'Sew for Peace' reaches out to Iraqi children
Oct. 16, 2006
By Kathy Noble*
Chaplain Richard Denison stood in the town
square of Assyria, a poor Iraqi community located just outside the camp
where the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National
Guard unit was stationed.
As he distributed soccer balls and sweat suits to the children gathered
there, the question came from a little girl.
"Mister, do you have any dresses?"
Denison had to say "no," but the child's question gave him an idea.
In civilian life, Denison is pastor of Paxton United Methodist Church in
Harrisburg, Pa. He had been seeking something for people at Paxton to send
"that the (Iraqi) people would actually use or that would do some good,
something that showed we cared about them as people."
Grabbing his digital camera, he "took some pictures of the girls in what I
thought looked sort of like nightgowns." A few hours later, he sent the
photos to Ellen Shatto, lay leader of the Paxton church, along with an
e-mail asking, "Can we have the ladies make up something that looks like
A few months later, the women sent 28 dresses and matching sandals to Iraq.
"End of story, or so we thought," Shatto says. But then a second e-mail
arrived from Denison, saying he had learned of plans to build a school in
Assyria to serve 900 girls.
The Paxton church women knew they needed help to fill the second request, so
they launched "Sew for Peace." As of this month, the ministry of United
Methodist women from 11 congregations in the Central Pennsylvania Annual
(regional) Conference has sent more than 700 dresses.
Called to make peace
Every Thursday, the Paxton women meet to cut out the dresses and prepare
kits with the pieces and instructions to make one dress appropriate for the
Muslim culture. Other women pick up the kits, assemble the dresses and
return them to the Paxton church for shipping. Local media coverage of "Sew
for Peace" has brought donations, which help provide the fabric and cover
"As Christians we are called to be peacemakers," Shatto says. "It is our
fervent hope and prayer that these acts of kindness will paint a different
picture of Americans to these young girls, and that as they grow and become
mothers themselves, they may see America as the truly Christian caring
nation that we are, and teach their children these same attitudes. Only then
can we hope for a more peaceful world for our children and grandchildren."
Delivery of the first shipment of dresses — which arrived in Iraq shortly
before Denison was to return home in November 2005 — was complicated.
"With the situation over there, it was even difficult to get permission to
get outside of the (camp) gate. With the war and the fighting, we had to
figure out how to pass out the dresses and assure the children would be
safe," he says.
Eventually a convoy of armored vehicles was positioned around the square
where the children could walk between them. "If there was a bomb, the armor
would protect them. We stationed people to watch so no one would attack us,"
Denison says. As the children came, "I'd hold up the dresses and say, 'This
looks about your size.'"
Loving one's enemies
"Sew for Peace" is about "loving your enemies as Jesus did," Denison says.
"We had no idea who these children were. We didn't ask questions. It was one
of those things you did because it was the right thing to do."
Denison grieved the deaths of two friends killed while he was on duty in
Afghanistan in 2002. Three years later, in Iraq, he had to take cover by
running for bunkers. As he passed out dresses in Assyria, he saw some Arabic
writing on a wall and asked what it said. "Death to Americans" was the
Denison has reflected often on Jesus' command to "love our enemies, to try
to figure out what it means in a situation like this."
"This is one little project," he says. "It's not like it's going to change
the world, to make world peace. It is one way one the Christian community
can witness to what Christ taught, to witness even to a community who
doesn't believe what we do, who may hate us for our beliefs.
"We're to love them anyway."
*Noble is editor of Interpreter magazine, the official ministry
magazine of the United Methodist Church published by United Methodist
Communications. A version of this story originally appeared in the
September-October issue of Interpreter, available online at
News media contact: Kathy Noble or Fran Coode Walsh, (615) 742-5470 or