Shawl ministries touch those in need

By FRED MARION, Rocky Mount Telegram - North Carolina

Saturday, April 30, 2005

When Betsy Knode Newton started knitting a shawl three months ago, she knew it would be for someone in need, but she didn't realize it would be her daughter.

The 61-year-old Rocky Mount resident attends West Haven Presbyterian Church, 1001 West Haven Blvd., where a small group of women recently started a shawl ministry.

The idea is simple: At their monthly meetings and during their spare time, members knit or crochet shawls. While they're working, they spend time thinking or praying about the shawl recipient. When the shawl is finished, each member of the group places a hand on the cloth and says a prayer for the recipient. Then, they box up the shawl with a card and send or hand-deliver it to someone who might need it.

Since 1998, small shawl ministry groups have been popping up across the country. The brainchild of Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo, the idea came out of a Women's Leadership Institute at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. Bristow and Galo started knitting shawls for friends, family members and women undergoing treatment for breast cancer and other illnesses.

"They can wrap the shawl around them and know that somebody knows their situation and wants to give them comfort," said Lyn Stephens, coordinator for the West Haven ministry.

West Haven has a congregation of about 175. Eight members and one woman who doesn't belong to the church are involved in the shawl ministry. They range in age from their 30s to their mid-70s. Right now, it's an all-female group that meets at the church from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on the first Saturday of every month.

The ministry has given out 13 shawls in the three months it‘s been around.

There's a story to each shawl.

Three years ago, Newton stashed away her knitting needles after making gifts for her grandchildren. She doubts she would have gotten the needles out again if it hadn't been for the shawl ministry.

Her first shawl, started in February, was made with multicolored yarn. They're gentle spring colors, she said, sort of like a Matisse painting. She worked on it in small chunks, knitting and purling when she could rustle up some spare time.

Then, she got the bad news. About five weeks into a pregnancy, Newton's daughter, Laura Campbell, had a miscarriage.

"When I started knitting it, I wasn't knitting it for her," Newton said. "She was just on my mind and heart a lot, and a friend said, ‘You might be knitting that for Laura.'''

Campbell, a 37-year-old architect, lives some 200 miles north of Rocky Mount in Alexandria, Va. Newton knew how difficult the miscarriage was on her daughter, and during one of her visits, she took the completed shawl with her.

It was exactly as long as Campbell is tall: 6 feet, 3 inches. It came with a personalized card that contained a prayer, which the members of West Haven recited while touching the cloth.

"I felt like it was sort of a physical hug or embrace," Campbell said, "like it was a way for my mom, through this ministry, to say, ‘Hey, here's a hug. Here I am.'''

West Haven's pastor, the Rev. Connie Button, is also a knitter. The act of making a shawl has meditative qualities, she said, sort of like humming the same song over and over again. She estimates that the women in the group each finish about one shawl a month.

"Some people begin a shawl and don't have someone in mind, and that's how I started my first one," Button said. "But as you move through it, you think of someone."

Much of it is word of mouth.

A church member might know someone in a distant state who has had a child. They might have a relative who underwent surgery, or they themselves may have lost a loved one. Because the shawls are often directly tied to life-changing events, they become a strong source of comfort for recipients.


Perhaps shawl ministries come in clusters. Rocky Mount's First Baptist Church, 200 S. Church St., formed a group early in January. Members have plans to begin meeting from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays at Via Cappuccino, 3002 Sunset Ave.

The eight or so members are all involved with the church's missionary group, the Susan Canady Circle.

Rocky Mount resident Joyce Haney, 63, is a member of the missionary circle. She's not a knitter, but one of the group's shawls went to her sister, Janice Smith, in Greensboro.

Smith, 57, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003. During a phone interview, she said she uses the melon-colored shawl during her quiet time, maybe when she's doing her devotionals or resting.

"When it's on, I feel very surrounded by prayers," she said. "It's not a reminder that I have cancer, but it's a reminder that people care for me and are praying for me. ... I have a deep sense of peace when I'm surrounded by it."

The West Haven shawl ministry accepts yarn donations and is open to the public.

For information on joining the group or starting a shawl ministry, call the church at 446-5226 or visit



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