Sally Snyder first encountered a prayer shawl in 2009, when she saw a soft, yellow one tucked into the casket of a friend’s mother. On it was a note explaining that the pattern of stitches was based on the number three, for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With that, the seeds were planted for a new ministry at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
“It was such a God incident. I had never heard of a prayer shawl,” says Snyder, a cathedral member and founder of Yarns of Love, a church and community ministry that has grown to include some 40 members.
This year that group of enthusiastic knitters and crocheters distributed more than 110 prayer shawls, 34 lap robes and baby blankets, 314 hats, 105 scarves, 20 washcloths and more than 100 prayer squares. Recipients included family and friends, the cathedral’s newly baptized, high school graduates, refugee families, the homebound and members in need.
Community recipients this year included St. Luke’s Hospital, Clinic and Hospice, Nurse Family Partnership, International Students of Lehigh University, Mary’s Shelter, The Room at the Inn Shelter, Seamen’s Church Institute, Women of Excellence of Bethlehem, Turning Point, residents of Memory Care Village, Handmade Especially for You, Community Services of William Penn Elementary School, Everlasting Life Ministries, the Calvary Baptist Church Mission Trip to Wheelwright, Kentucky, and Meals on Wheels.
What makes a shawl a prayer shawl? Intention. Those making a shawl begin with prayers for the recipient and often pray throughout its creation. Upon completion, a final blessing is offered before the shawl is sent on its way.
God’s clear directions
Of the knitting ministry, Snyder says God’s intentions for her were obvious. “God just laid it all out, step-by-step.”
In the summer of 2009, after Snyder had seen her first prayer shawl, she joined a charity knitters group led by the Rev. Laura Howell, an enthusiastic knitter who was a priest at Trinity Episcopal Church, Bethlehem. The next spring, Snyder was part of a small group of cathedral parishioners who, with Dean Tony Pompa and the Rev. Mariclair Partee, studied the book “Unbinding the Gospel.”
“We were challenged to pray about our role in evangelism at the Cathedral,” Snyder recalls.
Shortly thereafter, Snyder was drawn to a book in the cathedral’s library titled “Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry,” written by two women who were early advocates for prayer shawl ministries. Snyder says God continued to guide her into the knitting ministry and, in the summer of 2010, Yarns of Love was born. Experienced people and anyone interested in learning to knit or crochet gather in Sayre Hall dining room on the second and fourth weeks of the month on Tuesdays from 7 to 9 am and Wednesdays from 1:15 to 3:15 pm. Lessons and supplies are provided.
“Yarns of Love is all about God and the ministry he has called each of us to do,” Snyder says. “To God be the glory.”
A knitting ministry isn’t intended to be a blessing only to the recipients. The act of knitting becomes a prayer or meditation in itself, and Snyder says one of its big draws is the fellowship it provides.
She says you can forget whatever stereotype may come to mind when thinking of a knitting and crocheting group.
“We are a very diverse group with people from the church, people from the community, and a lot of people who don’t go to any church,” Snyder says. “We have a homeless shelter nearby and people come from there. The age range really varies. In the summertime we pick up young teens, some people bring daughters. We have one woman born in England, the same day as Queen Elizabeth, and she is my biggest challenge. She always wants things new and challenging. When people come and move into the area, this is a wonderful way to be assimilated into the community.”
The group places their hands on every item they make and bless it, using their own version of prayers found in Knitting into the Mystery, which was published in 2003 and used by knitting ministries all over the country.
In the fall of 2016, the Cathedral hosted the Annual Lehigh Valley Prayer Shawl Gathering, which was attended by numerous knitting groups from throughout the area. “At that gathering, one of the cathedral’s deacons, Canon Rodney Conn, who has knitted three beautiful, very long, Dr. Who scarves, spoke and blessed all of the knitters, crocheters and their work.”
The Power of Prayer Shawls
“I had no clue to the power of prayer shawls until I got into this. I have been blown away by the power of prayer shawls,” Snyder says.
She tells the story of one man who immigrated to the United States and became a citizen.
“He never felt accepted until he became ill and received a red, white and blue prayer shawl,” Snyder recalls. “He was buried with the shawl.”
In another case, the mother of one of the cathedral’s clergy members died unexpectedly.
“So many knitters wanted to do something for her that we bought a lot of one yarn, which was distributed among 14 knitters who then made 35 squares and crocheted them together into an Afghan.”
Honoring the Rev. Canon Jane Teter
Recently, five members of Yarns of Love delivered more than 150 scarves, hats and cowls to the Seamen’s Church Institute in Newark, New Jersey, for its Christmas at Sea Program. Last year, that program distributed more than 20,000 hand-knit gifts to mariners on Christmas Day.
Each Yarns of Love item was made in memory of the Rev. Canon Jane Teter, an avid knitter and supporter of the Seamen’s Church Institute. At the time of her death in January 2017, she was serving on the bishop’s staff as chaplain to retired clergy and their spouses. While employed by the Diocese of Bethlehem, she coordinated the institute’s Christmas at Sea program for participating parishes.
A tag mentioning Teter was attached to each item donated by Yarns of Love. Much of the yarn used was natural wool donated to the diocese from a sheep farmer in northeast Pennsylvania.
“This was the first year we physically took the things to the Seamen’s Church Institute,” Snyder says. “Before, Jane would pack it up and send it off. We decided this was our love gift to her.”
Yarns of Love is often referred to as a charity knitting group, Snyder says, because “the vast majority of items are made with no idea who will receive them. We do know they’re going to where God wants them to be.”
Anyone who would like more information about Yarns of Love should contact the cathedral office at 610-865-0727.
Photo: (l-r) Sarabel Conn, Sally Snyder, Dotty Barsness, Christmas at Sea Program Manager Paige Sato, Eleanor Lavage and Jacqueline Reader at the Christmas at Sea office in Port Newark, New Jersey.