Weaving a Fabric of Inclusion

by Andrew Watt

One of the items on display here at A Parliament of the World’s Religions is Esther Bryan’s Quilt of Belonging. Consisting of 263 hexagonal frames for 263 embroidered and textile blocks, the quilt is a kind of self-portrait of Canada at the dawning of the Christian Era’s second millennium: there is one block for each of Canada’s First Nations, and one block for each nation of the wider world whose immigrants have come to Canada. It took six and a half years to create. Members of each immigrant group and First Nation worked on the block representing their community, some only agreeing after long periods of negotiation and gradual or grudging trust-building. One nation, San Marino, is represented by only one person in all of Canada, while other blocks represent thousands of people and their descendants. One two-year-old sewed a couple of stitches, while a 92-year-old had to be helped to hold the embroidery needle between trembling fingers. Just outside the display area, several massive crates with giant foam rollers inside hold the Quilt on its travels around Canada — which have already taken it enough miles to go from Earth to the Moon five times. Listening to Ms. Bryan talk about the creation of the quilt left me with the impression that the Quilt of Belonging is not simply a quilt: it is a treasure-house of stories.

The Quilt is currently on display on the first floor of the North Building. It’s nearly impossible to take in all at once — the ribbon of color that forms the upper edge creates a rainbow of extraordinary intensity. Yet as one approaches, the appearance of continuum dissolves into a formula of precise strips of color all down the length of the hall. Beneath

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Photo by Miriam Klamkin

these ribbons of hue in harmonious order are the Nations. The eye catches on San Marino, and then on the Tlinglit First Nation. One has to go and seek out countries of one’s own national origin: perhaps Great Britain, perhaps France. The Diné come into view, and then perhaps Thailand. Malayasia and Tonga and Cuba appear. The Labradorans and the Dakota and the Haida.

It’s the opposite of erasure.

And then something curious happens. You stop seeing the names of countries, and you start looking at the artistry, at the needlework, at the overarching structure of the quilt. You start to see the heavy tassels of yarn along the bottom. You start seeing how the fabric pulls against the stitch-work here and there. You begin to imagine women and men sitting with Esther Bryan in kitchens and living rooms, all across Canada, as she gently but deliberately earned their trust, came into their communities, and helped them stitch a quilt block. This pull here was a stab through the textile by an untrained hand; that one over there is a daughter guiding her mother’s hands that are starting to lose a battle with arthritis; these interwoven threads were stained by the tears of a refugee remembering their homeland. You start to see those big crates carrying the quilt on the back of a cargo skid pulled by a ski-doo across the ice for a display in the far north, or hauled onto a ferry for a showing on Prince Edward Island. You imagine careful hands unrolling it from its crate for the first time, and staring in wonder at a picture of their homeland for the first time.

And then you, the viewer, start to cry.

You become one with the stories that you see, hear, and imagine in the great quilt before you. You, in a sudden moment, find yourself drawn into the story of Canada, even as a visitor, you find yourself wrapped in all the tales of wonder and heartbreak and hope and tragedy and dignity that are caught up in this quilt, tangled together in its threads and in its fabric.

You are in the presence of a relic. A medicine, in a sense. An object that has been made holy by the hands that have made it, and the stories that have been woven into it, and

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Photo by Miriam Klamkin

the community that has chosen to honor it. An emblem of Canada — not its government, not its national presence on an international stage — but of its people and its common life.

So many rooms and spaces at the Parliament are barren and devoid of symbolism. It’s a conference center, of course — part of the very nature of the spaces within it is that they are non-descript and easily shifted from one purpose to another and another. At the same time, though, the Quilt of Belonging shows a portrait of grace: a nation of nations, a country of countries, at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

And simply by viewing the quilt with your other eyes, you feel the potential for welcome and trust, the gracious hospitality, and the growing strength, of this year’s host nation for the Parliament.

EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto!  You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.  

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On Community

Brian Rowanby Brian Rowan Hawthorne

I grew up in a New England town and remember attending town meetings with my parents. From that early age, I valued the direct democracy of town meeting, and as I grew into adulthood, I looked forward to the day when I could join a community and become a part of that unique local system of volunteer government. Becoming a part of a tightly knit community was always where I was headed. 

Nearly 30 years ago, long before I was able to move out of the city and back to small town Massachusetts, I became a part of the community of EarthSpirit. As I moved around from city to town and from job to school to job, changed my career and started a family, EarthSpirit was always there, providing a community of interest at the local, regional, and national levels.

Now, as I move into the second half of my life, I am a member of one of those small New England towns. I attend town meetings. I serve on the Fire and EMS Department, the planning board, the broadband committee, and in numerous other capacities. I know all of my neighbors and most of the people who live in this tiny town. My childhood need to be a part of a small-town community has been fulfilled.

But, what I had not realized all those years ago was that I needed not only to be a blade of grass in a small local field, but also to be connected to the wider world. While I have set my roots down in the rocky soil of this New England hill town, EarthSpirit has kept growing, expanding from a local group of like-minded individuals into an international network reaching out to the interfaith community and building connections with indigenous religions here in the US and around the world. While I work at the grass roots level to help keep my town thriving, EarthSpirit works to connect me to people around the world who see the magic in science, the beauty in nature, and the spirit in place.

Over the last three decades EarthSpirit has always provided me with a connection to people of spirit: people who have become friends and family, colleagues and collaborators. Just as we sometimes take our families, our friends, and our community for granted, assuming they will always be there for us, I admit that I sometimes forget that EarthSpirit could be as ephemeral as any non-profit, and only continues to exist because of the energy and dedication of its volunteers and donors. If I do not feed it, some day I may find that it has faded away, and will not be there three decades from now when some young man or young woman in Boston or Scotland or Spain or Lithuania is looking to connect with a larger world of spirit.

EarthSpirit is now engaged in its annual fundraising campaign to help support the work we do both locally and around the world.  Learn more or please make a gift here.