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A Question of Blessing

It’s been a while since I mentioned the quilts of hope project, it had to be put on a back burner while I finished my degree. But it was something that I was so passionate about I knew I’d return to it at some point.

Well, for those who are new to the blog and those who’ve forgotten what the quilts were about, here is a recap…

The quilts of hope project combined two thoughts; What happens when people craft together and How does a fabric become a spiritual object.

Although the idea of making a quilt with messages on was one I thought of in my first year at university it wasn’t until the end of my second year that I got to sit down with a group of students and hand sew a quilt.

What I found fascinating wasn’t the skill needed, in fact the quilting process is a very simple in and out stitch that is quick and easy to learn. It was the community that I found interesting.

Folk who knit in groups might know what I’m on about when I talk about the comradery of crafting together. I used to go to a knitting group where was sat in a group knitting our own projects, but the conversation was what brought us together. I think those fellow knitters knew more about me than my GP did!

There’s been a long tradition of community crafting, from waulking cloth and singing songs in time with the process to the modern day yarn bombing. There’s some connection to sitting around and working together and chatting together that is perhaps as therapeutic as a psychotherapy session.

As I worked with the students, all at least a decade younger than I, sitting around a quilt and sewing the very simple stitch we began to chat together, then sing from the radio (ABBA songs seem to be good for all generations) then our conversation turned into this magical therapeutic atmosphere where no subject was off guard and we moved away from sharing niceties to discussing the truth of our lives. Depression, eating disorders, suicide, stress… subjects that perhaps would only be shared after a long period of friendship were suddenly being discussed openly, with no worry or fear.

There was no feeling of being embarrassed or as though you were sharing something that would trigger some uncontrollable emotional situation, in a sense our conversation, though quite deep, had an air of lightness and refreshment.

I’ve experienced counselling and quite often, when a heavy subject has been discussed, it can leave a sense of dread for quite a while after. Here though there was none of the heavy after-thoughts of sharing.

Perhaps it was simply that we had something else to do.

Maybe, that barrier that stops us from being open, or the inner voice that tells us we’ll be misunderstood or judged as unacceptable, had been removed. The simple act of distraction by our hands working, whether knitting or the simple stitch of quilting, has the power to free us from self-discrimination.

If churches really wanted to reach their community what better way of doing so than a community group that had the ability to really get to know its participants. Imagine the folk around the church area, coming together for a crafting purpose and whilst crafting, talking together about the issues that really matter.

The second thought came through a long term relationship with a local charity.

The Joanna project works in the red light area, going out at night to meet the women as they work and pray, feed and care for them. During the day they also have a safe house where the women can come and eat, shower and see a number of professionals to get help to change their lives for the better.

Sometimes, when you get to know a woman who has suffered from unspeakable abuse, there’s a feeling that you just want to reach out and hug them.

When you think about a hug, this act of holding onto someone and not letting go because you think it makes them feel safe. It might work for some, but when working with someone who knows what it’s like to be forced against their will, it can feel like being trapped all over again.

Speaking personally, because it’s all I can do, I know what it’s like to be trapped. To be in a position where someone has you pinned down, you’re not free to wriggle out or step away. I know the fear of being held against my will and when someone comes to hug me, there’s often the same feeling.

I know that most people are hugging you as a sign of love, but for those who know entrapment, a hug isn’t that different. Quite often it’s a spontaneous act that’s done without asking permission. I was reminded of the fear that comes with a hug last week when I was at a workshop on poverty. I was speaking about mental illness and was saying something rather difficult and filled with emotion. A woman I didn’t know jumped up and came quickly behind me and hugged me.

I understand that she was doing something she thought was a nice gesture, but I’ve experienced people coming behind me and putting their arms around me, only it wasn’t done out of kindness.

How do you hug someone, when a hug can do more harm than good?

And that’s how the Quilts of Hope project was born.

Imagine a quilt, hand stitched with messages of love and hope, sewn together by people at community quilting workshops, where folk from all backgrounds come together, sit around a quilting frame and stitch together. Pouring their love of vulnerable women into squares which are turned into a physical textile ‘hug’.

In one sense, a community of people, gathering for an evening in a church hall, learning the basics of quilting, and experiencing a place where they are free to talk openly about their lives in an atmosphere of acceptance. Where church folk can start the process of making real friends and connections with folk in the community.

But then, what is made from these workshops, a quilt given to a women’s shelter.

Where, at a woman’s most vulnerable moment, when a physical hug can cause pain, she can wrap herself in the quilt, giving herself total freedom of movement, can rest beneath the quilt, read the messages of love, and feel safe and loved knowing there are hundreds of women behind the quilt, all praying for and loving her.

