By: Christa Meland
At 84 years old, Bob Barden taught himself to knit.
It wasn’t that he needed a new hobby. But when his church, First UMC in Pierre, South Dakota, invited members to make purple scarves for visitors to General Conference 2020, he wanted to do his part to welcome United Methodists from around the globe. So he bought some purple yarn and started learning through books and online tutorials, every now and then consulting with his adult son who teaches advanced knitting classes.
He made two scarves, each of which took more than 30 hours.
“Christ called us to extend hospitality and I just thought it’d be great to help,” said Barden, a retired dentist. “I’m the person who benefited the most from this because I really enjoyed it and I’ve taken up knitting.”
Barden is among hundreds of United Methodists across the Dakotas-Minnesota Area and beyond who have participated in the Lydia Project (named after Lydia in Acts 16). The initiative will provide every delegate, bishop, visitor, and volunteer with a handmade purple scarf when they arrive in Minneapolis next May for the denomination’s quadrennial gathering. Participants have collectively made roughly 13,000 scarves, which will be given to all who attend General Conference 2020, regardless of their role.
The scarves were initially planned as a practical solution to drafty, overly-air-conditioned convention center spaces. Quickly, though, they became a symbol of the Dakotas-Minnesota Host Committee’s intention to provide radical hospitality, emphasize our oneness in Christ, and create a memorable experience for all attendees.
“It’s a way for us to remember that we are deeply connected even as we are divided as a global church and don’t always see eye to eye,” said Rev. MaryAnne Korsch, a member of the Host Committee who coordinated the Lydia Project. “We can all participate in God’s extravagance and this is a sign of that extravagance.”
People at about 250 Dakotas and Minnesota churches joined the effort. Korsch estimates that the amount of yarn used in all of the scarves, if laid end to end, could extend from Minneapolis to San Diego—and that the number of hours collectively contributed to the scarves adds up to more than seven-and-a-half years!
Korsch said the initial goal was 5,000 scarves, and she wondered if perhaps that was too ambitious. But as the invitation to make scarves was extended to churches and their pledges began to come in, it became clear the initiative had taken on a life of its own.
“Isn’t that how the Holy Spirit works?” said Korsch. “What I have learned through this experience is to not put limits on God’s extravagance. It’s a tangible reminder that we love and serve a God who gives without limits. God’s extravagance is for everybody.”
When Marc Burkhart, a member of First UMC in New Ulm, heard about the Lydia Project, he asked his mother if her inter-denominational knitters’ group in Humboldt, Iowa, would be interested in making scarves. They were. So he supplied the yarn, and they went to work, ultimately making 217 scarves.
Burkhart’s mother, who attends First UMC in Humboldt, is almost 90. And one of the knitters in her group is legally blind but still made 79 scarves by feel. Burkhart himself, whose mother taught him to knit when he was a child, also made two scarves.
As Burkhart knitted, he prayed “that God would enfold visitors during their stay and help them make good decisions at General Conference,” adding that, “we can change the world for the better through God’s grace.”
A few other stories behind the scarves:
· A young adult watched YouTube to learn to knit and made 17 scarves.
· Norma Olson, a 100-year-old woman at UMC of Montevideo in Montevideo, Minnesota, knitted three scarves.
· First UMC in Pierre, South Dakota, brought purple yarn to a local nursing home and its residents used it to make 150 scarves.
· Four members of the small knitting group at Christ UMC in Rochester, Minnesota, sustained broken bones and other major injuries that hampered their ability to knit, but they were committed and still managed to fulfill their 200-scarf pledge.
· One knitter died suddenly and her daughter-in-law finished her scarf.
· A woman who lives in Duluth, Minnesota and winters in Arizona was at a gathering with other women in Arizona several months back and spotted someone she didn’t know knitting a purple scarf. She asked if it was for the Lydia Project—and sure enough, it was.
Since turning in their scarves, which will be housed at Main Street Church in North Branch, Minnesota, until next May, some people have asked: What else can we do? Korsch encourages participants to find a stitching ministry in their own community and continue to bless people through it. Perhaps that means making mittens and hats for children who don’t have them for the winter—or making prayer shawls or lap robes for those navigating health or other challenges.
As for Barden, he has fully embraced his new hobby and has no plans to slow down: Since finishing his two purple scarves, he’s made two more scarves, a stack of dish cloths, and five caps, all of which have had some kind of pattern. Next, he wants to introduce a second yarn color into his pieces and eventually make a sweater or vest.
Barden doesn’t know who will end up with the two purple scarves he knitted, but he hopes the gift helps them feel welcome and serves as a reminder that Christ calls us to love and care for others.
“My prayer would be that they would see the way to respect and treat in a Christian manner others who might not agree with their position, whatever their position is,” he said. “I’m sure God will be working [through them] at the conference.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church