There's a prayer shawl ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, N.M., for congregants like Anne Noss who know how to knit. They make shawls for cancer patients and others who are ill and grieving. But Noss has added another item to her knitting circle: rainbow scarves.
Bright colors of yarn are used to symbolize diversity and call for the inclusion of LGBT members (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) in every aspect of church life from ordination to marriage. The scarves are being made for the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in Minneapolis July 3-10. They'll be worn by participants who support LGBT rights within the church.
Noss' congregation has knitted 45 scarves this year. Hundreds more are being made by volunteers around the country who have organized through websites like Facebook, where they share knitting tips and their reasons for being involved.
"This is a social justice issue for us," said Noss, who knows several LGBT members in her congregation. "We are dedicated to the idea that God’s love is all-inclusive and no one is left out."
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th GA, said the scarves sparked some controversy when they first appeared at that GA in San Jose, Calif., but they didn’t cause any problem with the overall operation of the assembly.
"I'm sure some people will be upset again his year, but I thought the scarves were a subtle presence," he said. "They were not in-your-face lobbying, just an 'I'm-letting-you-know-where-I-stand' statement, which is better than a huge distraction or disruption."
The Rev. Evon McJunkin, a pastor in upstate New York who prefers to crochet rather than knit the scarves, says they are needed to give voice to an issue that has been silent for too long.
"We tend to keep our thoughts to ourselves," said McJunkin, who has LGBT friends and family. "When folks wear the scarves, what is internal becomes external in a non-threatening way. Then we can begin to tell our stories, make connections and realize there are more who agree than disagree."
More Light Presbyterians, a group dedicated to LGBT inclusion, commissioned and distributed nearly 1,000 scarves at the 218th GA. The group hopes to have 1,500 scarves available for every commissioner and advisory delegate.
After a 2007 Lutheran gathering had successfully used rainbow scarves to raise awareness and open dialogue, More Light's co-moderators, Janet Edwards and Vikki Dearing, thought the idea might work for Presbyterians too.
Some attendees of the 218th GA, however, were confused by what the scarves might mean.
"One woman in San Jose expressed genuine fear about wearing one," Edwards said. "She was afraid it would mean she was gay. But when she saw all the people wearing one, she came back and took one."
Most of the people who knit or wear the rainbow scarves are not LGBT, but many have friends or family who are.
Some of the knitters are not even Presbyterian. Wes Ellis is an 83-year-old Episcopalian who knitted eight scarves this year.
"I like to knit, I like doing things for others, and I like making things that are useful," Ellis said. "The idea of the rainbow scarves to celebrate diversity appealed to me."
The rainbow has a long symbolic history, starting with the Biblical account of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood. Ancient South American cultures, including the Incans, used rainbow imagery. Reformation-era German theologian Thomas Muntzer is often depicted with a rainbow flag. In the 1960s, an Italian rainbow flag became an international symbol of peace. The first gay pride rainbow flag was flown in 1978 and has become the icon for the LGBT community.
"The rainbow is a natural sign of God's love for all, and so a lifeline of hope to any group who feels left out," Edwards said. "Since the time of Noah, God’s covenant has included all creation. The scarves are an invitation to the church to join in what God is already doing."
Every scarf is based on the same instructions, posted online, which set the size parameters and stipulate the color of yarn. But each scarf — many knitted, some crocheted — looks different, unique to its maker.
"I would have never imagined that a knitted rainbow scarf could turn out in such a variety of ways," said retired minister the Rev. Sandy Winter of Tennessee, who has a gay son. "The diversity of the scarves is a wonderful metaphor for what the scarves were made to symbolize."
Winter said it was common for attendees at the 218th GA to dig through a pile of scarves to find one that was "just right for them." The scarves are handed out for free, often accompanied with a charge and blessing from volunteers. Many say they are spiritually moved to knit or distribute the scarves.
"I believe that God intends peace and love for all people and healing for all that divides us," Noss said. "We are called to be of service to our brothers and sisters no matter who they are. It's as simple, and as difficult, as that. These are the theological concepts which inform my knitting."
Joel Engardio directed the award-winning PBS documentary KNOCKING about Jehovah's Witnesses. He is a writer, filmmaker and civil liberties advocate. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and on NPR and PBS.