Finally, the first quilt has been finished and the next question for me begins.

How does a piece of cloth become a spiritual object?

Behind the Quilts of Hope is a belief that our prayers can go with the quilt to the women we do not know. I don’t know who will use the quilt, I don’t know the needs of the people who will bury themselves underneath it, so all I have is the prayers I pray for the unknown women, that’s something only God knows.

I’ve always thought that I’d like some sort of blessing said over a quilt before it’s sent off, perhaps five minutes of a church service where the church pray for the women who will use the quilt and perhaps where those who’ve worked on the quilt can come and see off their square once it’s been joined to the whole.

Yet, now that time has come, it feels somewhat silly (again, that inner voice of self-doubt) Does it matter that a church has had a final prayer? Aren’t the silent prayers of the individual quilters enough? Well, of course they are, but somehow, I want a final… well, a final blessing. Does that sound crazy?

I remember as a child, our Sunday School got a new piano, well new to us!

I remember clearly listening to the Sunday school leader talking about the piano having a history, pointing out a ring stain left from perhaps a pint of beer, and the question that maybe once, this piano had a very different life. Then I remember praying for the piano, and it’s new life being used for God.

I remember too, a collection of brass instruments being donated and sent to Africa where they were needed, and I remember the instruments being laid on the mercy seat and praying over them.

So it’s certainly not a new idea, and I wonder whether this is something that God is putting on my heart because He also thinks it’s an important part of the quilt process.

My next question is this, What would that blessing look like?

And here’s where I need your thoughts, please comment or email your thoughts on this.

How do we hand over the quilt? Do we invite a staff member from the joanna project to come and be handed the quilt? Do we lay the quilt at the front of church for people to lay a hand on it? Do I just ask for prayers or do I spend a couple of minutes explaining the ideas behind the project?

I really look forward to hearing what people think about this.

In the meantime I start on the next quilt. This time for the Salvation Army’s human trafficking unit. I have no idea where this one will end up, except that it’ll be used for people who’ve experienced being trafficked in the U.K.

I’m thinking, perhaps the people who will need this quilt won’t have English as a first language, so I’ve been asking for squares with hearts on… a universal sign of love. However, messages are welcome too!

I’m still a few squares short, so if you want to make a square email me for details. Also (a little pitch here) if you want the quilts of hope project to come to your church or community group, please get in touch. I can only make these quilts if people invite me to come and make them with you.

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Meaning in the cloth – rethinking the prayer shawl

I used to read the story of Cain and Abel and wonder what was Gods problem.

In case you don’t know the story here’s a little summary…

Cain was a farmer while Abel, his brother, was a shepherd. Both brothers came to God with a sacrifice. Cain brought some of his grown produce while Abel brought his best first-born lambs. Now God liked Abels offering of lambs, but, well… not too fussed with the veggies. The rest of the story can be read in Genesis chapter 4.


As a kid I didn’t get it, two guys brought a gift to God and God was a wee bit picky. 

Being British we’re raised with the ability to smile and look pleased whatever the gift, but God obviously isn’t British (where were his manners?).

Shouldn’t he be grateful that he’s getting something?

It’s not for me to argue with God about his reactions though, He wants the best, the first fruits and first borns. God wants to be the first thought on our minds and have the first portion of our gifts. In everything we do God wants first place.

I don’t think it was about making sure they gave 10% and perhaps it wasn’t even that the carrots weren’t the biggest. The meaning behind the gift is what riled God. You can imagine Abel looking over his flock, inspecting every animal for flaws and size, then picking the best of the best, as though this gift was for his beloved. Cain, watching Abels fussiness, laughed to himself while throwing a handful of the nearest veg into a basket, “that’ll do” he thinks.

You might know that feeling at Christmas when you give a gift that you’ve chosen especially and being aware that the real excitement is in the giving. Was Abel thinking of Gods face lighting up at the sight of God looking at his gift and seeing that most beautiful of lambs?

Similarly we might also know the feeling of giving a gift in politeness, those folk at the bottom of the Christmas card list who get whichever card is next in the box of 100. Who cares what the card looks like, its giving for the tradition and politeness rather than the Joy. That, I suspect is what riled God that day. He didn’t want a gift out of politeness but out of love.
When thinking about a prayer shawl what is our first thoughts?

Learning a new technique? Wondering how quickly you can get it finished? 

Do you have any thoughts on the reasons why you make the shawl? 

