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The Nation

Sewing Faith and Understanding

April 09, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — After she watched a documentary about the role of faith at ground zero, Clara Wainwright got to thinking. She had lived in Boston for 66 years, and knew exactly one person who was Muslim.

Wainwright decided to learn about Islam from the experts: women who practice it. And she decided to learn from them in an unusual way: by collaborating on quilts depicting their spiritual tenets.

The product of their quilting sessions at a local mosque was a vibrant banner of orange and green, 6 feet square and adorned with a Tree of Faith and the names of Muslim prophets.

That experience -- sharing cultural observations while stitching squares of fabric -- led Wainwright to organize the Faith Quilts Project, an ambitious effort to bring different faiths together through the old and collaborative art of making quilts.

"This wasn't about making people become religious," said Wainwright, 69. "This was about understanding the power of faith in people's lives."

This weekend, 59 of those quilts from scores of religious groups are hanging at the Boston Center for the Arts, a 19th century performance space in the city's South End. Round, square, rectangular and oblong, the shimmering quilts tell the stories of divergent traditions.

"That's just it," said Sister Clare Frances. "The quilts help us to explain what we believe, and to understand what others believe in." The monastic nun from Boston's Jamaica Plain section worked for a year with 22 sisters from her Catholic religious order to create a pale green quilt with a cream-colored center inspired by the habits the group wore for decades. In the center is a crucifix, symbolizing the presence of God.

"Sitting down with the sisters, trying to pull together from all different age levels what would express the life that we have been called to live, was a lesson in itself," she said. "We all had our ideas, and that was part of the process."

Janet Amphlett, a trauma psychologist in Cambridge, Mass., decided to make a quilt to explain the schisms of faith in many American families. As a model she used her own relatives, fundamentalist Christians in the Midwest. She said the design of the quilt became a safe vehicle to approach a topic that had long divided her family.

"For hours, I sat with 14 members of my family and talked about what we believed in," said Amphlett, 50. "We were trying to have a dialogue around the differences, and art turned out not to be as loaded as words. We had always been afraid to discuss these issues because they were so adversarial."

Among families and among different religions, Amphlett said, "everyone says, 'Don't get me started.' But how are we going to talk if we don't get started?"

As word about the project rippled through churches, synagogues and mosques around Boston, Wainwright received quilts from evangelical Christian groups, a stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Baptist church, an Episcopal parish and a drug treatment center associated with a Christian 12-step program.

A local Wiccan group contributed a quilt, as did a Native American woman who sewed abalone shells onto her quilt to show the relationship between spirituality and nature. Quilters from several Jewish temples portrayed an array of elements from their belief system. An African American mosque made a quilt titled "Our Pathways to Islam."

"Somebody told us, you are going to have a cathedral of quilts," said exhibit director Brett Cook as she toured the colorful display. "And we do."

Wainwright said the quilts became a medium for communication, luring people out of what was often an insular insistence on their own spiritual heritage.

"You go to your own temple, your own church, your own mosque," she said. "And when people who are not part of a religious tradition meet people who are very devout, they are often suspicious."

As the project grew, Wainwright began offering workshops to faith-based groups. She is hopeful that the effort will spread, much as one of her earlier endeavors took root. It was Wainwright who conceived and executed the idea for First Night, the urban-extravaganza New Year's Eve celebration that began in Boston in 1976. At last count, more than 200 cities around the world had cloned the concept of a city-sponsored festival to usher in the new year.

Like First Night, Wainwright said, the Faith Quilts Project is easily replicable.

"It just takes a small band, probably of women, in any city or town," she said. "You just have to make a few symbolic stitches. You can use these quilts to gather together, to work collaboratively -- and hopefully, to come to some understanding about faith and beliefs."

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