Whatever the color or design, there is something soothing, nurturing and loving about pieces of cloth stitched together by hand, a cushy roll of cotton between them to bulk up the body of a finished quilt.
Whether they wrap newborn babies, sick children, traumatized disaster survivors, wounded soldiers, refugees or aging parents whose bodies are on the decline, the comfort of a quilt is recognized almost universally. Maybe love is imbued in the stitches small or large, expertly placed or randomly scattered as they pierce the fabric with a thousand needle pricks, making something wonderful from jabs that we usually associate with pain.
In that spirit, a local group of women has organized Quilters Without Borders, an interfaith quilting group dedicated to the premise that friendship can grow among those whose religious views don't match, but can become a patchwork fabric of faith through shared dedication to a common goal.
In doing so, they became part of a growing national trend without even knowing it.
Polly Parkinson, one of three founding members of the group, said it began a year ago when the trio was planning activities for the women in their LDS congregation, the Foothill 6th Ward. They were discussing Utah's religious divide and wondering how they could reach out to women who were not of their faith.
"We wanted to do something to branch out ourselves, to reach out to other congregations in an effort at meeting others and generating greater feelings of goodwill in our area." One woman suggested quilting, knowing that her mother in-law lives in a Salt Lake neighborhood that has a long-standing quilting group chartered not by a religious organization, but by women who simply enjoy a common interest.
Each of the founders identified friends of other faiths to approach about the interfaith group, and several expressed interest. A year later, Quilters Without Borders meets on the first Thursday of each month and includes women from St. Ambrose Catholic Church, Zion Lutheran Church, Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church and First Baptist Church, as well as women from other churches who have not yet hosted one of their quilting sessions.
Parkinson said Wasatch Presbyterian Church expressed interest, but had a conflict for their existing women's group that met at the same time. Still, the church was impressed with the effort and word of it ended up in a statewide newsletter. A women's group in Cache Valley learned about it through that newsletter and contacted Parkinson to ask permission to start a similar group of their own, based on the Salt Lake group's format.
Regular attendance at this point varies from 15 to 25, she said, and the group regularly finishes about 15 quilts per session. One quilter is highly skilled at decorative art quilts, and has begun teaching a side-class after the regular quilting session, using the blocks that class members produce to piece together a quilt that will soon be auctioned off to purchase additional quilting supplies.
"My favorite part of each meeting is we always have a prayer," Parkinson said, noting that the founders stipulated from the beginning that "no one was to try to push their ideas forward from their faith. Joining together in prayer has been part of it from the beginning," with participants taking turns saying a prayer after their own religious tradition.
"Often, they ask a blessing on those working together, on our hands and our needles and the quilts, that as they are donated somewhere that they will bless someone's life."
Conversation among the women ranges from jobs and movies to "who has roots in Chicago, what someone's book group is reading and where to get a Guinness beer," Parkinson said. "It's very diverse. All of these women value spiritual things and value being of service, but they have all sorts of hobbies and backgrounds that's what I love about it."
Jackie Nielsen, a member of First Baptist Church, was one of the women initially contacted by the founders to see if she and others from her congregation might be interested. She was, and now others within her congregation are attending as well.
"My experience has been wonderful. The fellowship is absolutely remarkable. There are no cliques, you sit down where you want, everyone talks with everyone and everybody is made welcome. ... To accomplish the quilts is wonderful, but the fellowship is just out of this world. I wouldn't necessarily expect this in Salt Lake City."
Nielsen said with the local predominance of Latter-day Saints, "they could get together and do a great job without the help of others," but no one in the group is made to feel "other," she said.
"I think we did 17 quilts in May. I think it's wonderful overall, but especially here in Utah. The only religion discussed is what church are you from. In some ways, you would expect the Mormons would get at one table and discuss doctrine or conference and their current events and that women from other churches would do that as well," Nielsen said.
"But there is nothing like that. You can sit at any table and feel completely welcome. I really can't praise it enough. ... I've found it to be a very rewarding experience."
Sandra Wende of Zion Lutheran Church knew several women in the LDS congregation where the group began, and asked friends at her church to join in. "I'm getting to know other women that I wouldn't meet otherwise from other churches. I was raised Catholic, it's nice when we meet at that church, to see all those Catholic symbols and revisit that."
She enjoys talking with women of other faiths. "I'm always eager to meet people, and I don't see (differing religious beliefs) as a problem. We're all working for the same cause to help others. It's never been an issue in my head. With women from other churches, it's nice to talk with them and see how they do things with their families."
To highlight the interfaith nature of their endeavors, the group has just ordered labels to be attached to each quilt they create in the future that says, "A quilt and a prayer," telling recipients that those who made it said a prayer over it. Quilt recipients to date have included Delta Airlines' "A Quilt for Every Bed," project, which donates materials to groups willing to do the quilting.
The finished quilts are then returned to the company, which donates them to Primary Children's Medical Center so each patient can have a hand-sewn quilt. They also donated quilts to "Blankets Without Borders," an organization that works to distribute quilts in Africa. Other recipients have been Shriner's Hospital, The Road Home homeless shelter and St. Martha's charity, which provides newborn items for mothers in need.Parkinson said she had no idea that similar interfaith quilting groups are popping up across the country, but she'd be happy to see the trend expand in Utah, either with others who want to join the existing Quilters Without Borders, or those who want to start their own group. Anyone interested can contact her at 582-6644.