I know what its like to make something with royalty in mind (yep, I’ve kept quiet about that!). I chose yarn from a Yorkshire mill that could promise British only fleeces. I spent a couple of days hand dying the yarn myself. Every little bit of the item was made as thought the Queen herself would see it, no detail was missed, the stuffing wasn’t your average polyester, it was British wool, even the pipe cleaner arms that would never be seen were chosen by hand from a local pipe cleaner factory. The item was to be my very best work.

If clothing the naked and feeding the hungry is the same as clothing and feeding God then each prayer shawl should be made as though God himself was the recipient. Similarly, if each recipient is to see the shawl as a gift from God, then each shawl should be made with our best effort as though God himself had commissioned the gift.

Therefore, making a prayer shawl no longer becomes a second rate ministry but a valuable resource in the church.

Say what you like about the value of a church band, but someone in need has to come to church to hear the band play, they need to know the words to the tune and understand the poetry in the song. A prayer shawl is one of the few gifts that go beyond the church walls, beyond the boundaries of language and country. Giving a gift that has been made with so much thought and love, then given to be used when encouragement is needed is one of life’s most beautiful pleasures.

After the band have played the last note, the choir have sat down, the sermon done, the Amen said… the prayer shawl continues on and travels with the person in need.

The prayer shawl though, isn’t a magic cure. It isn’t a vessel to carry healing, and touching the shawl won’t turn around test results, if healing comes it comes through Gods choosing. It’d be romantic to imagine a physical prayer soaking into cloth, but the shawl, at it’s basic level remains simply a shawl. 

However, it still has something magical about it. In those moments when pain comes, when bereavement is unbearable, when loneliness surrounds, being able to wrap ourselves in a piece of cloth made by someone who thought of nothing but us in the making allows us to temporarily dwell in the presence of comfort, hope and fellowship.

I have two small toy bean bag cats in my home, financially worthless and commercially made, but given to me some years ago by a couple at church. Brian and Cathy were there in my darkest times, if I told you what they did for me, well, this blog post would never end.

Cathy died a few years ago from cancer and Brian has retired and moved away. There is nothing magical about the toy cats, but everytime I see them I’m taken back to a world where they are with me. I’m reminded that there is someone out there who loves me unconditionally, someone who values me as I am. I’m reminded of the many times Brian helped me quit drinking, of the times he let me sleep it off in his office. The years Cathy spent counselling me as a messed up young person, of the Joy in their faces at my baptism, the comfort when I lost my job, the worry when I moved to Leeds and the celebration when I went to University.

As I write this the tears flow and my heart hurts, but its a joyful cry and a blessed pain. Few people know unconditional love like that couple gave me and that is a real shame. As an alcoholic I accept the lifelong fight of sobriety, but I have two weapons, two soft toy cats that I look at and remember those who stand with me and I remind myself that this fight is worth it.

Nothing magical in the toys and yet something very magical.


A prayer shawl at its root is simply a strand of yarn looped together to form a piece of cloth. It is something that someone has taken hours to make and think about, but it is more than something to do with your time, more than a way of using up your yarn stash and more than a way to make something when you simply don’t know what to do.

To be called to the prayer shawl ministry is a powerful calling, it is listening to Gods commissioning, his choice of recipient perhaps without knowing why we are making the item. Being able to put our best work into a piece then hand it over without finanancial reward, personal acknowledgement perhaps even without knowing the outcome. Trusting wholly in the gift of giving for loves sake.

As I continue to look at this unique ministry I hope more and more people will begin to take up the call of this powerful ministry. I hope more and more churches begin to see the true value of a creative ministry in their church.

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Banned from the Band

I’ve been asked to contribute a piece for an exhibition called ‘beatitudes’. It’s based on the sermon on the mount and one of those well known parts of the bible.

The version below is from the message translation.

Matthew 5 1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
I listen to Dr Bill Creasys Bible talks on audible and he has a very interesting way of explaining them which makes so much sense. 

At first I was going to create something on his viewpoint (it really is worth listening to). After a while though I started thinking about my own working style as an artist and what I want to say through my work.

I write a lot about poverty and a lot about the church and a lot about poverty and the church.

A lot of what I say is about the lack of understanding in some aspects of church life, the little things that churches do without really thinking about how their actions are perceived.

Recently there was an article in the Salvationist magazine (29/04/2017 edition) that told the story of a woman who felt she wasn’t allowed to wear a Salvation Army uniform because of a disability that meant wearing the skirt was unsuitable. The story loosely skips over the part where she was told she couldn’t wear the uniform with trousers (really, In 2017?), but thankfully she was able to push ahead and get trousers and feel like a valued member rather than a cheaper version, or as someone said to me a few Sundays ago, “not wearing the uniform properly”.

