The Practice of Prayer Shawls

Q&A with Victoria A. Cole-Galo

by Shelby Ussery

Victoria A. Cole-Galo and Janet Bristow, authors of Prayer Shawl Companion

Victoria A. Cole-Galo is co-founder of Prayer Shawl Ministry and co-author of the best-selling Prayer Shawl Companion books by Taunton Press. She is a graduate of the Hartford Seminary’s Women’s Leadership Institute at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut and resides in central Connecticut with her husband and two sons. Shelby Ussery spoke with her about her ministry.

Shelby Ussery: Was there an event in your life that led you to start this ministry?

Vicky Cole-Galo: I actually had an experience very early on in my motherhood. I was in St. Martin pregnant with my second son and I was showing signs of miscarrying. My mom just happened to bring a shawl with her on vacation that my husband’s aunt had made for her. And my mother said, “Here, just lay this over your womb, and just think loving thoughts for your baby.” She just kind of prayed for me with hands. It was really very spiritual because my husband couldn’t take vacation time off from work so I was without him. Just having that comforting feeling of bringing her shawl everywhere and her intuitiveness to place it on me—it was just what I needed. Shawls have the ability to provide peace. That’s what I tell my prayer shawl recipients: if someone is ill, and the outcome doesn’t look good, at least pray for peace, pray that you can accept, or come to terms with, what is happening to you.

Can you speak specifically about prayer shawls given to cancer patients? Is there a different approach to this?

This is the most common use of prayer shawls. I’ve heard so many stories—amazing stories—from not only the prayer shawl recipient, but also the prayer shawl maker. When you make the shawl and you pray for that person who has cancer it opens up a dialogue. There’s a conversation. Maybe the patient wouldn’t want to have this conversation with a family member because a family member is too close, it’s too real for them. There is a trust that the person who made this shawl is thinking of them. And this also gives patients permission to do it for someone else. It takes them away from their own problems and allows them to focus their energy on someone else.

Is there any reason that shawls were chosen for the ministry, as opposed to a sweater or a blanket. Is there significance behind the shawl itself?

Shawls fit everyone—man, woman and child. You hear from folks who are making shawls saying, “Oh no, this came out too small!” So the shawl may not be for the person you originally intended it for, but maybe it needs to go to child. Sometimes shawls can come out completely different—no two shawls are alike. We believe that the shawl really encompasses this universal fabric that everybody can wear, everybody can use.

In addition to what is listed on your website, do you have any tips for churches and congregations wanting to start their own prayer shawl ministries?

When you are knitting for people that have cancer, or undergoing chemotherapy treatment, we really say to be careful of the fiber that you’re working with. First of all, some people may be allergic to wool; it’s fine to use acrylic. We also say be careful with how you handle the shawl. Don’t use any heavy scented hand lotion, or potpourri with it. For example, I was knitting a shawl and at the end I put in a little bag of potpourri; her favorite was white gardenia. The recipient began associating white gardenia with her treatment and her cancer. It became a very offensive smell for her.

I’ve also heard about people being buried with their prayer shawls because they had gotten so close to it. I’ve also heard from family members that the shawl went to a favorite niece or daughter or wife. I think people sometimes are concerned about what they are to do with the shawl after a passing. It’s a sensitive subject. A quick story: we had someone whose grandmother passed away, and they put her shawl on her favorite chair. So anytime you wanted to feel like you were with grandma, you sat in grandma’s chair and wrapped yourself up in the shawl. So, grandma’s energy and smell lived on. When they feel like their grandmother is with them, I say absolutely your grandmother’s with you! Her essence and presence and her spirit is still there. That can be very, very comforting.

What about tips for beginner knitters?

I just wanted to put a little plug in for the book, but in the Prayer Shawl Companion book there is a beginner shawl. It’s all done in pink and is straight knitting, no fancy pattern to it. If there are mistakes, oh well! Only God’s perfect. Folks say, I could never make a shawl, but there are so many resources on YouTube. There are classes in yarn shops that will help you. So anyone who says that they could never do it, you can!

Finally, what is one thing you would want all shawl makers to recognize while they are making shawls?

I would love for them to know to give of their gifts and their spirits unconditionally. If the spirit is calling you to make these, just continue working through every blessed moment and pour your good intentions and well wishes into your work. And when I say unconditional, I mean not expecting anything in return. Sometimes shawl makers think oh, I didn’t get a thank you note, or acknowledgement, but that’s a condition you put on it. When you truly embrace this ministry of making prayer shawls, you do it without expecting anything in return. What returns to you is just amazing blessings that you would never think possible. There’s a common thought amongst prayer shawl makers that we think we benefit more from it than the recipients do. That’s the kind of universal thought. We are blessed in so many ways from making these shawls.


Prayer Shawl Ministry Tips

  • Try to keep track of your knitters and how many shawls you distribute. This will help you report to the congregation the impact of the ministry.
  • Include the people receiving the shawl into your church prayers for that week.
  • If you’re just starting out, find a uniform pattern that works and stick with it.
  • Create a yarn donation box.
  • Include a card with a message from your church or the date when the shawl was completed.

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