While most people are asleep in their beds during the wee hours of the morning, you'll often find Jean Libby crocheting in her Sugar Creek home. Jean will tell you she'd rather be sleeping. But she can't. She has a painful health issue that affects her sleep. So, she turns her attention to her favorite pastime: crocheting prayer shawls for the purpose of creating a mantle of caring for the recipient.
“This ministry (at Mt. Washington United Methodist Church in northwest Independence) combines knitting, crocheting and praying as we make beautiful shawls with love and care,” Jean says, adding: “The simple act of knitting or crocheting allows us to witness God's mysterious love in a very tangible concrete form.”
A longtime member of Mt. Washington and its prayer shawl ministry, Jean was introduced to the ministry in 2008 when she received a beautiful handmade shawl when her 94-year-old mother died.
“When I put it around me, I felt so much comfort. It was just like my mom hugging me,” she recalls emotionally. “I still get teary just talking about it. ...I still have that shawl and when I get cold I put it around my shoulders . I know it's not just the warmth of the prayer shawl. I know it's the gift of love.”
So touched and moved by the shawl, Jean teamed up with Billie Fullerton, one of the ministry founders. Between the two of them, they have made more than 400 shawls, each measuring about 26 inches wide and 54-to-60 inches long.
“The average shawl takes about 832 yards of yarn, with about 110 to 128 rows of pattern in each shawl,” Libby says, explaining each row of pattern takes a certain number of hand movements. “So, to complete a shawl, it will take in the neighborhood of 28,048 movements of the right or left hand.”
The first Sunday of each month is very special at Mt. Washington. Not only is communion observed, but the finished prayer shawls, “wrapped in God's love,” are also hung on racks in the front of the sanctuary for all to see. Those taking communion lay hands on the shawls and pray over them. Then the pastor blesses them. On April 2, a red, white and blue prayer shawl was sent to Independence police officer Tom Wagstaff at Centerpoint Medical Center after the congregation prayed over his shawl and it was blessed.
Prayer is an important aspect of the prayer shawl ministry, which also combines knitting and crocheting.
“At the start of each shawl, God is asked to bless the hands of those making the shawls and to bless and bring comfort to the recipients, Jean says, adding: Prayers are uttered during the knitting and the crocheting to weave prayers into the stitches and additional warmth into the shawl.”
What is God doing in the prayer shawl ministry? Take Steve Barber, for instance. He asked for a prayer shawl after watching Jean making one on a railroad excursion. After the completed shawl was blessed, he gave it to a vision-impaired girl who was having seizures that puzzled her doctors. They didn't know the cause or how to stop them. Jean says she was overcome with joy when she saw Steve months later and learned the little girl hadn't had a seizure since she received the prayer shawl.”
Carol Fields, a member of Mt. Washington, says she mailed a prayer shawl to a high school classmate who had very serious cancer. Her fate was uncertain. Upon receiving it, she put the pure white shawl around her shoulders. Admitted to the hospital for surgery, she took it with her and was allowed to wear it into surgery. She wouldn't take it off. Now she is cancer free.
“They do bring you comfort,” Carol says of the shawls. “If you're in pain, and I am quite often in severe pain, I bought one and put it around my shoulder and I feel that comfort and those prayers that my congregation prayed over the shawl. It's hard to explain, but you feel it in your spirit. Yes, it's remarkable. It's such a warmth; it almost gives you goose pimples – almost.”
Marilyn West, Mt. Washington choir director, uses “heavenly” to describe her feelings after wrapping up in the shawl following knee surgery a couple of years ago.
“When that prayer shawl comes around you, it's a feeling I can't describe, Marilyn says with a glow on her face. “It is a heavenly feeling, and you know (the shawl) has been made with prayer and the prayers just inseminate,” she exclaims, adding: “It's hard to explain. You know you have made contact with God.”
Calling herself a person of “great empathy,” Marilyn says accepting gifts is “hard” for her to do.
“So when I put that prayer shawl on, I know the love that went in it and I know the love that comes from it. I have given a lot of these prayer shawls (to others), and everyone who receives one is so touched.”
Not all recipients keep their prayer shawl after their recovery. Some pass them on to others, like Marilyn's brother-in-law Jerry Rice, who “wrapped it around his shoulders while recovering in intensive care, felt the love of that prayer shawl around him and had a miraculous recovery,” Marilyn recalls. “I know he passed that prayer shawl along. It's no telling where that shawl is.”
The prayer shawl ministry is NOT a profit-making endeavor. It's a “labor of love” with all proceeds going back into the ministry to buy more yarn, to make more shawls and to bring more love, warmth and comfort to more people. The beautiful shawls are available at Mt. Washington. There is no price tag on them. But they aren't giveaways either.
Says Jean Libby: “We ask, if you can, to leave us a (generous) donation, because it takes a bit over $10 worth of yarn to make a shawl if you buy it outright, which Billie and I are doing.”
Have any yarn or scraps you aren't using? Don't throw them away. Jean and Billie will gratefully take them to keep down the cost of making the shawls.
For more information about the ministry, call Jean Libby at 816-836-2356 or Billie Fullerton at 816-833-3658.
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.
--- NOTE: This has been corrected to reflect the name of the church, Mt. Washington United Methodist Church.