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Prayer flags showcase West Michigan's rich tapestry of faith
Date: November 27, 2012
By Charley Honey
Three prayer flags, three women’s images of the sacred:
•Pat Hall’s shows her as a young girl walking through woods toward a soft light, symbolizing her lifelong journey of faith.
•Vicki Jansma’s depicts another young girl – the Virgin Mary as the teenager she probably was when she gave birth to Jesus.
•Barb Christiaans’ flag portrays a woman weaving, with the Hebrew letter shin, symbolic of God’s presence, woven throughout.
When women gather to make things, watch out. The spirit’s on the loose.
“There’s something about women working with their hands,” says Christiaans, a Jewish weaver. “Something happens.”
“Once you create something that expresses something, it’s a prayer in itself,” adds Hall, a Catholic quilter.
Make that 40 prayers. That’s how many prayer flags a group of women have created to represent the rich tapestry of faith in West Michigan.
Embroidered, quilted, painted or drawn, they are at once intensely personal and a colorful expression of interfaith collaboration. But in place of words, they use symbols to express the heart of faith from many traditions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Native American.
Whether it’s a fanciful feast of Jewish foods such as a Hamantaschen cookie, a gorgeous Tree of Life from the Coptic Christian tradition or elegant Arabic calligraphy from the Quran, these flags display the religious diversity of our region in brilliant colors.
Barb Christiaans envisioned the project as a way for people to promote peace and understanding by sharing from their hearts. Once she saw what the women created, she found it was a reciprocal process.
“I feel my own heart opening – not just understanding, but a real connection to them,” Christiaans says. “You come away with a real sense of oneness.”
The public will have a chance to see the flags over the coming months beginning Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where they will be part of an interfaith art show through December. A reception will be held there from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Other venues scheduled include Trinity United Methodist in February, Congregation Ahavas Israel in March and the West Michigan Hindu Temple in April. The women expect other future venues, and January is still available. (If you’re interested email Christiaans at email@example.com.)
This panorama of prayer is one of the more delightful manifestations of the Year of Interfaith Understanding 2012. Christiaans first broached the idea to Hall at an interfaith program at the Dominican Center at Marywood. They received a $500 grant for materials from the Grand Rapids Foundation through the Interfaith Understanding project, then began emailing and knocking on doors with invitations to take part.
Plenty of women responded. Each created a flag over the summer, then brought them in the fall to be framed and stitched to backing in Sunday afternoon quilting bees at Ahavas Israel. The sessions began with a prayer penned by Christiaans:
“Through our piecework, may we become peacemakers, reaching across the divides, strengthening our common threads, repairing what is torn.”
Surveying the pieces laid out in his synagogue lobby, Rabbi David Krishef said he loves “the diversity of outlooks, of approaches to religion.”
He noted one of the flags depicts a Torah scroll with the words, “The more Torah, the more life,” taken from the Talmud. He said the phrase aptly describes the artist, Jennifer Chambers, who is converting to Judaism.
Vicki Jansma’s flag showing a youthful Virgin Mary also illustrates her own faith journey. Raised Baptist, she converted to Catholicism and was drawn to the young mother who so readily said yes to God.
“I work with teenagers all day long,” says Jansma, a social worker at Kenowa Hills Middle School. “So I think about, God took a risk on her and she took a risk on God.”
Though rooted in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, these flags bear the symbols of many faiths: the Hindu “om” representing Brahman, the absolute; the opening words of a Muslim prayer, "In the name of God the infinitely compassionate and merciful”; the Ojibwe medicine wheel representing the attributes of the great creator spirit; Jesus flooded with light.
Stitching together these deliciously diverse symbols, a half dozen quilting women at Ahavas Israel formed friendships and felt a divine connection with the works.
Says Jansma, “I felt like God was smiling on us.”
These flags will make you smile, I promise you that.