Written by Emily Mullins
As you walk around the General Synod exhibit hall, story boards and banners tell the inspiring story of Stitching Hope, a fabric arts and sewing enterprise designed to help women in Chacraseca, Nicaragua, earn a living wage and transform their communities. But to truly get to the heart of the story behind these women and their colorful wares, look closely at the hand-painted fabric they use to make each stole, altar covering, purse and scarf. Each piece is a unique expression of the hope, independence and pride these women get from their work, which allows them the opportunity to make a better life for their families, their neighbors and themselves.
"I have noticed a huge change in these women since meeting them in 2011," said the Rev. Brenda Grauer, co-founder of Stitching Hope and member of Federated Church United Church of Christ in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. "They smile and they laugh and tease and enjoy their work – there is such a sense of pride in what they are doing and how they do it."
Three of the women from Stitching Hope have traveled to General Synod in Long Beach, Calif., and will be present in the Stitching Hope booth (Nos. 150-249), where they will sell purses, stoles, silk scarves and shawls. During this week's event, the women will demonstrate how they paint the fabric, and also how they design liturgical art and tell stories using visual theology, images and colors. A few members of Federated Church UCC also traveled to Long Beach to serve as interpreters so the women can interact fully with the General Synod audience and their customers.
"It is so exciting to learn so many new skills," said Berta Blanco, one of the women of Stitching Hope. "When we see our finished stoles, it makes us smile."
As the official provider of stoles and paraments for General Synod 2013, the women of Stitching Hope spent a lot of time thinking about the event's theme: God's Vision. What is the spirit of God's vision? What designs and colors reflect that? What things make you think of God's spirit in our presence? Some of the women thought of roads that led them to where they are today. Others thought of mother hens and their chicks. And still others thought of the environment and the world around them.
"They talked about their faith, but also things that reflect who they are and reflect God's presence in them," Grauer said. "It's been for them a very nurturing time to be able to put new words and images and colors and textures to what they believe their faith to be."
Stitching Hope formed in 2012 through a partnership between Grauer, founder of the liturgical stole operation In Stitches, and the Rev. Leslie Penrose, executive director of Just Hope, an organization that links communities in North America and Nicaragua to promote productive partnerships. The two women met at General Synod 2011, and within a few months, Penrose invited Grauer to join her in Chacraseca, where she spent five days teaching four women how to design and create clergy stoles.
With financial assistance from Federated Church UCC, what was supposed to be a one-time trip turned into Stitching Hope, which now employs 11 women full time and five more on a contract basis. The brand-new Stitching Hope Fabric Arts Center, which opened last year in Chacraseca, equipped with running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, sewing machines, shelving, tables and other necessary equipment, has space to employ 25-30 women.
Stitching Hope is now two years into its five-year business plan, and is on track to be handed over to the women as a fully-functioning Nicaraguan enterprise at the end of the five years. The women spent the first year acquiring advanced sewing skills and fabric painting techniques, and are now focusing on how to run a business. A few have been designated as supervisors and accountants, and they are busy developing departments, job descriptions, quality control standards, math skills and pricing structures. Even some men from the community are in on the action – two of them were brought to the U.S. and trained in sewing machine repair, a skill they can use to start their own business as well.
While they've come so far, for many of the women, this is only the beginning of their hopeful journey to a better life.
"You've opened a door, but it's just a crack," said Blanco. "We have so much more to learn, and more women need to learn with us."