Thousands of American service men and women have lost their lives in the on-going battle against terrorism. Since 2009, bodies of fallen soldiers, mostly from the war-torn areas of Afghanistan and Iraq, have been flown into Dover Air Force Base. At Dover, these heroes are given a dignified transfer as they are received by their grieving loved ones. And it is here that those loved ones are comforted by the ministry of the women of the First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California. The women call their ministry, Knit-A-Prayer.
The Dignified Transfer program at Dover has become a vital tradition of honor, respect, and a way of acknowledging the sacrifice of the fallen. Early in the Repatriation and Dignified Transfer program, chaplains at Dover asked for prayer shawls and lap blankets. They wanted grieving families to have something tangible to show that they were surrounded by the love of God and the prayers of fellow citizens. They also wanted them to know our country does not take their loved one’s loss of life for granted nor is it unaware of the deep grief the family experiences.
When families receive their fallen soldier at Dover Air Force Base, they are ushered onto the tarmac to witness a solemn ceremony as the casket is brought off a plane. Often the walk from the base to the plane is cold and windy. The shawls the family receives provide comfort both spiritually and physically. Many notes of appreciation have been sent to the Bakersfield women. For example:
“I’m writing to thank you on behalf of my sister. She and her family live in Arkansas. On November 20, her grandson, my great nephew, was killed in Afghanistan. When his dad flew to Dover AFB to receive his body, he was presented with a prayer shawl made by your group. Their hearts were touched by the shawl, the note you included, the words of comfort and the prayers that had gone up in the making of the shawl. I’m amazed at our God and how He works. Words cannot express our appreciation. God is good all the time. Blessings to you.”
Although the number of fatalities has fallen in recent years, the Methodist women in Bakersfield continue to pray and send the love of God to those who grieve.
In May, just before Mother’s Day 2017, Knit-A-Prayer celebrated its 10-year anniversary. It was founded by Sharon Wainwright, Joyce Spetz, and Karen Wetzel. When Sharon closed a needlework store she had operated for 22 years, she knew she must find something productive to do with her creativity and love of knitting. She mentioned this desire to her friends Joyce and Karen. Joyce knew about the prayer shawl ministry and ordered the book, Knitting Into Mystery: A Guide to the Prayer Shawl Ministry,which taught creating shawls as a way of nurturing one’s own and others’ souls through prayer. The three women met several times to pray and seek the Lord’s guidance before going to their pastor, the Rev. Richard Thompson, and receiving his blessing to start a ministry.
The three women were amazed at the interest in their proposed endeavor. Within a short period of time, 25 women signed up and committed to bi-monthly meetings. These women were intergenerational ranging from college-aged to mature women in their nineties. Over the last ten years, these women have sent 2,700 shawls and lap robes to people all over the world.
Sharon and her friends began by contacting another prayer ministry in their church known as Prayers and Squares, whose chapter #317 was started in 2005. This ministry, launched by Isabel Carrera, promotes prayer through the use of quilts. The quilters were happy to see their prayer ministry expand to a group who knitted and crocheted.
The quilting ministry originally began in San Diego at another United Methodist church, that sponsored an informal quilting group. A member’s two-year-old grandson, Kody, ended up in a coma following heart surgery; he had little chance for recovery. As the women worked quickly to make a quilt to cover this critically-ill child, they prayed earnestly for him. Against the odds, Kody came out of the coma. As he recovered, his little hands touched and fingered the knots on his quilt. His doctors wrote into his medical chart that the quilt was not to leave his side! The quilt remained with the child through several surgeries, tests, and treatments. It provided comfort and strength for many years. Other patients began to ask about the ministry and soon it had spread to other churches including Bakersfield First UM Church.
The process of making these quilts is saturated in prayer. When a quilt is requested, it is personalized to the recipient on a label and dated. As the women of the quilting ministry piece their quilts and tie in square knots the thread that holds the layers together, they pray for each recipient. After they finish a quilt, it is displayed so that the congregation may come and say a prayer while tying a knot on the quilt.
The same process is true for knitting and crocheting shawls. From the beginning of the project to its completion, the women bathe their work in prayer. Each shawl begins with a prayer for the recipient and their needs even when those needs are unknown. When they knit at home, they pray over their work. Some use a knitting pattern, a simple knit three, purl three that represents the Trinity.