I have a similar problem, years of leg ulcers have left my legs… well, let’s just say I’d rather not have them on display thank you very much! 

Whilst you might have read the article you may have missed the editors comments at the front of the mag, but he spoke about the uniform, how it put him off joining for quite a while. He suggested that whilst the uniform has some uses, it mustn’t be  barrier for people joining.

Note: I know, I’m talking about the uniform again, I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse, but bear with me.

While the article and the editors comments spoke about barriers to the uniform from a disability perspective I have another barrier… cost.

A couple of Sundays ago (infact the same Sunday of the ‘proper’ uniform comment) I was talking to a friend about the cost of the uniform and a plan I was developing for the beatitudes exhibition.

I made my usual gripe of how a church started with the poor is in a position where only the rich can afford to join. I asked how they can justify charging £250 for a Sunday outfit just so you could take part. (My friend reads my blog I think, so let me just say I’m not repeating the conversation as a gripe to or about my friend!). 

My friend agreed and added that she wouldn’t pay so much for an outfit and had bought the uniform originally to play in the band, as a hard working mother and career woman the band was her weekly escape. We agreed, the cost was awful and went on our way.

Several days later I was still thinking about the conversation. 

Y’see, I don’t necessarily disagree with the uniform, sure it has its uses. But as it is, it’s impractical, expensive, badly designed and often badly made.

Imagine going to John Lewis, paying £70 for a skirt, getting to the till and being told they hadn’t finished it and you would need to take the skirt to a tailor to get the hem sewn up! At £70 I expect it finished and hand delivered in a box with a red bow.

Something bothered me about the conversation and it took a few days to recognise what it was.

My friends comment that she wouldn’t pay that much for an outfit… what bothered me?

It wasn’t that I wouldn’t pay that much, but I couldn’t.

In all innocence there is a level of misunderstanding in the church that is difficult to get across. I’ve been to a few songster practices, but realised there was just no point in going since I don’t have the luxury of being able to grumble at the cost, buy the uniform and join the choir anyway. I’d join the band, since I can actually play, but I’m barred from joining in church activities because of poverty. It’s important to get this message across so let me put it clearly…

I am barred from taking an active part in my church not because I won’t wear a uniform, but because I can’t afford to.

I am banned from being a useful member of my church because I am poor.

For those who still don’t grasp the reality of it, here it is in picture form…

 

Somehow, blessed are the poor in spirit seems the perfect starting place for my exhibition piece. Perhaps whilst the spiritually poor are blessed (Dr Creasy suggests that the blessing is in knowing you are spiritually poor and in the perfect starting place to find God), unblessed are the spiritually rich but financially poor.

How do I get this message across in one piece of work?

I thought of getting hold of an old uniform and embroidering over it things I could buy instead of the uniform, like five weeks rent, central heating for the winter. I’m not sure though it’d be enough to get the message across, people need to feel it personally. I thought of making the Salvation Army crest in goldwork embroidery and putting a price of £2,500 on it to try and get across how much the cost feels like to someone working. 

How do I get a middle class Christian to grasp what this feels like. Wanting to be a useful church member, but being asked to hand over almost two months wage for membership. Would you join the church on those conditions?

What it feels like to not be able to attend church events because you think your need for electricity is more vital. Trying to explain that the lunch club is failing because the poor community can’t afford the three course meals. Having a young girl pass the collection plate around and the sense of shame when you can’t put in. Telling my minister that my neighbour is a drug dealer and being told my neighbour is my mission field, yet not quite grasping what it’s really like for an ex-user to have a dealer on their doorstep. Offering to help at a coffee morning and being asked to bake cakes when I can just about manage a weekly shop for myself.

Just how do I get this message out there? 

I spent two years at Bible college, I’ve worked and volunteered for Christian charities for over almost two decades, and yet… I am not allowed to participate in my church, not because I am spiritually poor, but because I am financially poor. WWJS? (What Would Jesus Say?)

This Sunday is Candidates Sunday, a day when we consider Gods calling on our lives… I might stay home. Well, I have an important day on Monday and could use the time to prepare. The thought of listening to a sermon asking us to consider God asking us to act, yet the inner hurt of not being able to stinks a bit too much for me.

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Never underestimate a Yorkshire lass.

I try to keep my on line image as a crafting person very organised and positive (apart from the odd moan). Recently though, something happened that I can only say is a bit of a wonder.

So, I’ve decided to start some personal blogs about the ‘Me’ behind Betty Virago. Take these posts or leave them, if what I say isn’t for you, then tip your hat, wish me well, and continue searching craft posts.

