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.

The price of a coffee

Today, in the Salvation Army we observe Human Trafficking Sunday. It’s a day when, as a whole church we talk about and pray about human trafficking.

It’s one of those difficult Sundays for me, with all my openness about homelessness and poverty, there are still some things I don’t talk about. I sit through these services and listen to people talk about trafficking. Some are talking as volunteers for the Army and how they work with the police and move rescued people to safe locations. Others talk from fact sheets and show videos on slavery, while others read prayers written by some church member in the London office.

When we, as a church, talk about trafficking its about people from other countries, brought here with hope of work and travel, promised the world and yet stuck in an inescapable prison. Human Trafficking is the illegal movement of people, typically with the aim of forced labour or sexual exploitation. You think it can’t happen to nice people, that it must be only the desperately poor and vulnerable families that this kind of thing happens to, but it happens to nice families, educated women, men with learning difficulties and people from the UK.

I don’t know what it’s like to be taken from this country with the hope of an adventure and a job, to be caught by a scam that leaves me trapped in a country I do not know. Where I don’t know the language, or the culture, or the law. Where I don’t know the difference between the people who can help and the people who are trapping me further.

But I know what it’s like to be imprisoned, to have no escape. To have no choice in who you sleep with and know the beating a refusal can bring. This Salvation Army officers daughter, who attended church every Sunday, did ok in school and didn’t really get into trouble knows the despair and devastation of having no hope.

My church is a short walk from the red light area, where women charge the price of a basic restaurant meal for sex, but where I’ve heard of some women, those who don’t know the language or the UK currency charge the price of a coffee, not through choice, but because the man who owns her values her life as nothing.

The rest of today I spent with a heavy heart. 

William Booth once talked of a vision of the lost, this video is a little bit corny, but it tells the vision…

https://youtu.be/ky0DDwYzak8  

I grew up believing that you are saved to serve, you became free and instead of running you turn around to help free someone else. 

I’ve been feeling a little lost recently, the setting up my business thing is going great, I’m not struggling to survive like I was a few months ago, but something is off-kilter. I think, for the first time in years I am not doing something for the benefit of others.

Before university I volunteered for the joanna project, before that I volunteered for Inkwell Arts, before that I worked for The Salvation Army… during my whole non-messed up life I have spent part of it benefiting others and now my whole life is about me. And it hurts.

This evening, after church, I found myself in a cafe having a text message conversation with a friend, and I realised the problem. I need to do something for others, it’s what keeps me functioning, it’s one of the things that keeps me turning up to the Army every week, this need to be in a church that thrives on serving others. It’s what keeps me valuing my own freedom.

In my first year at University I came up with an idea for a quilt of hope. It was a simple idea of a handmade quilt that contained little messages of hope within the squares. I was thinking of the women who come to the joanna project house. Some of the women have been so demoralised, so inhumanised, that the thought of being hugged is too much. My idea was to make a quilted blanket that a woman can wrap herself in. Filled with messages and prayers from people who are praying for her, even though they might never meet her. 

It was a nice idea and one I somehow keep coming back to.

Then at the end of last year we had a project handmaking a quilt. I spent several hours sat around a simple wooden frame, hand-stitching a simple pattern into a quilt with a small group of young students. There was something magical about it. Something disarming about the simple stitch and our heads bowed looking at the quilt that allowed people to open up in a way two years of uni had never done. In those hours I became to understand my fellow students, to learn fears and experiences they normally wouldn’t share. 

I later thought again of the deep communication that group quilting created and imagined what it would be like to have a quilting group in church, where we made banners and quilts as a group, sharing with fellow Christians and non-Christians.

Tonight again, as I text messaged my friend I thought of my quilting ideas, my need to be doing something for others and decided it might be time to think seriously about the quilt project.

There are things to work out, things to organise, I need a place we could meet and sew, I need materials, but most importantly, I need volunteers.

In January I appealed for people to stand with me for Daria, and again I’m asking for help. I want to make a quilt of hope, first for the Joanna project, then perhaps quilts of hope for the Salvation Army human trafficking unit. To be used by those who need to be wrapped in arms of love, hope and prayers, but are too fragile to allow human touch.

I’m going to be putting together simple sewing kits (It might take me a little while to make them) which I will sell to raise money for the materials, but the kits will be the squares to make the quilt. I’m hoping people will buy a kit, sew a simple (or detailed) message or image of hope and send them back to be included in the quilt.

But I’m also looking for local people, folks who live in Leeds or close enough to meet regularly to make the quilt. Experience not needed, but just a love for others.

If that’s you, then get in touch. My email is bettyvirago@gmail.com. If you need some more convincing, here’s a video of the Salvation Army’s human trafficking unit at work.