By Richard Sayer
“This shawl was handmade for you by our prayer shawl ministry. As it was made we prayed for you, we asked the Lord to give you many blessings, courage and strength ....” Margaret Kindervater of Meadville sits in her living room reading from a laminated card that came with the handmade pink garment resting on her lap.
It’s a prayer shawl.
“I think of the women who touched this, who sat and crocheted it and prayed ... and they did this for me.”
Kindervater received the shawl during a visit to the Yolanda G. Barco Oncology Institute in Vernon Township while being treated for breast cancer. It was made by the Milledgeville/Fairfield Presbyterian Church Prayer Shawl Ministry and given to Sue Kilburn, the clinical nurse breast care educator working at the institute to distribute to who she thought needed the shawl and prayers.
“I had mentioned to Sue that I was cold and she told me to follow her,” Kindervater explained. “We went into her office and she handed me this shawl and said, ‘This is yours (she then pointed to the back of her office chair and said) and there is mine!’”
Kindervater then lifted the prayer shawl up to her face and tried to hold the tears back. Her voice turned weak and quivered. “It’s like a sisterhood.”
The sisterhood Kindervater is talking about are the survivors and their caregivers.
“I don’t think there is anybody that isn’t touched by cancer,” says Kilburn, who took on the role of doling out the shawls to people who she feels needs one at the institute.
“There is no formula to it. Sometimes you just see someone, you see on their face that they are struggling, that today is a tough day for them. You can tell when people are hurting and that they need something. Some days a hug is plenty, but some days you need more than a hug.” So she keeps prayer shawls on hand for these times.
Kilburn says that prayer shawls have been around since biblical times. Shawls have been used for centuries ceremoniously and as rites of passages to give comfort. Organized efforts such as Kilburn’s aren’t quite as old.
In 1998 two women from Hartford, Conn., began what they called the Prayer Shawl Ministry. Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo used what they learned in an applied feminist spirituality class at the Women’s Leadership Institute at the Hartford Seminary to organize the effort that has grown worldwide.
“We thought it was a great metaphor of what we had learned there about women’s spirituality and ourselves, unconditionally embracing others in our prayers and love.” said Janet Bristow
The idea was to combine compassion with their love of needlework, creating a spiritual activity that reaches out to people in need comforting. They say that many blessings are prayed into every shawl made with this practice. Bristow says “the prayer shawl ministry isn’t an official organization but is a loving outreach.”
Many names are used besides prayer shawl — comfort shawl, peace shawls, mantles — but all are made with the maker praying and bestowing blessings on the recipient. The recipients worldwide are not just cancer patients. Recent drives have been to make shawls for soldiers and their families.
Kilburn’s focus is the cancer patients at the institute, and not just the breast cancer patients she deals with directly, but anyone there who looks like they could use something.
As Kindervater said, Kilburn has her own shawl that she keeps on her office chair. Kilburn received hers from an anonymous donor during treatment for breast cancer five years ago. So she knows what receiving a shawl can do for a person.
“I didn’t know where it came from, there was no one to thank, but it was very moving knowing someone was praying for me during my treatment,” Kilburn said.
It gives her comfort to this day.
Because of her work at the institute and out in the community helping people understand their treatment and options, keeping the shawl close by reminds her of her purpose, reminds her of her treatment, and those who reached out to help her. It helps keep what she is doing close to her own heart.
Recently Kilburn was running out of shawls. She put out what she calls an all-points-bulletin via e-mail lists in hopes to get a few more. She says she never knows how many she might need any given week. Sometime she hands out one, sometimes three or four a week.
The response was remarkable. “They began coming in from all over the region and as far away as Columbus and Florida.” She got so many, in fact, that they are having a display of them at the Oncology Institute now.
But Kilburn is cautious not to say she has too many.
“I don’t want to say I have an over abundance of these because I don’t want people to think we don’t need any more and stop sending them in.” She is aware that the numbers don’t lie, cancer isn’t going away and there will always be a need. She says lap blankets and quilts have also come in and are welcomed. “Some people, especially men, might not want a shawl,” she said.
“Just to be able to hand these out to somebody and say ‘this person was praying for you while they were making this,’ I have yet to see anyone not respond in a very positive way. Hugging and holding it ... getting some comfort ... it’s pretty awesome.”
Kilburn says that the comfort really comes from “the physical part of the shawls that you can actually hold on to it and take it home and wrap yourself up in it. It’s real. It is something keeping you warm. You can feel that compassion and love ... that hug from God.”