One knitter shared, “In a sense this ministry is a ‘blind ministry.’ When knitting or crocheting a shawl one doesn’t know where it is going, what will be the effect, who will receive it, but God knows.” Another remarked, “There is joy in selecting the colors of yarn for the next shawl as well as the pattern. One can meditate while knitting. It is peaceful in God’s presence.”
Opportunities to witness and share the love of Christ occur when a knitter has taken her project outside her home and works as she waits for an appointment or meeting. As one knitter explained, “Often an individual will strike up a conversation when they see someone knitting. That opens the door to talk about the prayer shawl ministry and our faith.” When the women gather together at the church, they take time to lay hands on their work and pray out loud in a ritual of prayer. At the completion of each shawl, a card is attached that includes a space for a hand-written prayer.
In their own city of Bakersfield, shawls are sent to several hospice groups and shelters for battered women, abused children, and the homeless. The women provide shawls and support for the Dream Center, a ministry to young adults in foster care who are required to transfer out of the program when they turn eighteen. At the center they are given help finding a permanent place to live, help with writing resumes, and learning how to interview for a job as well as other life skills.
The Knit-A-Prayer ministry steps into action when disasters of all kinds occur. In 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck northeast of Tokyo; it was the largest ever to hit Japan. The resulting tsunami compounded the damage. Serving at the time were eight missionaries from the United Methodist General Board of Global Missions. The Bakersfield women sent their prayers and shawls to Japan, which were distributed by the missionaries along with other efforts by the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR).
GBGM contact, Claudia Genung-Yamamoto wrote, “These shawls have special meaning and we would like to distribute them through partner groups, especially through the Japanese church women with a message of God’s love shared with both Christian and non-Christians in the Tokyo area.”
Closer to home, last summer these women sent shawls when one of California’s largest fires, the Erskine Fire, killed two people, destroyed 309 homes, and damaged hundreds more. People who lived in the path of the fire were in evacuation centers for weeks. These evacuees were not alone, for the Bakersfield women actively prayed and sent shawls through a long-time member of their church. He just happened to be serving as a local pastor for two of the communities hard hit by the fire.
The women share many stories where they have seen God’s hand on their ministry. One afternoon they received a request for a shawl from a lady in Missouri. She had found Knit-A-Prayer listed on a shawl ministry web site. She requested a shawl for a young adult man, seriously ill in San Diego. The shawl needed to be delivered quickly. Ironically, the daughter of the church’s administrative assistant was returning to San Diego that very afternoon. She took the shawl to the hospital and personally gave it to family members.
Another incident occurred when the women learned of a young girl who had attended VBS at the Bakersfield church. She was seriously ill with cancer. The mother was contacted and said she would appreciate a shawl for her daughter. When it was delivered, the little girl responded by saying, “How did you know that pink was my most favorite color?” She kept the shawl with her constantly through all her treatments until she passed.
Early in the spring of 2017, an adult nephew of a member of the Bakersfield congregation was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He was barely removed from the vehicle before it went up in flames. Doctors were unable to assure the family of his recovery. He was in ICU for a month and had many surgeries. Although he was not a believer in Christ, he kept the prayer lap robe with him constantly. All the prayers that were prayed for his recovery were eventually answered when he walked out of the hospital.
Prayers and Squares and Knit-A-Prayer are not ordinary clubs; they are not an excuse for women to get together for fellowship, although meaningful fellowship occurs; they are not just a creative outlet, although they are that as well. Prayers and Squares and Knit-A-Prayer are two groups of creative, praying Christian women, who like Jesus, are full of compassion; they are women who use their talent to make visible the love of God in the material blessing of a quilt or a shawl. Most of all, they are women who know the power of prayer to love, encourage, honor, heal, and comfort infinitely more than all they ask or imagine.
As Sharon Wainwright attests to the power of God working through the Knit-A-Prayer ministry, “God continues to open doors where we can offer a shawl and prayer. Our original hopes and dreams for this ministry were so small in comparison to where God has directed us. The ‘God winks’ have been many and the blessings numerous beyond measure.”