Quilts in Burundi: The Unending God Story Goes On

For many years my personal ministry has been to make quilts for people in hard places—divorce, terminal illness, or depression. The Lord prompts me who should receive the quilt. I pray for that person while stitching. As I give the quilt, I say, "As you wrap up in this quilt, may you feel God’s arms around you in love, comfort, and peace." Reports back have affirmed that this really happens. Healing takes place in my life in the giving, and also in the life and heart of the recipient.

The Stone Soup Quilting Ministry of North Seattle Friends has been embraced by the entire congregation as one way to reach into our community by showing Christ’s love. We make about 150 quilts per year from donated fabric to give to the Cancer Care Alliance, which then gives them to stem cell patients. This provides warmth to them when going through chemotherapy, and wraps them in love.

Once every two months, we lay the completed quilts over the church pews, have a quilt blessing, take the quilts home to wash, and then return them. When these rituals are completed they are delivered to the hospital. This type of caring and concern has expanded to other places.

In February 2005 David Niyonzima, a Quaker pastor and director of THARS (Trauma, Healing and Reconciliation Services) in Bujumbura, Burundi, spoke at the FWCC Northwest Regional Gathering. He was accompanied by his 16-year-old daughter, Daniella. As a survivor of the genocidal attack that killed his students in the pastors’ training school, David had a moving message of forgiveness as he described the work that is being done to bring healing to the emotionally, physically, and spiritually traumatized victims of war. THARS especially works with women who were raped or disfigured by acts of war and consequently rejected by their families and ejected from their homes. I felt empathy towards the traumatized women, but that was as far as it went at the time.

Daniella stayed in the United States for three months after this meeting. One day I received an e-mail from her hosts wanting to know if I had a leading to make Daniella a quilt. This was the first time God had prompted me through someone else. I pondered the request for several days and finally shared it with my pastor, Lorraine Watson. I have since learned, and keep on learning, that sharing a God story can revolutionize one’s entire life! We started to talk about what I should do when the question was raised: "If quilts have a healing quality here, for both makers and receivers, what would happen if the Burundi women learned how to make and give quilts—and do you want to teach them?" Oh my goodness! We all felt the overshadowing presence of the Lord in the room. I sat with my mouth open and head turning as each comment was made, unable to speak. Me? Go to Africa?

Patty Federighi, head of the Stone Soup Quilting ministry, e-mailed David Niyonzima to explore the idea. Would the project work culturally? Would the women even want to do it? He responded, "In Burundi, giving a blanket to someone tells them that you love them." With this encouragement, I visited my pastor again but said, "I am going to be 70 in January!" Her direct response was, "So?" These affirmations were all I needed—I was going!

The quilt for Daniella opened a much larger door. But how would we get the money to go to Burundi? Patty wrote and received a grant from Good News Associates for seed money. FWCC provided a donation from the fund for women in traveling ministries that underwrote all our travel expenses. Wow.

Another difficulty presented itself: women do not travel alone in Burundi. Remember that this is a country recovering from—but not entirely free from—violent war. As it turned out, Lon Fendall, who co-authored the book Unlocking Horns with David Niyonzima, has a heart for Burundi and was scheduled to be there during Christmas break. He invited us to accompany him, and we did. It felt like one God story after another.

Our goal was to see if the project was feasible and if it could help in trauma healing. We arrived on a Saturday and were thrilled to be in David’s church in Bujumbura the next morning. There were over 800 people there for the four-hour service. Five choirs joyously sang. I thought of the trauma they had been through, yet today they were so eager to praise.

David had arranged for us to meet with four of the more than 60 listening groups he had started. Each group has a trained counselor to listen to the victims and to help them deal with trauma. We drove upcountry to meet with the groups. Many had walked two hours, then waited two hours for us to arrive—we were on Africa time! They gave a skit on how they had received help from the counselors and group. Patty told them that we make and give quilts to cancer patients and the blessings received in doing so. We asked if this would be something they would like to learn to do, and there was an overwhelmingly positive response. We gave each group a quilt for the listening center. I will never forget the joy in the faces of the women as we draped a quilt around them. Through our tears we saw the answer to why we had come.

As we got out of the car to visit another group, we heard them singing. Their faces were covered with smiles, and they were all knitting. They were victims of sexual assault and had been part of the trauma counseling healing process. This group was already making baskets, doing embroidery work, and making their own style of quilts to sell, made from 2 1/2-inch fabric strips.

Patty and I had asked God where we should leave some of the fabrics we had brought with us, and it was clear that this was the place. I also left a copy of one of my quilt books. Several hours later David observed two women still looking at the book and fabrics.

The next day, on our way back to Bujumbura, we visited a Friends Mission in Kibimba. This was especially exciting for me because I had grown up writing to a number of missionaries there. Although the missionaries were forced to leave, the school and hospital are still there. It again cemented in my heart how important it is to pray for and encourage Friends in far places.

We were also taken to where David had been attacked at the school. He showed us the car pit in which he had hid, which saved his life. As we viewed the hydroelectric plant that gave them water and electricity, my mind went back to when I was about nine years old. One of the missionaries had asked my father, a machinist, to build a pump that would bring water up from the river to the mission compound. While this wasn’t the exact equipment my father had made, something happened inside me. I had an overwhelming sense that I have had a strong tie to Africa all my life. God’s presence was so real at that moment, and it still is as I think about that incident.

The next day we went to Congo for Lon to dedicate a training school in Abecka. As we were getting out of the car, a beautiful Congolese woman rushed up to us and gave us a huge hug, exclaiming, "We didn’t know women were coming! They generally don’t send them!" After the dedication ceremony we met with the Friends Women president and several other women. They have a women’s workshop building where they had sewing and knitting machines and supplies. Women would come in to work and then sell their items.

But then soldiers had come and taken everything and a storm had torn off the roof. They asked us to tell the women in Northwest Yearly Meeting that they were there; they did not ask for help, but humbly wanted people to know they existed. We promised to do this. We found out later that $2,000 would rebuild this building. For us the joy was that we were able to present the Congo project to Friends Women Executive Committee, and God brought in $2,600.

As we returned to the city, surrounded almost continuously by the lush green banana trees, adobe houses, plots of maize, and scores of people on both sides of the road, I gave thanks for the many years of service Friends have given. I relished the countryside, which turned into quilt blocks in my mind, and I could not imagine the terror of war in such a beautiful and sacred place. It isn’t over—neither the war nor the work of the Lord.

So what is in store for the future? When this article was first drafted, we planned to go back later in the year, and were in the process of raising $22,000 to proceed, with our goal in sight. Last December, we returned to Gitega and met with 16 women for four days, teaching them the basics of quilt-making. They made eight quilts to take back to their groups to give to another trauma victim, then returned to their villages and listening groups. Each of the eight groups received a treadle sewing machine, materials, and enough fabric to make 30 quilts (240 total). Patty visited them again in April to find the groups have made more quilts, using some of their own designs. In the process, their status in their communities has risen as they share their learned skills. We have been invited to return next summer, 2008, to work with another group of women. After this? Inquiry has already come from Congo and Rwanda! The wonders haven’t stopped. These crossings of paths—not in coincidence but in God’s timing—knock my socks off! Yes, the unending God story goes on and the process continues to bless both giver and receiver.

Carolann Palmer

Carolann Palmer is a member of North Seattle (Wash.) Friends Church. She and Patty Federighi, also of the church, are recipients of Susan Bax grants for women traveling in the ministry, administered by FWCC.