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Quilting as a spiritual practice

Unitarian Universalists quilt with Muslims, Catholics, Protestants for Boston-area interfaith exhibit.
By Jane Greer
3.31.06

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Interfaith quilt (detail)

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Members of the Lexington, Mass., Follen Church Society and the Wayland, Mass., Boston Dialogue Foundation created a pair of quilts using Unitarian Universalist and Turkish Islamic symbols. (Stanley Griffith)

Six Boston-area Unitarian Universalist congregations and groups will be displaying quilts showing the sources of their faith next weekend, April 7 to 10, at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama. Fifty-seven quilts will be on display, a result of the three-year Faith Quilts Project that invited religious and community groups to explore the sources of their faith through quiltmaking. Two of the Unitarian Universalist groups, Follen Church Society in Lexington and First Parish in Sudbury, made interfaith quilts with other religious communities.

The Faith Quilts Project is the brainchild of Clara Wainwright, Boston-based quiltmaker, public celebration artist, and self-described lapsed Unitarian, who has already created more than 40 collaborative quilts with different groups. Wainwright’s inspiration for this project was a television show about 9/11 that roused her curiosity about the relationship between faith and art. After seeing Frontline’s “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” which showed how people’s faith was sustained or lost by the disaster, Wainwright became especially interested in the ways Muslims were affected. After taking a course in Islam, Wainwright formed a relationship with a mosque in Wayland, Mass., and began a quilt with the women there—a piece featuring Islamic religious symbols. So began the three-year Faith Quilts Project that challenged churches, temples, mosques, and community groups in the Boston area to create a quilt either alone, or with other groups, illustrating the sources of their faith.

Other UU groups submitting quilts include Arlington Street Church in Boston, First Parish in Cambridge, the Sacred Circle at First Parish in Cambridge (Covenant of UU Pagans), and First Parish in Concord. Among the other denominations, religious groups, and community organizations represented are the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Temple Beth Zion, Wiccan Maidens’ Sacred Space, the People’s Baptist Church, the Islamic Center of Boston, Saint Margaret’s Convent, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Women’s Theological Center, the North Shore Hospice, the Boston Rescue Mission, and the Boston Public Library.

Follen Church and the Boston Dialogue Foundation, a moderate Turkish Muslim organization devoted to providing pastoral care for Turkish Muslim graduate students in Massachusetts, worked together on this project. The group created two quilts that are companion pieces showing symbols from both faiths. When hung together, the quilts show a completed globe and a bridge running from one quilt to the next.

The quilt project at Follen began as an offshoot of an ongoing series of conversations and meetings started in 2001 by the Rev. Lucinda Duncan, the congregation’s minister, and Imam Salih Yucel, then the religious leader of the Boston Dialogue Foundation. Duncan, who had long been interested in interfaith dialogue, attended a performance of Sufi dancers in Boston in 2000. “I came expecting a performance but it was really a worship service sponsored by the BDF for Turkish Muslims and their families,” Duncan said. It was at this event that she first became familiar with Yucel’s work.

The two began to talk and decided that their respective groups might be interested in continuing the conversation. Ironically, that first conversation was scheduled right after 9/11. “I had some people call me because they were nervous about coming to that first group meeting,” Duncan recalls. “I tried to tell them that there would never be a safer place to get acquainted. They responded by showing up in large numbers.”

So began a series of monthly meetings and conversations. Then, Follen member Maggie Herzig, who sat on the Faith Quilts Project’s executive committee, decided that the group might be interested in joining together in a creative pursuit: making a quilt.

Making the quilt was a bonding experience, said Ann Schauffler, a Follen member and artistic director of the Follen-BDF project who led the quilters (most of whom had never quilted before) in the design and execution of the quilt. “We began as a group of polite strangers and we’ve grown to be good friends,” she said at the March 12 dedication service held at Follen. “We told our stories and laughed together. We talked about faith and personal beliefs.” Said Leyla Goktas of BDF, “We put in this quilt not only our handiwork but also our hearts that unite in love, peace, and friendship.”

In both quilts, designed to be hung together, bunches of flame-colored tulips and carnations arise from a chalice. The chalice with a flame is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. A scale of justice represents Unitarian Universalism’s dedication to justice, and a dove shows its commitment to world community with peace for all.

The tulips are a symbol of Turkey and were widely used in Ottoman Turkish art since the sixteenth century. Tulips have a religious significance, too: When the name of Allah is written in Arabic calligraphy, it resembles the shape of a tulip. Carnations have been a common secular symbol in Turkey. The quilts also show an image of a woman praying because prayer is at the heart of Islam, and a mosque.

When the two quilts are hung together the image of the mosque stands next to an image of a church. A river representing the spirit of life appears at the bottom of both quilts, a symbol for both groups.


First Parish in Sudbury created an interfaith quilt with members of Memorial Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, and Our Lady of Fatima, a Roman Catholic parish. The quilt, which measures 72 inches by 76 inches, features a circular mandala in the center with abstract images including a tree, water, earth, and fire. In ten surrounding sections, each quilter was able to show some of the faith symbols that had meaning for her. These include a yin-yang symbol, a porch near an ocean, flying geese and a chalice boat, and puzzle pieces.

The eight-member group met eleven times to work on the quilt. The meetings included time for spiritual readings and questions for reflection. In a written statement that will be displayed next to the quilt, one of the quilters noted, “Faith in our everyday world through the language of religion has been divisive and used to commit terrible acts. Our faith quilt shows how the practice of faith can bring us together to create beauty.”

“The quilting experience has changed the lives of the participants,” said the Rev. Katie Lee Crane, chair of the advisory council for the Faith Quilts Project and minister at First Parish in Sudbury. But Crane sees the project’s effect as greater than the sum of 57 quilts and the quilters’ individual experiences. “We are doing nothing short of trying to mend the world,” she said.

The quilt exhibit will also include performances by the Boston Children’s Choir; the Angkor Dance Troupe, a group dedicated to preserving the traditions of Cambodian performing arts; the Ali Ufki Sacred Music Project, a project designed to deepen dialogue and celebrate commonalities among Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Wyatt Jackson doing the Faith Quilts Rap; and a performance of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” a jazz piece that is twentieth-century sacred music. A “Q&A Café” will give the public a chance to talk to some of the quilters.

Clara Wainwright, the originator of the Faith Quilts Project, was also responsible for creating First Night Boston, a citywide New Year’s Eve celebration, which became a model for more than 200 other cities.


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