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'Sew for Peace' reaches out to Iraqi children

Oct. 16, 2006

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Courtesy of the Rev. Richard Denison

This Iraqi girl's dress provided the model for the "Sew for Peace" dresses.

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."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Richard Denison

Air National Guard Chaplain Richard Denison distributes the dresses to Iraqi girls.
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 this?"

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 shipping costs.

"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."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Richard Denison

Paxton United Methodist Church member Pat Free sews a dress.
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."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Richard Denison

Nancy Toner packs the dresses for shipment to Iraq.
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 answer.

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

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