The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops, deliberating in New Orleans, has been wrapped in many people's prayers and soon they will have an outward and visible sign of those prayers.
The sign will come to them in the form of prayer shawls knit for each of them.
Shawl ministries are becoming more and more popular in Episcopal Church congregations. The shawls are made with prayers and blessings, along with yarn. Often they are blessed in a liturgy before going to recipients facing everything from the challenges of surgery and loss to the joys of childbirth and marriage.
On September 24, John Rabb, bishop-in-charge of the Diocese of Maryland, is due to present each of his colleagues with a prayer shawl. Arrangements were made for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to receive a rose-colored shawl that was made expressly for him.
The effort to provide the shawls began in March during the National Episcopal Health
Shawl Ministries (NEHM) annual board and regional (provincial) representative meeting in Indianapolis. Province V representative Maryfran Crist, a parish nurse at Christ Episcopal Church in Streator, Illinois, in the Diocese of Chicago, suggested the effort.
The NEHM office put out a call throughout the church for the shawls and Becky Williams, director of health ministries at Luke's Episcopal Church, Baton Rogue, became the collector and cataloguer of the shawls. She reported September 13 that she had received about 300 shawls, or enough to fill 30 large storage bins.
"We have towers of them," she said, adding that most are the size of shawls or lap robes but "some of them are like capes."
Williams said "it's humbling to see the gifts and the time and the talent" that people dedicated to the bishops prayer shawl project.
Each shoulder-wrap-sized shawl takes about two weeks and at least 555 yards of yarn to complete.
Susan Wahlstrom, a parish nurse and chair of NEHM's regional coordinators, said the organizers weren't sure how people would respond to the call for shawls, but "they just started coming."
She said she hopes "that the bishops feel supported with prayer." As she made her contribution, Wahlstrom said, she prayed that the bishops could "sit at the table with each other and be willing to listen to each other."
When they began the non-denominational Shawl Ministry in 1998, Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo wrote: "Shawls...made for centuries are a universal and embracing symbol of an inclusive, unconditionally loving God. They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify. Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly above their troubles...."
Once all the bishops who are in New Orleans have their shawls, Wahlstrom and Williams said, the extras will go to people on the Gulf Coast still recovering from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and perhaps retired bishops.
"They will go to somebody who needs the church to be wrapped around them," Williams said.