In the bedroom of every fellow in the Portland, Oregon, community of Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) lies an astonishingly colorful and carefully patched quilt. Upon first glance, it appears these quilts have been crafted by the gods. (If you thought so, you’d be close enough!) These quilts, it turns out, are actually the culmination of the hard work and dedication of the Portland Local Support Committee and its constituents.
Support for the service house comes from four Portland Quaker congregations: Bridge City Meeting, Multnomah Meeting, West Hills Friends Church, and Reedwood Friends Church. As part of welcoming the incoming QVS fellows to the Portland area, Friends from these meetings gather together every summer for a work party at Multnomah, where they volunteer to cut fabric, arrange thematic patches, and sew together some of the most vibrant, individualized quilts in all the Pacific Northwest. Jane Snyder, devoted support committee member and quilting connoisseur, spearheaded this tradition back in 2012 when she first joined the QVS family.
She recently invited me into her home on a breezy Portland afternoon and fed me crackers, carrots, apple slices, hummus, and other healthful, tasty morsels in classic Jane style. She told me that not only does she view the yearly quilt making as a fun and engaging QVS tradition but also as a kind of ministry.
Jane’s inspiration for the QVS quilting project began at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference where she met several women who practiced the art of quilting as ministry. The entire conference meeting room was colorfully lined with their craft. These women, members of the North Seattle Friends Church, affiliated with Evangelical Friends International, come together regularly to quilt for those in need of healing.
In one project, Stone Soup Quilters, Friends make quilts for individuals beginning cancer treatment; prior to delivery, they drape them over the meeting room pews to pray for healing for the recipients. Their second quilting project, Peace through Pieces, emerged as a response to the violence in Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s. “A lot of the women in Burundi were widows and considered social outcasts because they’d been rape victims,” Jane explained. “They just didn’t have any way to make a living or fit into the culture. The Peace through Pieces project brought them sewing machines and taught them how to sew and sell their quilts. So those were my inspirations for this project.”
Quilting is indeed an act of healing, an act of agency. And as the local support committee consistently demonstrates, quilting is also an act of welcoming. Each QVS fellow’s quilt contains six thematic patches that symbolize the work they will embark upon during the year; the remaining colorful designs come from the generous fabric donations made by folks from the local Portland meetings.
Jane and I paused during our interview so she could show me the process of tracing images and cutting fabric with her rotary cutter and grid. She carefully laid out the thematic patches that she incorporates into each quilt: the QVS logo; a peaceful dove; a set of volunteer hands; Portland’s infamous backdrop, Mt. Hood; and an image of a hand with a heart sewn onto it, inspired by the Shaker saying “Hands at work, hearts to God.” The earth-tone fabric, Jane pointed out to me, is an Australian aboriginal design. She brought me across the room to show me her sewing machine. “At the work party each year, we put all the fabric on a table in the middle; several people bring sewing machines, and the whole fellowship hall is filled. There are some really fun and funny characters that show up and it’s just a laugh fest from beginning to end, trying to figure out which patch to put where.”
Jane emphasized that both Liberal and Evangelical Friends come together each year to collaborate on the quilt making. “This is just one of so many examples of the convergence of Friends in the Pacific Northwest,” she noted. Janet Jump, another support committee member and quilter, agreed that convergence plays a special role in the Portland QVS community: “When I was a kid, you didn’t talk to another branch of Quakers at all—they weren’t real Quakers. But the Pacific Northwest started having regional gatherings of Friends in the late 1970s, and we found ourselves in and out of each other’s spaces. We finally realized that maybe we could do Quaker Voluntary Service as a joint endeavor, too.”
When I asked both Jane and Janet what they hoped to communicate to the QVS fellows through the gift of quilts, I received strikingly similar responses: “Well, when you’re furnishing a house with donated used goods, it doesn’t always look like Home Decorating’s Hall of Fame,” Jane laughed. “We want the fellows to feel warm and welcomed and comfortable and loved when they arrive, and quilts communicate a lot of that.”
QVS founder and executive director Christina Repoley wholeheartedly agreed: “I always think of the Portland QVS quilts as symbols of the love and support surrounding our fellows. I remember one fellow remarking in awe when she was presented her quilt, ‘They had never even met me, and they made me this amazing quilt!’ I like to think of the quilts as a physical expression of the love local Quakers have for our QVS fellows even before they meet them. Our fellows can literally wrap themselves in this love.”
As we Portland QVS fellows headed into our last few months of the service year of community, nonprofit work and spiritual exploration, we continued to cherish our colorful quilts. The more connections we made here in Portland—within our site placements, the local Quaker community, and among ourselves—the more we found ourselves growing into our quilts, and into the QVS experience.
Adriana, a QVS fellow from Seattle, reflected on what she’d learned about quilting from her spiritual nurturer, another active participant in the annual work party: “I’ve come to better appreciate quilting as an art form and a way to send messages. It’s more than just a practical thing you make look nice; it’s deeper than that.”
As for me, typing here atop my quilt of chirping birds, scheming cats, and primary colors, I’ve come to better understand the process of quilting as ministry and the concept of ministry in general. Still fairly new to Quakerism, I asked several people after my interview with Jane to clarify what the word “ministry” meant in a Quaker context, or at least what it meant to them. What I gleaned is that ministry happens when the spirit moves individuals to action, bringing joy to themselves and others. If that is the case, then Jane and the local support committee have certainly fulfilled their purpose.