I wrote a post last year, a bit of a moan, about being let down by Bradford college and a textile craft diploma I applied for. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and at the time I felt angry and “Why is it always me?” about the whole thing.

There is a saying…

God has three answers.. “Yes, Not Yet and I have something better in mind”

I forgot that the third answer isn’t No.

A few months after that rejection I was with my knitting buddies at the Knit & Stitch show in Harrogate, a massive and jam-packed event. Well worth a trip to Yorkshire and at the same time you can visit the Yorkshire mecca, Betty’s tea shop.

Downstairs at the exhibition there is a line of colleges advertising their courses and one caught my eye. Huddersfield University had a degree in Art & Craft textiles. I took a brochure and looked and looked.

School was a place to went to, to get out of the house, not a place for learning, so GCSE’s are lacking. All my qualifications were gained during later employment and personal study and none were related to art or craft in any way. Eventually I worked out how to apply for the course (I know nothing about Uni and I didn’t even know the first thing about how to apply for the course).

In February I was working with Leeds Poverty Truth, settled on teaching little craft classes and selling patterns and crafts. But I had managed to get an interview at Huddersfield, mainly thanks to a superb reference from Boris at Inkwell (Leeds MIND).

The Uni asked me to bring my portfolio to the interview!!! Portfolio? Everyone I asked said not to worry, just take some of my work and I’ll be fine.

Anyway, the interview day arrived. I entered a room with several young people, all carrying huge black leather bound portfolios crammed with stuff. Each young person was accompanied by one or two parents and all looked organised and smart. I own jeans and t-shirts, that’s my whole wardrobe.

We were asked to put our portfolios on a table and go on a tour of the University campus while our work was assessed. Everyone placed their open folders on a table. I pulled out a Tupperware box of bits and a pack of photos. What a idiot I felt! Totally out of my depth.

We went on a tour, very nice. The course works around four techniques, Knitting, weaving, dyeing and embroidery. Every machine is available to use from traditional floor looms to enormous computerised machines. It was fantastic, but the whole time I just wanted to go home. Sadly I had to stick it out, after all, they had my box of things and some of them were on Etsy, I couldn’t just leave them.

After the tour we were led into a room where we had to wait to be interviewed in pairs. There I sat, surrounded by youngsters and parents, uncomfortable, awkward, wanting the ground to swallow me whole. So I did what any other crafter would do in my position, I took out my crochet.

Me and a young girl were the last to be interviewed. Yep, it seemed like I was in that room waiting for hours.

The teacher was very nice, didn’t laugh at my ‘portfolio’, suggested I start writing out my ideas before making things – I have an idea and work it out in my head instead of putting it on paper.

The young girl had stuff, lots of it. Pages of experiments, she was nice though and I gave her my details, so when she comes to Uni she can contact me and I can teach her crochet.

Then I went home.

Like I said, God has three answers and none of them are No. A year ago I applied for a course at Bradford college and it fell through. God had something better in mind.

A few weeks after the interview I had an email, I was offered a place at Huddersfield starting, well, it’s starting in five weeks. The loans and grants have been applied for, disabled student support organised, travel journey planned, new pencil case bought (well, that’s a right of passage). In a few weeks I’m going to be getting up and travelling the train to Huddersfield and It’s not really hit me yet, even after all these months of organising it.

Underneath the Betty Virago image is someone who thinks they won’t achieve much… on the other hand…

Another thing that happened last year was my computer broke. I lost a lot of stuff, all my music and all the photos of me. I have 2 photos of me now and I’ll share them because there is something important that these two photos say. A message for everyone who thinks good things won’t happen, life won’t improve, God doesn’t say Yes.

1997 This photo was taken almost 20 years ago. It’s me, yep, that’s right. I’m sitting in a doorway, wrapped in a blanket (my bed for the night) eating handed out food and drinking cider.

It’s a newspaper cutting that I keep in my bible to remind me how far I’ve come. taken at one of my lowest points in life.

If you want to read more then visit the Leeds Poverty Truth blog

http://leedspovertytruth.wordpress.com/

Or watch the video on Youtube

I’m there at 45 mins in.

The only other photo I have was taken by a photographer working for Leeds Poverty Truth. It’s my “after” photo.

2014So here’s my message.

No person is a loser. No life is a waste. You, yes YOU, can make it.

Some of you will think, God, bah humbug. Okay, then the human spirit can do remarkable things. take from this what you need and continue looking at my craft posts.

But there are those of you, maybe just one person, who needs to hear this.

God does not say No

God does not make mistakes

God does not make worthless people

 

You are worth it.