Circles. Sewing, women's, craft, prayer. For years, churches have been active in outreach ministries involving their congregations' circle groups. Today, UCC churches across the United States are finding new ways to interweave craft and prayer that involve the entire congregation—and spread the power of prayer through the local and global communities they serve.
'Caps for Kids' reaches across continents
Janet Steeves of Blooming Grove (N.Y.) UCC is knitting together the younger and older generations to raise money to benefit children in Africa suffering from AIDS.
"Caps for Kids," Steeves' project, has so far raised $4,000. The money goes to Church World Service, the disaster relief arm of the National Council of Churches, in support of the children in Africa suffering from HIV/AIDS or orphaned by the disease. "[Blooming Grove] is a small, rural church," says Steeves, "and there were a number of young people in our church who went away to college and we lost contact with them." As members back in Blooming Grove began knitting the stocking caps, which sell for $10, the college students agreed to take them to their campuses and start selling them. A beautiful partnership was born.
"There were elderly people who felt disconnected because they're not able to do much for missions," says Steeves. "But they found this is a way they could contribute. They could knit caps, and the college kids could sell them."
Steeves says local publicity and word of mouth has made the project widespread. She gets knitted hats sent to her from as far away as California. Even the college students are taking up knitting.
"It's an art they've somehow missed in their growing up," says Steeves, "and they want to pick it up now."
"It has given people a purpose, and a mission," says Steeves, who laments that federal spending on AIDS relief has been decreased.
"This may seem like just a drop in the bucket," she says, "but it's a big thing for the people who have a hand in the project."
Natalie Lacy of St. John's UCC in La Pointe, Wis., works on a rug at the Woods Hall looms. Birdie Pallas photo.
Woods Hall, a cooperative of weavers and other artisans, is a community ministry of St. John's UCC, (La Pointe, Wis.,) the only Protestant church on Madeline Island, part of the Apostle Islands off the northern coast of Wisconsin. Presently, more than 50 artisans sell their handcrafted wares in the shop, adjacent to St. John's church building.
Protestant denominations first came to the island in 1835, as a ministry with Native Americans living there. In 1921, St. John's congregation began its ministry. By the mid-1950s, the Rev. Otto Schroedel and his wife, Velma, were serving the congregation and recognized that island life required some support from the religious community. Busy during tourist season, life on Madeline Island slows down considerably during the off months and sometimes work can be scarce.
The Schroedels established Woods Hall to be run by the church, but available to all island residents who needed a creative outlet—as well as a social center during the winter months—regardless of religious affiliation.
Today, the shop still runs in that same spirit. Woods Hall provides looms, a pottery studio and work space for the local crafters. Handcrafted items sold include woven goods, pottery, baskets, hand-knit goods, books, journals and metal works. The artisans range in age from 8 to 93.
All items made on the Woods Hall looms or in the pottery studio are sold there, with 65 percent of the profits going to the artisan (more if the artisan volunteers at the shop), and the rest of the monies going back into the shop.
Junior-high boys at Community UCC of Poway (Calif.) work on a Prayer Quilt. Wendy Matheson photo.
Ten years ago, Prayers and Squares founder Wendy Mathson enlisted the help of her church sewing group to quickly piece together a brightly colored quilt for Kody, a grandchild of a church member. Kody was born with a congenital heart defect and was spending his third birthday in a coma in the hospital ICU. As the ladies stitched together the pieces and made the knots for the tied quilt, they prayed for Kody's recovery. "There's a prayer with every knot," someone told Mathson, and that idea stuck.
The prayer quilt was delivered to Kody in his hospital room, and the young child, still not fully conscious, began fingering the knots on the quilt. Mathson was amazed. "We felt like he was gathering strength from the prayers," she says. Kody eventually recovered, but returned to the hospital many times for more surgery. The prayer quilt stayed with Kody until he died, suddenly, in November 2003.
Prayers and Squares, an outreach to persons who are ill or in turmoil, grew out of that initial quiltmaking. And when Mathson joined Community UCC of Poway (Calif.), she made sure she started a chapter there. Today, the ministry reaches around the world, with 179 chapters in churches from many different denominations.
L u c i l l e Schantz, coordinator of Prayers and Squares chapter 129 at Jordan UCC in Allentown, Pa., says her group makes quilts, but also makes baptismal squares for infants being baptized and prayer pockets for members of the military. "It's really keeping us busy," says Schantz, who says her group has made 38 quilts since they started last June. "There's a peacefulness and serenity just making them," she says. And they're always well received. "Everybody says they feel a warmth and a love" when they're wrapped in the quilts.
All chapters of Prayers and Squares operate on the three "commandments" originated by Mathson:
The sole purpose of the ministry must be to promote prayer and involve as many people as possible in prayer.
The recipient of the quilt must agree to accept the gift of prayer. (Mathson feels in times of illness or turmoil, surprise gifts are not appropriate.)
Prayer quilts are not to be sold. They are gifts and there is no obligation on the recipient's part.
Once the piecing together is completed, a prayer quilt often is displayed in worship or elsewhere in the church, so that anyone who wishes to say a prayer and tie a knot can do so.
The Rev. David Charles Smith, pastor of Jordan UCC, says that Prayers and Squares adds a new dimension to ministry. "When I deliver a quilt to a person who has requested it, I ask permission to place it on them," he says. "I remind them that now they are covered with the prayers of the church. To hear, 'I'll pray for you' is one thing. To hold on to the tangible reminder of someone's prayer takes our connection to a different level
Baptisms feature sacred quilts
First Congregational UCC in Webster City, Iowa, has adapted a Native American tradition to make the sacrament of baptism more meaningful: Sacred baptismal quilts.
In many Native American tribal traditions, new babies were wrapped in a sacred quilt made of their tribe's singular pattern, symbolizing being a part of that family and the tribe.
Verna Bierle, a member of First Congregational's sewing group, was excited when her pastor approached the group about making baptismal quilts to signify children becoming part of God's family.
"We had been making baby quilts and giving them wherever they were needed, but this was something we hadn't done before," says Bierle. "Now we had another outlet."
On the back of each quilt, a tag is affixed with the name of the child, the baptism date and the name of the church.
The quilts are made of cloth remnants and are hand-tied. Bierle says each quilt's colors and pattern are chosen with the specific child in mind. If an older child or an adult is baptized, they are presented with a full-size quilt, rather than a baby quilt.
Bierle says that watching a child wrapped in the quilt being carried up and down the aisle by the pastor following a baptism is truly spellbinding, especially when the child is old enough to react to the smiles from the congregation. And she knows the new tradition has a stronghold on the congregation as well. She laughs, remembering the first time a quilt was presented to a child at baptism. An adult told Bierle, "Gee, I want to be baptized again!"
Caps for Kids: For information and a simple pattern for the knitted cap, contact J. Steeves, 19 South St., Washingtonville, NY 10992; 845-496-3329; RSteeves@frontiernet.net. To find out more about Church World Service, go to churchworldservice.org.
Prayers and Squares: For information on creating a Prayers and Squares chapter at your local church, contact Wendy Mathson, P.O. Box 156, Poway, CA 92074; or visit prayerquilt.org.
Woods Hall Craft Shop: 702 Main St., LaPointe, WI 54850; 715-747-3943. Open from Memorial Day through the first week of October. Monday through Saturday 10-4; Sunday 11-4.