What happens when mild-mannered members of a Bible study group turn into "Guerrilla Lovers"? Well, a whole church can be transformed by committing unexpected acts of compassion beginning in the local community and extending to the global community.
That is exactly what has happened at Calvary Presbyterian Church in St. Clairsville where, in a period of three months, 160 dresses for girls were sewn and 16 girls' dresses, 72 boys' shirts and 117 pairs of boys' shorts were purchased. All of the clothing was donated to an orphanage in Haiti this month.
In the words of church member Ellen Kilgore, this "small miracle" grew from a tiny seed that was planted in the spring. Earlier this year, the Rev. Laurie Armstrong, Calvary's minister, suggested that the small Bible study group read Vince Antonucci's book, "Guerrilla Lovers." In that volume, subtitled "Changing the World With Revolutionary Compassion," Antonucci advocated performing "surprise acts of love."
Girls’ dresses sewn by members of Calvary Presbyterian Church in St. Clairsville are displayed at the church picnic, along with boys’ clothing that church members purchased. All of the donated clothing was presented to St. Clairsville resident Becky Coleman Massey for delivery to Imagine Missions’ orphanage in Haiti.
Inspired, the eight women in the Bible study group began looking for ways to perform "acts of love" for their neighbors. Kilgore, for example, baked cookies for the city's trash collectors and, on a snowy day, took home-baked cookies to the Ohio Highway Patrol office in St. Clairsville. Others performed similar acts of kindness.
But the group members were seeking a bigger project to share their love. After reading an article in the Sunday News-Register about women of Lawrencefield Parish (Episcopal) Church in Wheeling making dresses for girls in a Haitian orphanage, they decided to launch a similar project. While searching for recipients, they read newspaper articles about St. Clairsville resident Becky Coleman Massey's work with Imagine Missions' orphanage in Haiti.
The Loyal Oak Community Chapel Children's Home in Despinos, Haiti, became a perfect fit for the Guerrilla Lovers' sewing project. Adding a special connection, Massey's grandmother, Peg Coleman, is a member of Calvary Presbyterian.
"Everything just sort of clicked," said Ruth Lizon, a Bible study member who served as chair of the project. Kilgore remarked, "It started out with us just wanting to do little things, and then we wanted to do more and go out in the world."
What happened next, in the women's minds, was nothing short of a miracle. The eight group members recognized that the project was too big for them to tackle alone, so they approached the congregation for assistance.
Calvary's members responded enthusiastically by joining the sewing effort, purchasing clothing and making monetary donations for the project and for the orphanage.
The complete collection and a generous cash donation were presented to Massey during the church's outdoor service and picnic at St. Clairsville Memorial Park Rotary Pavilion Sunday, July 17.
To start the work, Lizon said, "We used a pattern that we got from the Dresses for Africa website. We bought some patterns, too, for little sundresses.
Marty Hildebrand, a Bible study member who also is a quilter with the Fort Henry Piecemakers, made dresses and donated a lot of fabric for the project, preparing packets of material for parishioners to pick up at coffee hour. "I'd cut some fabric and put different colors together (for the packets), she said, adding, "It was so much fun seeing what they (the other sewers) had done with it.
Hildebrand said some of the dressmakers added special decorative touches to the sundresses, such as attaching beads to shoulder straps, putting a different strip of fabric near the hem, creating heart-shaped pockets or affixing unusual buttons.
Other sewers and quilters, including some outside the church, also donated material from their "stash of fabric. "A lot of people made dresses with their own fabric, Lizon added. "A lot said they hadn't sewed for a long time.
The group didn't keep track of how many people sewed, but they estimated that about 20 participated. "We certainly were impressed with how many (outfits) we got. It really, really did grow, Hildebrand said.
Regarding the project's impact, Kilgore commented, "It put new life in the congregation. People were excited to see everything as it was turned in.
Every Sunday, the new clothes were displayed in the church hall during coffee hour. A couple of little girls in the congregation even modeled some of the dresses, Armstrong said.
While seamstresses donated their time and skill to make dresses, other members of the congregation were "very generous with their contributions or they bought the boys' clothing, Lizon said.
Referring to Lizon, Armstrong aded, "Someone who doesn't sew made quite a contribution. The other women agreed that Lizon was "a great organizer.
Citing examples of parishioners' involvement, Kilgore said, "An older member who felt she was unable to help in many ways, who was a wonderful seamstress who had made beautiful Barbie doll clothes for many years, found great joy in creating beautiful, colorful dresses.
"A real estate agent who found little to watch on television took great pleasure in getting out her sewing machine after a busy day and filling her evenings with stitching up dress after dress," Kilgore added. "One of our ladies who had raised sons, the youngest just graduating from college this year, took delight in sewing beautiful dresses for little girls."
Participants showed great dedication to the sewing project. One seamstress even took her sewing machine to the beach, while another "went to Seven Springs and her sewing machine went with her, Kilgore related.
Armstrong commented, "Everybody needs to have a purpose. Everybody needs to know that what they do matters. As we let God's love flow through us, we are healed.
The minister added, "It's not just hearing the Gospels and listening to someone preach, it's about getting off our duffs and doing something about it and putting it (love) into action.
Currently, 130 children live at the orphanage. Massey, who was impressed and amazed by the church members' generosity, told them, "All of these kids are going to have a couple of outfits.
At the picnic, dresses were hung on clotheslines stretched between trees in the park and other items were displayed on tables in the shelter. "Ruth (Lizon) wanted to have all the dresses out, and they did, Armstrong said.
The minister added, "When Becky (Massey) was telling the story of the orphanage and preaching, she talked about how in Haiti when they wash clothes, they hang them in the trees. She enjoyed seeing how we'd displayed them.
Imagine Missions, which was formed in 2009 by a group of young adults, is based in Dennison, Ohio. Volunteers from the group have made several mission trips to Haiti. Imagine Missions took over operations of the orphanage in Despinos in January, after the longtime director retired. Melissa Young, a former teacher from Uhrichsville, is now the home's director.
The Bible study members will now move on to another project, Lizon said, but they don't rule out the possibility of helping the orphanage again. "We know that there's always a need, she said.
"It was a lot of fun, Lizon remarked. "It's kind of sad to see it end. But we'll go and do another thing.
The minister called the Guerrilla Lovers "a good group of ladies who are just fun to work with. Armstrong said the group plans to hold a "Breakfast With the Angels in December, that will be open to preschoolers, very young children and their parents. "They'll hear about the story of Jesus, she said.
Reflecting on the "Guerrilla Lovers theme, Kilgore said, "That Bible study opened us to looking for things to do.