There’s an old quote that says, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
They’re not feeding or fishing, but the women of Allentown United Methodist Church’s Agape Stitchers are living out the proverb in their own way.
Since August 2003, this group of women in their 60s to late 90s has sewn more than 5,700 girl’s dresses, almost 3,000 boy’s shorts/shirt outfits, and 600 baby blankets, all of which have been sent to needy children around the world.
In April of last year, Jamie Gibson, the United Methodist Volunteers In Mission (UMVIM) coordinator for the South Georgia Conference, took some of the dresses and shorts to children in the Dominican Republic. Seeing the clothes and learning about the Agape Stitchers inspired some of the Dominican women to start a similar ministry of their own.
There was one problem, though: they didn’t know how to sew.
Upon returning to Georgia, Gibson approached the Agape Stitchers and asked if any of them would be interested in traveling to the Dominican Republic to teach women there how to sew.
Agape Stitchers founder Grace Wicker, wife of Allentown UMC pastor Rev. Billy Wicker, Jr., told Gibson that she didn’t think the women would be interested, but on September 29, four Agape Stitchers –Wicker, Frances Purvis, Frances Smith and Betty Cooper – boarded a plane and flew from Atlanta to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
Betty Cooper, who has been an Agape Stitcher since 2005, was reluctant to go at first.
“At first I didn’t want to go,” she said. “I was telling myself all the reasons why I couldn’t go – my age, my health, the fact that I didn’t … have a passport, wondering what I could give. To tell you the truth, the Lord and I had a talk about it, and He said, ‘You can do all things through me.’ And I decided to go, and I’m so glad I did.”
Frances Purvis, Wicker’s sister and a member of the Agape Stitchers, was also hesitant.
“I told Grace that I really was not interested in going,” she said. “I prayed about it and I just did not feel led to go. But one morning I was sewing – I get up early in the morning and sew a lot – and as I was sewing, the saying came to me, ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’ It just seemed like God was speaking to me, saying, ‘You can always send these things and they’ll enjoy wearing them, but if you teach them how to make them they’ll help other people.’ So that was how I got involved, and once I made that commitment I never looked back. I worked hard to get there after that. It was a complete change of heart and the experience was life changing.”
After a four-hour flight, the group, which included the four Agape Stitchers, Gibson, Rev. Bobby Gale, Rev. Rick Hamilton and three others, took a four-hour bus ride from Santo Domingo to Barahona in the southwest part of the country.
In Barahona, the group stayed at a United Methodist mission complex run by Pastor Pedro Johnson, who pastors 13 churches in the area.
When they arrived at the mission house, the women, who each packed four bags full of fabric, trim, patterns, irons and other sewing accessories, expected to find the donated electric sewing machines they were told would be available, but all that were there were antique treadle machines, many that were missing parts and had rusted. After trying to work on the treadle machines for half a day, the electric machines were located and the teaching was able to begin.
More than 30 women learned to sew during the eight days, some as young as 13. Each made a tote bag, boy’s pants, and a girl’s dress from start to finish, picking out their fabric and trim, cutting the pattern and sewing and decorating the items.
“The ladies were so eager to learn,” Wicker said. “The expressions on their faces were of such excitement when they finished something that they had done themselves. There’s no way to describe how excited they were. They just smiled and smiled; it was real special.”
Now that they’ve learned to sew, the Dominican women hope to share their knowledge with others in their country and in the Haitian refugee camps.
“These women will now go into the smaller villages and bateyes and teach other women to sew,” Gibson said. “They’re taking women who didn’t know how to sew at all and teaching them to make something.”
One of the most impactful moments of the trip came when the group visited a batey. Bateyes, communities that sprang up among the sugar cane fields so that laborers would be near the plantations, are among the poorest communities in the Dominican Republic.
During their visit to the batey, the women noticed that the children had no toys; they played with rocks and sticks. They were very disturbed by this and decided that, upon their return home, they would make 100 dolls to send.
“Words cannot express what we felt as we rode around the area,” Wicker said. “When we were there, we saw no toys. I saw one little girl with a doll that had no hair and no clothes. I just cried. That just broke my heart. The rest of them were playing with sticks and rocks.”
The 100 dolls were recently delivered to children in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
“These women are the genuine articles, they really are,” Gibson said. “They have such a quiet witness. It’s a witness of doing. Anyone can talk about what they’re gonna do. These women don’t even like to talk about it; they don’t think they’re anything special, and that makes them so effective.”
--By Kara Witherow, South Georgia Advocate editor
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