NORTH ANDOVER — A prayer shawl is more than a warm and friendly garment of yarn.
It expresses care, often for someone whom the knitter of the shawl does not know.
Knitting or crocheting a prayer shawl, spending many hours to create something that will bring comfort to another person, is an act of faith on the part of the maker. The gift frequently bolsters the faith of the recipient.
Dozens of Merrimack Valley residents serve their neighbors in need be making prayer shawls. Most if not all of them are women – and most if not all of them are churchgoers.
Fifty or so makers of prayer shawls gathered at Trinitarian Congregational Church the afternoon of Sept. 17 for their annual tea. It was a time of fellowship, chatting and enjoying tea, cookies and sweets.
The gathering also celebrated a dynamic ministry. Pastor Debra Adams, who recently completed her first year of leading Trinitarian Congregational Church, greeted her guests, who she said "share the same goal of providing care and comfort through the prayer shawl ministry."
The ministry is among the outreaches of Communities Together. Lee Schurter, executive director of this nonprofit organization, said the shawls support the chaplains' ministry at Holy Family Hospital and hospices.
"They pray and they knit and they create the prayer shawls," she said of the skilled and nimble-fingered volunteers. The shawls are given to people who are dying, sick or have lost loved ones, she explained.
She estimated 12 Merrimack Valley churches, Protestant and Catholic, contribute to the outreach.
The prayer shawl ministry is one of the facets of Communities Together, Schurter said. The organization also provides after-school and enrichment programs in the Lawrence housing projects, offers Lenten worship services and organizes diaper and underwear drives for struggling families.
Klara Vajda, who attends St. Augustine Church in Andover, is a longtime participant in the prayer shawl ministry in her parish.
"I have a lot of stories," she said when asked why she takes the time to knit these expressions of love. She shared one of those stories.
"I was a facilitator at a Cursillo retreat," she said. "I met a very troubled woman." The woman was experiencing family problems, she said.
Vajda sent the woman a prayer shawl. Her daughter had run away – but on the very day the troubled woman received the shawl, her daughter returned.
Susan Bailey, the chaplain at Merrimack Valley Hospice in Haverhill, said she has distributed "hundreds and hundreds of prayer shawls." When her mother died unexpectedly, she received a prayer shawl.
She told the volunteers how the shawl gave her comfort. She was attending her college reunion when she got talking to a woman and mentioned that her mother had died.
The woman gave her a prayer shawl.
"I felt warm, I felt wild joy," Bailey said. She experienced a "feeling of mercy" and was able to celebrate her mother's life and also grieve her death.