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Interview: Linda Dum, prayer-shawl knitter

02 August 2013

'I bring cookies for the ladies; the leftovers are Father's pay for blessing the shawls'

The Prayer Shawl Ministry was started in 1998 in the United States by Vicki Galo and Janet Bristow. It's an ecumenical ministry that has gone around the world.

In the fall of 2005, I was going to have more surgery on my right foot, and I was looking at not walking for another five months. I had a friend at church who knits toe-warmers for a local hospital, and I asked her for the pattern.

After I had more than enough toe-warmers, I asked her what else she was working on. She told me about the ecumenical group she belonged to that were making prayer shawls. I asked her if she would send me the pattern. So now I had patterns and the yarn and started working on a prayer shawl.

I continue to knit prayer shawls - for all the comfort, peace, and strength people tell me they get from putting their prayer shawl around their shoulders, and for the peace that I feel from working on a shawl. Knitting the prayer shawl, and saying prayers for the person who was going to receive it, helped me to think of something besides myself and what I was going through. It definitely saved my sanity that winter.

Most prayer-shawl ministries knit or crochet shawls and robes to console those who are grieving, comfort those who are ill, and bring hope to those in despair. They may also be made to celebrate life and its milestones.

Prayer shawls have been around since the beginning of time. The Jewish faith has had prayer shawls back to before the time of Jesus. They were woven, and people put coloured threads, patterns, and knots in them to remember the laws of their faith.

Our group is based in Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Beaverton, Oregon. I'm the co-ordinator of this group on paper, but it is headed by the Holy Spirit. The group has about 15-20 members. We meet for two hours once a month on a Saturday afternoon at the parish office.

Our parish priest comes and blesses the shawls at the meeting. Some ladies will bring their finished shawls to the meeting, pick up yarn and be on their way. Others will stay the whole time. I bring cookies for the ladies, and the leftovers are Father's pay for blessing the shawls for us. We laugh, and share good times and bad.

We have made and given away over 950 prayer shawls. When we first started, everyone bought their own yarn. Then, as time went on, and people in the parish started to hear about us and request prayer shawls, they would buy us yarn or give us a donation to make the next shawl. Now, unless someone wants to, no one has had to buy yarn since the beginning of 2007.

If someone can't afford a donation, I ask them to pray for the ladies making the shawls.

We gave a prayer shawl to a man who was undergoing cancer treatment. His wife had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. When the man celebrated his 80th birthday, they had decided to donate any money people gave him to us. We received a cheque for $185.

The original pattern was using a size 13 needle - US sizing - casting on 57 stitches. The pattern was knit 3, purl 3, across every row. The finished size for adults is about two feet wide and five to six feet long. We make smaller ones for children that are 18 inches wide and about four-and-a-half feet long.

Our requirement for the yarn is just that it be soft and cuddly, and machine washable and dryable.

There is no right or wrong way to pray as we work on the shawls. Some say a prayer before they start working, others pray the rosary as they knit or crochet. If we know the person who will have the shawl, and a little about their situation, it adds a whole new dimension to the prayers, and brings you closer to them. Some ladies have a set time that they knit and pray, while others when the Spirit draws them to knit and pray.

For me, the knitting is both meditation and practical service. I know that the shawl is going to bring comfort to someone and help ease the stress in their lives. I also find that the stresses in my life settle down, or can be ignored for a while.

Some churches give shawls only to members. But that has never been our guideline. We figured that if someone found us and asked for a prayer shawl, then we needed to get one to them, because they were asking. It might be a friend or, relative, or a stranger who finds me on the internet.

We give shawls to everyone who joins the church at Easter, and I have a picture of some of the 26 prayer shawls we did this year. We used to ask people their favorite colour, and we were often hurrying to finish them before Easter. We found that this wasn't a very prayerful way to work on the shawls.

Fr Dave, our pastor, gives them to the families at the end of a funeral, so they have something to take with them to give comfort. We also have a homebound ministry in our parish, and we make sure that each person is given a prayer shawl to remind them that they are still part of our parish.

I have also made prayer stoles for a church prayer service. Everyone who came forward for a blessing was presented with one. I have made pillows with pockets for the confirmation group, so the youth could keep their Bible or paper and pen in the pocket during their retreat. I have also made bags that the youth could keep things in. I have made and helped make banners for our church.

Dum - pronounced "Doom"- is a German name that, we have been told, means "wood" or "carpenter". My husband, his father, and grandfather were carpenters. My husband's mother is Italian. My family comes from Belgium and France.

My mum taught me to knit when I was about nine or ten years old. We learned to make hats, scarves, slippers, and mittens before moving on to pullovers and cardigans.

My husband and I have three children, two boys and one girl, who are grown, and one grandson who is one year old. My husband works with computers, and has been a great help with the prayer-shawl ministry. We will take our three children and their spouses and our grandson to Disney World to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in the fall.

I attend a Roman Catholic church. My family has been part of this parish for 39 years. You are greeted by smiling faces as you enter, and if you are missing for a week you're asked if everything is OK. The pastors' homilies are practical.

Homilies that deal with how we should treat others have had the greatest influence on me. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy tell me how I can be the best person I can be in treating my fellow travellers. And the great commandment is to "Love one another as you want to be loved."

I lived in co-operative housing in college. Our house mother was a wonderful lady who brought out the best in me and told me that I didn't have to be afraid to try new things: it didn't matter if I failed. I could try again or just do something else. She always told me that I was just fine the way I was: people would like me just for being me.

The sound of ocean waves is very relaxing to me; or listening to water in a creek. God knows how many grains of sand there are, and if he knows that, then he must know all of me. Being still with nature.

My favourite place is Depoe Bay, on the coast of Oregon. The water is very cold, but I love to watch the waves break on the cliffs. In the spring and fall, it's a great place for whale-watching.

I would choose to be locked in a church with the Blessed Virgin Mary. I would want to know how she could keep all the sorrows in her heart and keep going.

Linda Dum was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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