that are not filed by other agencies in town," she says.

Kaufmann says he believes Empty Tomb has had staying power because it has filled a need relating to Christian impulses to address the needs of the poor.

As Empty Tomb's first treasurer, Kaufman says he almost inadvertently got the Ronsvalles started in their research into church giving, and their annual publications are considered important national research sources.

"It's a basic resource for people who want to understand the state of philanthropy and the state of benevolence," he says.

The 22nd edition, "The State of Church Giving through 2010," will be released in October, Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

The 2009 volume included information about 16 countries, 10 of them largely Christian, that haven't made progress in reducing child deaths. It also concluded there is a prolonged, declining trend in giving to churches in the U.S., and church leaders haven't organized financial campaigns to increase global missions on a scale that is meeting needs.

The 2010 edition will include such data as 2.7 million worldwide child deaths by age 5 in 2010 that can be attributed to the lack of simple resources, such as water, food and medicine, Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

"As poverty is getting fixed locally, children are not getting helped as much," she says. "This is where the church comes in. This is our perspective."

Closer to home, Empty Tomb isn't without its own financial issues.

It had a $44,749 deficit as of the end of July on an annual budget of $513,136 that is about 98 percent supported by donations, Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

As of Aug. 14, the organization was running four checks behind on paying its 17 full-time and part-time employees.

New employees are warned when they take the job that they can expect late paychecks, Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

"We literally say you have to be able to afford to work here. We try to be real upfront about that," she says.

In advance of its 40th anniversary celebration coming up, the organization sent out a mailer suggesting a $40 donation from each person on its mailing list.

If everyone comes through, that would raise $120,000 to bring Empty Tomb current with its operating expenses and come close to filling the needed amount for a "no-late bills" reserve fund.

Ronsvalle acknowledges Empty Tomb's position on doing its work through Christian churches and their members hasn't been popular with everyone in the community, but the organization holds firm to its belief that the church is God's answer to the world's problems.

"Jesus instituted the church. If we are working to help the church achieve its potential, we are going to work with the church," she says.

There are many ways to act on faith, Ronsvalle says. For those wondering how to start, she suggests simply showing up and seeing what God does.

"Literally, people's lives are dependent on whether we show up or not," she says.

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