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Woman of the cloth stitches sparkly liturgical art

In the beauty of the stained glass, arches and dome of a large Methodist church in Decatur, Ill., Deborah Rose came into faith.

“That awesome beauty shaped my understanding of God.  At no time did I think of Christ without thinking of beauty and wonder,” she said.

Deborah Rose
Deborah Rose
Now she lives and creates fabric art, nestled in the beauty of the Glenrose area of Spokane, overlooking countryside and the Spokane Valley. 

Behind her home is the studio where she cuts and stitches fabric as a “woman of the cloth” making liturgical garb, altar cloths, giant puppets, banners and stoles with fabric that contains a glint of gold or sparkles to reflect the light of God.  She opened her business, Material Witness, in the spring.

Deborah shared sketches of the flow of her life and her art, like pieces of cloth stitched as the fabric of her journey.

Adopted into a family who were pillars of the Decatur church, she later learned that her birth mother was a seamstress from the Greek island of Cephalonia, where she sewed for wealthy families until immigrating to Chicago.

Deborah learned she has a half sister, Mary in Bangor, Maine, who is active in the United Church of Christ, the church in which Deborah is an ordained pastor.

For her 60th birthday, Deborah visited Cephalonia to research her ancestry.  She discovered an ancestor, Gerasemos Lucatos Razi, named after the island’s patron saint.  He left teaching secondary school to become an Orthodox priest—a story similar to hers.  She wonders if some of the Orthodox love of beauty and inclusion of gold in icons runs in her veins.

“Ever since I was old enough to hold a needle and thread, I wanted to stitch scraps of fabrics,” she said, “but despite my flair for sewing, I was known as a pianist.”

After high school, where she took art classes, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., in 1966.  She taught English for two years in a racially diverse high school in Waukegan, Ill., and then taught American literature and humanities for 11 years in Arlington Heights, Ill., designing a course that integrated philosophy, art appreciation, music, history, culture and poetry.

Marriage to a Canadian, Ian Rose, led her to Vancouver, B.C., where she began writing the biography of one of her high school students, who died in a gymnastics accident in 1974.

Volunteering at an arts center and writing articles to promote it led her into reviewing arts for a radio station and writing stories on great homes of Richmond, B.C., for a local magazine.

“I went to Canada as a teacher with art as a hobby and left Vancouver and the marriage, knowing I wanted to do arts,” she said.

She settled in Evanston, Ill., as a textbook editor and began attending a Presbyterian church.  Unchurched for 15 years, she soon felt called into ministry.

In 1984, she began studies at Andover Newton Theological School
and work for a textbook publisher in Newton, Mass.  Despite promotions on the job, she decided to focus on studies and work as a youth pastor.

Graduating in 1989 and ordained in 1990, she was religious education director in Sherborn, associate pastor in Newtonville and minister of parish life in New Milford, Conn., before returning to Andover Newton to begin a doctorate on arts in  ministry.

An eight-day visit in Haiti at that time “broke open my style to giant puppets and bold ethnic colors and fabrics,” she said.  “It led me to recognize creativity and the arts as vital to ministry, as ways to make the Word fresh—my dissertation theme.”

After graduating in 1995, she spent two years in religious education at Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence, working with a senior minister who loved arts, too, and gave her free rein to develop an art festival for the Sunday school.

Also affirming her artistic journey was a week during 1994 in the Cascades at the Grunewald Guild near Leavenworth.

Her next call was to serve Cheney United Church of Christ from 1995 to 2000, followed by an interim ministry at Admiral UCC in West Seattle, where she helped members enhance the sanctuary for Easter with “Glimpses of Glory” banners and light, sparkly ribbons filling the sanctuary.

While interim at Community Congregational in Tonasket in 2003, she helped repaint the kitchen and bathrooms, and painted a passage from Luke on the feeding of the 5000,  “All who ate were satisfied.” She surrounded the words with pieces of fruit grown in the Okanogan Valley.

Recognizing her artistic flair, the Pacific Northwest UCC Conference asked her to make an artistic backdrop for its Annual Meeting in 2002.  She made five giant Haitian-style puppets representing different races.

“People began to take me seriously as an artist in ministry,” she said.  “I was becoming a ‘woman of the cloth’ in a different sense—as a seamstress.”

The nine- and seven-foot puppets have traveled to 21 congregations to raise diversity awareness.  Sometimes she was paid for her expenses of bringing them.

In February 2005, she announced at a clergy retreat that she planned to start a business, Material Witness. 

Soon requests came for stoles, paraments and banners, including a 12-foot welcome banner for Pilgrim Firs, the regional UCC camp at Port Orchard. 

Often hymns are starting points for pieces. 

When the Rev. Tammy Bell was installed at Colville First Congregational Church, Deborah made banners representing the hymn, “De Colores,” about singing of the colors of people and the earth.

For Westminster Congregational UCC, where she is a member, she made banners for its 125th anniversary, a sunburst representing “Morning Has Broken” and a nighttime one representing, “Now the Day Is Over.”

For World Communion Sunday 2005, she delivered seven new paraments to the Newport UCC.

At Newport, the Rev. Deb Allen gave a blessing for the departing banners, which the church had used for 20 years, given as a memorial of a church member.  The family agreed to pass them on to a mission church. 

The new 18-by-24-inch paraments, which represent liturgical seasons, celebrate generations and include the denomination’s symbol, were draped over chairs in the chancel.  The old ones were hanging from the communion table.

 “I found my visual voice, a colorful, bold assertion of faith,” Deborah said.  “All I create springs from my faith, my understanding of church and my concern about human needs.

“One need is for beauty, gaiety and gladness—antidotes to sullenness and discouragement,” said Deborah, who was surprised in Haiti that people so poor and oppressed had such a love for art. 

Despite limited resources, Haitians turned anything—hubcaps, rusted manhole covers and cathedral walls—into art.  They took bits, pieces and shreds of their lives and made them wildly glad art to cheer their souls and sell to tourists to make a living.”

Looking out the windows of her studio, Deborah prays as she sews, she said:  “I feel drawn into the holy, a co-creator with God, open to the Spirit guiding the art.”

“My prayer may not be as intentional as prayers of iconographers, but I think prayerfully of hurricane and earthquake victims and about people I know.  The fabric pulls me into prayer, stitching things together,” she said cognizant of the metaphor of God as a mender.

Deborah reflects on designs and colors, thinking in gratitude of cotton growing in the fields, the pickers, the dyes used and the people who made the material.

“I use fabrics that have what I call a spark of the divine.  Some are dazzling, and others may just have a gold streak.  In my razzle-dazzle box are sparkly holographic fabrics—not appropriate for a season like Lent.

“I hope that what I do provides glimpses of glory,” she said.

A brush with mortality, surviving breast cancer while at Cheney, led her to reprioritize her ministry and calling.

“I gave my life to God with whatever energy would come back after chemotherapy.  Life energy is precious. I was scattering my energy.  Now I’m gathering my life energy around something I’m passionate about doing,” she said.

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By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © December 2005