Rev. Mark Koyama
Quilting as Prayerful Action
Quilts 11 and 12 on the Altar at the United Church of Jaffrey
Enter almost any church in the United States, and you are likely to find a quilt on the altar. This is no coincidence. Quilting is ideally suited to the liturgical purposes of the church. It is an artform that uses symbol to express the narratives of community. Deeply embedded in family tradition, quilting evokes the comfort of deep memory – a nostalgic resonance that moves from generation to generation. As such, this art form deftly bridges all manner of difference: ethnic, gender, generation, culture.
We also know, from the precedent set by the AIDS quilt of the 1980’s, that properly curated, quilting can transform our cultural landscape by giving voice to shared trauma and deepening our collective empathy. Inspired by love, and prompted by a sense of shared purpose, quilts can transform reverence and intention into action.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on May 25th 2020, I sent a proposal to the UCC churches of New Hampshire: let's show solidarity with our Black and Brown brothers and sisters (for once!) in this traumatic moment and create a collection of quilts that memorialize the words that Mister Floyd uttered during the final nine harrowing minutes of his life when Derek Chauvin pinned him to the pavement. Nine UCC churches in the New Hampshire Conference (NHCUCC) responded to the call. As the pandemic summer progressed, so too did creation of 10 quilts – a process that was chronicled in a short documentary film entitled Stitch Breathe Speak, The George Floyd Quilts. When the quilts were gathered and blessed in September of 2020, two of the original quilters, Dr. Harriet Ward and Kathy Blair, joined me to form the Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry (SAQM) a justice and witness ministry of the NHCUCC.
The ministry has been well received. In churches, schools, galleries and retirement communities across New England and New York (and most recently, Ohio) we have found that the combination of the quilt exhibit, film and sacred conversation opens people’s spirits in profound and surprising ways. While it is clear that people of European descent and people of African descent respond differently – in both cases, people are eager to talk. These quilts were prayerfully made – the pathos of their intention is manifest. Hence, when they are respectfully experienced, earnestly discussed, and thoughtfully considered from the pulpit, they offer multiple opportunities for the spiritual transformation that we all so crucially need.
We have found an effective and impactful new Antiracism tool. The more we show our work, the more we understand that quilting is a spiritual solution to a spiritual problem. Our job is not done. Churches everywhere should be confronting racism in this way. Our job will not be done until people like Tyre Nichols, Jayland Walker and Breonna Taylor can be celebrated for their beautiful lives, not mourned for their wasteful deaths.
What if UCC churches across the country made quilts in an effort to confront racism? What if ending racism and racial violence commanded the same level of cultural urgency as the AIDS epidemic? Help us to realize this vision.