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"Where is Truth and Justice?" an arpillera from the Cachando Chile website.


This post is part of the Lenten series on hope.

"What is in your hand?" God wants to know from Moses. "How much oil do you have?" the prophet Elisha asks the widow. "How many loaves and fishes are here?" Jesus queries his disciples. In each of these cases, the answer isn't impressive. A staff. A small jar. Two loaves and five fishes. Yet with each of these simple items, God is able to work. The rod becomes a serpent, brings forth water from a rock, splits open the Red Sea. The small flask fills container after container, until the multitude of borrowed jars from neighbors is capped off, enough liquid gold to bankroll a hungry family for years to come. And the little boy's loaves and fishes? Blessed and broken, they are somehow mysteriously transformed into enough lunch for 5,000 men, not to mention women and children.

It is easy to be daunted when it seems we have limited resources with which to engage our world. What hope do we have, we may wonder, of taking care of ourselves, or of making a difference with only this? 

In 1998 our family moved to Chile for a year. As months passed, I became acquainted with the recent history of our new home. On September 11, 1973, a military coup had abruptly ended the presidency of  Salvador Allende and placed Augusto Pinochet in power.  Almost immediately, martial law was declared and dissenters were rounded up. Chileans called those arrested the desaparecidos (those who had disappeared), as in many cases they were never heard from again. Pinochet was moving out of power while we were in Chile, and the country was much calmer -had even seen remarkable economic growth - but even after 25 years, the aftershocks of the beginning of this regime were still evident in the psyche of the culture at large.
 
Although I had learned about the desaparecidos during that time, it wasn't until recently that I heard about the arpillera movement, which grew out of this period of political upheaval. With the incarceration and execution of thousands of husbands and fathers, many wives and children were left with no means to provide for themselves. And so, the Catholic church formed the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, an organization charged with caring for those who were in desperate circumstances.

During some of the workshops offered by the Vicaria, women began to come together, not only to learn new skills, but also to grieve and offer support. Some of these women began to embroider arpilleras  to sell as a means of providing for their families. These wall hangings, made from embroidery thread, scraps of material and burlap, had traditionally pictured scenes from the countryside. As time went by, however, the subject matter of these arpilleras became more and more political. Although the creators of these tapestries were anonymous, the stories depicted were of real events; the seamstresses kept the injustice of the regime alive, refusing to forget the desaparacidos, continuing to seek justice for the missing men. Here's a quote from Cachando Chile, a website with reflections on Chilean Culture.

These arpilleras began to tell a story, to leave a history, a testimony in cloth, of what the women were experiencing. It was an emotional release, and for many it was a way of expressing what they could not bring their voices to say.

As they pieced their stories together—often working late at night and by candle light so they wouldn’t be caught and charged with subversive activities—something amazing happened. The Vicaría began to sell them to foreigners who smuggled them out of the country, and these patchwork messages began to travel the world, telling the stories of people whose words could not be spoken or written. As these women perfected their craft, their needles and thread, scraps of cloth and bits of yarn became powerful language-independent tools with which to tell their tales.

I find myself inspired as I read this story. Who could imagine that thread and burlap could make a difference, that something as ordinary as sewing could have an impact? Perhaps those days of God using small things isn't over. And I begin to hope that what I have in my hand may be enough. Perhaps it may even be part of changing my world.



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