Holding onto prayer: With hand-made 'prayer squares,' church renews support for health care workers

Nicki Gorny, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·7 min read

Feb. 21—Louella Rupp isn't one to sit idle.

She likes to have a project; often, several of them.

So Ms. Rupp frequently finds herself reaching for her yarn and her needles, working them in the steady rhythm she's mastered through decades of knitting and purling. She'll knit when she's done with the day's to-do list. Or when she's settled in for the evening.

"Or when I'm waiting for someone to pick me up," Ms. Rupp said.

It's established her as one of the most prolific contributors to a new ministry at Zion United Methodist Church in Whitehouse, where Ms. Rupp, 95, was born and raised. She still lives just down the road, and she's a regular at the parking lot worship services they're continuing to hold through the winter, Pastor Carol Williams-Young bundled up behind a set of plastic drapes that encase a makeshift pulpit along the side of the church.

Zion UMC is inviting its congregants and their friends to knit or crochet "health care prayer squares," approximately 5-inch squares intended as a physical reminder of their continued support and prayers for health care workers. They're beginning by passing out their squares at McLaren St. Luke's Hospital in Maumee, and by this week were approximately three-quarters of the way to their goal of collecting and distributing 300.

The Rev. Williams-Young came up with the idea late last year, after listening to emotional news reports about health care workers who are still in the thick of a public health crisis. That's no less than they were nearly a year ago, when the community was rallying around them as "heroes."


The visible displays of support might have tapered off in the course of a year, but the pastor and her congregation want the health care workers to know that the sentiment hasn't.

"The instructions are simple: Make about a 5-inch by 5-inch square, any color, any pattern, as long as it can be washed and dried in a machine. And pray over it as you're making it, for the health care worker who will receive it," Rev. Williams-Young said. "Invest that object with all your prayers for this person, for their health, for their peace of mind, for their strength. All those things. And then they have a little note, that says this is what this is, and it has been prayed over for you, and we want to let you know that you have not been forgotten."

Wrapped in prayer

Their prayer squares are in the spirit of the more common prayer shawl ministries, which can be found at churches across denominational lines around the country. A prayer shawl tends to be larger than the handkerchief-sized prayer square, but the idea is the same in that it's a tangible expression or prayer; in the case of a shawl that's large enough to wrap around a person's shoulders, it's a way to literally wrap a person in prayer — both spiritually and physically.

A shawl might be offered to someone experiencing a serious illness, someone who's grieving the loss of a loved one or someone who's struggling with a divorce.

"Some situation where you can use the comfort from the prayer shawl, its warmth, but also know that it was made with prayers and that people at our church are praying for them, even though we don't always know who they are," said Joyce Barger of Olivet Lutheran Church in Sylvania.

Ms. Barger was the long-time head of her church's prayer shawl ministry, and remains active in it as a knitter and crocheter. She estimates that her church has given away more than 1,200 shawls since they started the ministry at least 16 years ago; congregants are welcome to give a shawl to whomever they think would benefit, so the knitters and crocheters have seen their work go across the country, carrying with it the support of the crafters and of the congregation.

The Knit & Pray Ministry at St. Michael in the Hills Episcopal Church, in Ottawa Hills, has supplied about 115 shawls since they came together as a ministry in 2009, said coordinator Anne Morris. At St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Toledo, where a ministry began in the same year, coordinator Janice Bowman estimated that they've asked their priest to bless about 490.

At St. Andrew's, Ms. Bowman said their knit and crochet patterns play with combinations of threes, representing the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

They sometimes turn their needles and hooks toward other outlets, too. When their "stock" seems sufficient at St. Michael in the Hills, participants might work on hand-made scarves and caps for area social service agencies and for the Seamen's Church Institute, based in New Jersey, Ms. Morris said. And they try to ensure that the parish's newest members are always greeted with a white baby blanket.

As with Olivet, Ms. Morris said they've forgone their monthly meetings in the past year, where they would normally gather to socialize and to pray together over their work. But the ministry remains active. Knitters and crocheters are still working away at home, where they would have been making the vast majority of the progress on their shawls anyway.

Count Ms. Barger, 89, among them at Olivet. She's working her needles steadily in her senior living community in Temperance, Mich., where she's found it a good project as she waits eagerly to see the pandemic under control and her concerns about seeing family and friends to lift.

"I'm glad to have opportunities to have do something worthwhile and to do something for other people," Ms. Barger said of the prayer shawl ministry. "It's been a big help for me too."

Not forgotten

At Zion United Methodist Church, the Rev. Williams-Young counts on more than just her own congregation for prayer squares; with just about 30 members, not all of whom knit or crochet, they have to in order to reach their ambitious goal just at their local hospital. So they've extended the ministry to those in other congregations and to those with no congregation at all; to those knitters the pastor said she knows aren't the type to pray at all, she asks that they simply think good thoughts about those who will receive their squares while they work.

The smaller squares are a quicker turnaround than a 6-foot shawl, of course, but there's more than that to their decision to focus on prayer squares. Rev. Williams-Young said they want health care workers to be able to keep them on hand and easily accessible.

"That was a good size to hold in your hand," she said. "Stick in your pocket, stick in your purse. Put it somewhere where you'll see it or feel it, and each time you come in contact with it, it will be a reminder that someone is praying for you and caring about you."

Rev. Williams-Young said they've heard positive feedback from the hospital, where they've been delivering the squares in batches and letting staff there distribute them. As they near their goal of putting one in the hands of each of the health care workers there, she said she's hearing from knitters who are enthusiastic about continuing the project even further.

She's open to it.

"We'll see where the spirit leads us," she wrote in an email this week.

Ms. Rupp is open to it, too, she said in an interview at the church earlier this month.

Always open to a creative project, like the scarves she was working on late last year for the church's mitten tree benefitting Family House in Toledo, or the teddy bears she makes for the youngsters at the preschool that meets in Zion UMC, she said she likes working on the prayer squares. She estimated that she'd competed around 30 by that point.

She's got the yarn, and is grateful for an opportunity to use up some of her odds and ends, she said. And she's got the time, particularly as a pandemic stretches through the winter.

"I enjoy it," she said. "It's nice to have a project you can pick up and help somebody through it."

For more information on the Health Care Prayer Square ministry at Zion UMC, including instructions on how to participate, go to zionumcwhitehouse.org/worship-grow-serve.