The Case of the Traveling Quilts By Rosemary Sternbeck

Most of us have heard stories of a magic carpet that could take its commonplace traveler to far-off exciting places, seeing unexpected and wondrous things. You would be pleased to know how far quilts travel to bring comfort to others. During the years we spent serving on the Makah Reservation at Makah Lutheran Church in Neah Bay, Wash., we formed relationships with many generous church bodies around the country. One of those was Emmanuel Lutheran in Longview, Washington. Their missions team, called Machines of Mercy (MoM), became interested in serving in the United States instead of abroad as in past years.

Neah Bay 2010 Making a quilt
Neah Bay 2010 Making a quilt

At the time, several women in the church and I met once a week with girls in the village to teach them sewing, cooking, gardening, crafting, serving in community service and, of course, learning God’s Word. Hearing about what we were doing, MoM donated boxes of material, sewing kits, thread, embellishments, quilt batting and four new sewing machines.

Among the donated boxes was a large number of quilt tops ready to be finished. The older girls decided to tackle quilt projects they could keep or gift to a family member. The younger girls learned to tie baby quilts to put in layettes.

Then a natural disaster struck Haiti. The coastal village of Neah Bay experiences many winter storms a year. Some of those result in tsunami warnings, causing people to be ready to move to higher ground. To the girls, they knew this suffering could have been theirs. Every week we prayed for those impacted in Haiti. Then, one of the girls said, “We should do something!” I thought, “Why not?”

Two years prior, a volunteer team came to work with our group just before our summer break. Terry and George Putnam continued to keep in touch, so I knew their daughter was serving in the mission field in the Dominican Republic. Terry promised to help make the connections, so we got busy working on a special quilt.

Neah Bay girls making quilt in 2010
Neah Bay girls making quilt in 2010

During a pajama-and-pizza party for the younger girls, we chose a quilt top that had many white squares on it. The girls drew pictures reflective of their community or wrote words of encouragement, like “Hope” and “Love” on half the white squares. The older girls wrote Bible verses on the other half. We worked quickly to tie and bind the quilt so we could send it to Terry along with a picture of our girls. Her friend promised to do her best to keep track of it.

Haiti quilt Neah Bay P1040742
Haiti quilt Neah Bay P1040742

Weeks later, we received a letter with a picture of a family sitting on the quilt! Although this family lost two of their own family members in the disaster and had a disabled child, everyone in the picture had a grateful smile for us. All of the girls were speechless. Then, one of them pointed and squealed, “Look! There’s my square!”

Several years later, David and I were called to Alaska. In May 2012, we packed everything we planned to bring into a truck and our car, including a tote filled with the last of the smaller quilt tops.

It was a busy year setting up house and meeting many people in our new community. Time flew by. We bought our house, welcomed our volunteer groups going to the villages and I took my first trip into the remote villages of Shungnak and Point Hope. The whole year came and went before I knew it. Still, I kept wondering how I would use the quilt tops.

The following year, the Tanana vacation Bible school team led by Curt and Sandra Melland arrived in mid-May. During our conversations prior to their arrival, they decided to use the quilt tops to make quilts for the Elder Home residents. They bought two new sewing machines and planned to sew with some of the women during their evening hours after vacation Bible school (VBS). However, they had barely arrived when the ice on the river began to move in huge pieces down the river. Concerned about flooding, the villagers began to prepare to move to higher ground away from the water.

The team jumped into action, helping families move household items and fill sand bags. They also kept the children occupied, learning in VBS that no matter what the problem, they could “Fully Rely On God.”

WEB Volunteer teaching 2 girls to sew
WEB Volunteer teaching 2 girls to sew

With the sewing machines, they helped the children who met in the evenings sew pajama bottoms out of the fleece instead of using it for the backing on the quilt tops. Fortunately for Tanana, the damage they prepared for was mostly averted. However, the ice jammed further down the river, causing massive flooding to Galena.

At the same time, our team was heading to the village of Ruby, their next destination to teach VBS. When they arrived in Ruby, the village was making space for some of the Galena residents who were airlifted out of their devastated village. From Ruby, our team called me, saying, “Please send more fleece material!”

Native woman sewing
Native woman sewing

Once again, they sprang into action to fix meals, teach VBS and, you guessed it, sew fleece backs onto the quilt tops they brought from Tanana. They were used to replace the many gifts washed away by the flood that had been set aside for a traditional Native potlatch. This potlatch was to be a celebration of life for five Native family members that had been lost over the last few years.

This past Christmas of 2013, I called our friends Don and Annie Honea in Ruby. After wishing Don a blessed Christmas, he said, “Wait a minute, Annie wants to talk to you.”

When she got on the line, she said, “I just finished working on the last quilt top you gave us. Thank you so much!”

It always amazes me how God uses the small and seemingly insignificant things to change lives—in this case, small pieces of fabric that may otherwise have been thrown away but for thrifty, dedicated souls at Emmanuel Lutheran.

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27, KJV).

And, of course, to whoever received the quilts, the story will continue. These quilt tops have been to many places, traveling to bless many people. Thank you for your love sewn into every stitch!

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