Paola Rosas Weed learned that her large family had survived the devastating earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. But she knew that, having left their homes and living in their cars and makeshift shelters in the streets, they were in great need of clothing, shoes and toiletries.
Desperate to help them, she started a Facebook campaign to collect those basic needs that she would deliver herself to make sure they arrived. As word spread, donations filled her garage. Early on Sunday, Oct. 15, Paola flew to Mexico City with over 1,600 pounds of clothes, jackets, blankets, diapers, personal hygiene items…and prayer shawls.
Yes, prayer shawls. These special items were a precious gift that a group of women at Berwyn UMC had knitted, prayed over and given to the earthquake survivors, as they had to survivors of other disasters and to people struggling with illnesses. Their gifts were gratefully received. Prayer shawls are a special ministry at Berwyn and other Eastern PA Conference churches. The Rev. Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne recounts the story of this timely gift and the joyful generosity of both Paola Rosas Weed and the knitting women of Berwyn UMC.
BY THE REV. SUZANNE WENONAH DUCHESNE
On Tuesday, Sept. 19, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City. At the same time Hurricane Maria was bearing down on Puerto Rico. While many people in the United States were following the hurricane, their attention was diverted from the death and destruction in Mexico.
But for Paola Rosas Weed the earthquake took precedence. Her mother and two sisters, their children and families, cousins, neighbors and friends were all in danger.
Soon after she learned that they had survived, she began to hear about the devastation that rocked the neighborhood where she grew up. People had been evacuated from their homes without access to clothing, shoes, or basic toiletries. They were living in their cars or in makeshift shelters in the streets.
Paola wanted to help. So, she began a Facebook campaign to collect new clothing and toiletries to donate to her family and friends. She knew that shipments of donated clothing need to meet strict requirements, and she would run the risk of them being destroyed if she sent them. So, she decided to escort the donations home personally.
As word spread, donations filled her garage. In the early morning hours of Oct. 15 Paola flew to Mexico City with over 1,600 pounds of clothes, jackets, blankets, diapers, personal hygiene items, and prayer shawls. Yes, prayer shawls.
Pat White is a member of the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Berwyn UMC. When I heard about Paola’s plans, I immediately thought of this ministry of the church. During my husband’s recent illness this caring church literally enveloped him and me in prayer shawls. Thus, I knew the powerful presence of prayer manifested in these beautiful, comforting creations.
I approached Pat and asked her about sending some with Paola to Mexico. Her eyes lit up. “You made my day, in fact you made my week,” she said, explaining, “That’s why I do this. It has been one of the most rewarding ministries I have done in the church. It means so much to me when I can serve someone this way, with love and care and prayer.”
Pat went on to explain that most of the time she doesn’t know who she is kitting for; but as she prays she knows that God knows, and she feels wonderful participating with God this way. In this case, God was showing her the intended recipients of these precious gifts!
Since 2006, the women of Berwyn UMC’s Prayer Shawl Ministry have given away about 300 crocheted and knitted prayer shawls. Pat said, “We give them to our female high school graduates and to others to share in their joys, sorrows and praise.” But mostly, the ministry responds to persons struggling with illness.
She told me they also send them to offer comfort and prayer in emergency situations, such as when tornadoes struck Missouri last spring and when Hurricane Katrina left agony and loss in its wake in 2005. In 2011, they sent a box of yarn to Japan to support Yarn Alive, a non-profit organization that supports women in Japan who suffered from a terrible earthquake and tsunami there in 2011.
The shawls are bathed in prayer from the beginning. The knitter prays as she creates a shawl. Then the group gathers all the shawls together. Members form a prayer circle and lay their hands on each shawl, offering a prayer of dedication for each one. Every person who receives a shawl also receives an attached card bearing the name of its donor and a handwritten prayer for their particular situation.
The group of knitters had created more than the usual number of shawls during the past year, leaving them with more than a dozen on hand. Realizing that God had something in mind, Pat immediately contacted the group. After speaking with her on Sunday, we arranged a meeting to deliver the prayer shawls to Paola for her trip. Pat’s care was evident as she helped pack the shawls for their long trip to Mexico,
“It makes me very happy that they are going to such a good cause,” said Pat. “It’s so good and comforting to know that they are going someplace where they will be appreciated.”
The prayer shawls quickly made their way to Kennett Square and then to JFK Airport in New York for the journey to their final destination, Mexico City. Paola journaled on Facebook during her trip. She organized her husband and family to sort the items and mobilized everyone to distribute the supplies, including prayer shawls, to people in need at various stations in the boroughs of Tláhuac and Xochimilco.
On Oct. 19 Paola thanked everyone who helped her, saying, “Yesterday marked one month since Mexico City’s earthquake,” she wrote. “A month ago I could have not imagined that today I would have been part of this most amazing experience. As I fly home my heart is full because of the generosity of the many who donated, because of the gratefulness of the many that received, for the blessings that were sent both ways, and the most importantly the love that I was honored to feel and share with my family.”
”It wasn’t easy but I know God worked it all out,” she shared. “These last five days have been very emotional, seeing firsthand the damage that this earthquake had on my country and its people. It tough to witness. It will be a very long time until everything goes back to normal but I know that we as a group of people made a huge difference.”
The prayer shawls turned out to be one of many blessings on this trip. Paola explained to the people she met that she had prayer shawls. She wanted to help them understand that these were not just ordinary blankets, but that each one had been hand-knitted with prayers for God’s blessing and protection. She had barely finished explaining when they lined up to receive the shawls. Surprised at their reaction, Paola said, “The shawls were gone in two minutes.” Her family asked if she could get more!
Paola’s final post before making the long trek home included a picture with the caption, “People loved the prayer shawls knitted by the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Berwyn United Methodist Church.”
The witness of these women and their willingness to share in God’s calling to bring prayer and comfort to the suffering is an inspiration to us all. If you have a prayer shawl ministry at your church and would like to contribute to this effort, Paola Rosas Weed can assist with information about shipping, which will help you get prayer shawls safely to Mexico and to the people who need them. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rev. Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne is a PhD Candidate in Liturgical Studies at Drew University, teaches Pastoral Theology at Moravian Theological Seminary, and is the wife of Berwyn UMC’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy Duchesne.