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"Holy Comforters" Sent `Round the World: LWR Quilts

The Lutheran World Relief quilting project was born following WWII, when American women in Lutheran congregations volunteered their time and sewing talent to respond to the need for blankets among the war's survivors in Europe. Six decades later, this holy mission is still going strong, only now the quilts are more likely to end up in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America, or Micronesia. They are given to desperate families who have lost their household goods due to violence, flood, earthquake, or other calamity. Of all the many disaster-relief agencies, only Lutherans distribute quilts.

I was intrigued by turning discarded linens into gifts of beauty and warmth the very first time I heard of the project. The church I belong to, Advent Lutheran in Madison, Wisconsin, did not participate in LWR quilting, but I was determined to start such a group when I retired. That occurred in September 1995.

In the 20 years since, the quilters at Advent haven't missed a month without turning out quilts: 3,300 so far and counting! Every October, we load up a pickup truck with our 50-70 apple boxes of quilts for our trip to the railroad head in Madison. That's where we encounter trucks and vans full of quilts from Whitewater, Baraboo, Mt. Horeb, and towns all over southern Wisconsin. Volunteers help load the boxcars, sending on their way the sum total of the year's output in quilts--the sum total of a willingly given, collective labor of love.

I have always wondered how quilt output in the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin compares to other synods in the ELCA. In the spring of 2015, I went looking for some answers. One of the first things I learned is that statistics are not kept by synod because ELCA and LCMS donations are co-mingled.

But there was still much to learn. Speaking to various leaders of quilting groups in this synod, found that we all operate similarly. Advent is a relative newcomer to the project, compared to many congregations who have been at it for 40-50 years! A few youth and men do participate, but, let's face it, it's older women, most of them retired, who produce these quilts; and all are proud to be among the most productive seniors in their congregations.

Our quilters meet once a month, year-round, for a five-hour shift. Some groups meet weekly and some go on hiatus in July and August. Some groups are lucky enough to have volunteers who make the quilt tops at home. But many do the whole production at church, an operation we call "making sandwiches"--60-by-80-inch sandwiches. (We sandwich purchased batting between the gorgeous top and the much-plainer back. Raw edges are turned under and pinned to be topstitched.) Most groups make their tops from cut squares, but my favorite style is of color-coordinated strips or large, framed rectangles.

Our quilts aren't really quilted; they are tied together with knots every 10 inches. REAL quitters use 1/4" seams, but--because our quilts will be well-used and are not held together by thousands of tiny quilting stitches--LWR quilts are sewn with 1/2" seams for durability. And, because white blankets will show dirt quickly, many groups are now dying the many cast-off white sheets that come our way.

Occasionally Advent quilters need to purchase fabric, but mostly and mysteriously fabric appears in our donation closet. We don't know if there really are fabric angels afoot or whether its just another generous congregation member shedding unwanted sheets, curtains, tablecloths, or thinning her stash. But, in 20 years, we have never run out of material to make quilts! Other Wisconsin quilters solicit fabric donations from merchants, motels, and the community at large.

Congregations allow their quilters to use Sunday School rooms or fellowship halls as work space. Storage space is crucial because these apple boxes of completed quilts are shipped out only once a year.

Whether it's needed to pay a fair share of shipping costs or purchase batting and sewing notions, some funding is needed. Some groups pull a few quilts from their inventory to sell. We had a gifted potter who made and donated ceramic Christmas ornaments, which we sold to benefit the quilt project. Many groups rely on memorial gifts or take special offerings to cover expenses. Some churches subsidize their quitters' budget because they recognize this as a mission of the entire congregation.

Everyone I interviewed agreed that the happiest event is when the quilts are displayed at the end of the quilting year. For us that's October. Some churches do this twice a year but most save this treat for the one or two Sundays before the quilts are shipped. Midvale Lutheran in Madison calls it "Holy Comforter Sunday." That day the sanctuary is transformed into a riot of color as every pew or chair is covered, as is the altar. Church members look forward to this annual event--but no one more so than the women who have labored the past 12 months to create these "holy comforters." Each of us has a favorite, I suppose, and what a joy to see it one last time. Soon it will be packed up for its long journey across the ocean to someone who will welcome it both for its warmth and its beauty.

Bob Topel, who belongs to Lutheran Church of the Living Christ in Madison, has volunteered to head up the Madison area in-gathering of quilts for the last six years. He works closely with the Southern Wisconsin railroad to schedule the pickup date, recruits volunteers to help with loading the train, is responsible for the safety of the whole operation, and tries to keep statistics on which church shows up and with how many quilts. He gives the Holy Spirit credit for the successful completion of this task each year because he never knows how many churches are actually producing quilts until they show up on shipping day. In 2014, 91 individual churches showed up, delivering more than 60,000 pounds of goods (including soap and health care kits) in nearly 3,000 apple boxes.

Quilts travel by train or truck to either Baltimore or Minneapolis. Madison's boxcars go to Baltimore, where the quilts are repacked into large bales, shrink-wrapped in plastic, and sent by ship to foreign ports. The last leg of their journey is most likely by truck to the city or village awaiting their arrival. Lutheran World Relief requests a donation of $2.50/quilt to cover shipping, but they will deliver our quilts whether we cover this cost or not.

Every year Lutheran World Relief sends out an annual report showing countries served and the number of quilts received in each. In 2014, LWR distributed close to half a million quilts. According to Melonie Gibbons, director of the LWR Quilt Project, one third of those quilts were sewn in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan!

It is an impressive report but it still left us wondering: Where exactly did OUR quilts go? This year, for the first time, we were given the opportunity to barcode our boxes so they could be tracked. None of the quilters I interviewed had successfully used the tracking system, but I know this will change as we become more familiar with it.

In the course of my conversations with many fellow quilters, one thing became perfectly clear: Participating in this quilt-making project is one of the most rewarding experiences of these women's lives. The combination of working side by side with other dedicated and loyal friends, using our creativity, our skills and our time, and fulfilling Christ's command to ease the suffering of others ... well, it fires us up! We are grateful to Lutheran World Relief for providing the infrastructure for us to contribute through this amazingly successful, heart-warming humanitarian program.

A 12-minute DVD entitled "Ordinary to Extraordinary" can be requested from LWR. It shows the joyful excitement of a distribution event.