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Sewing With My Heroes

A Letter from Brian and Sandi Thompson-Royer, serving in Guatemala

April 2018

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It was “pedal to the metal,” except to stop to learn a new technique or to use their new best friend, the iron! They would barely get up and take a break, for they were so intent on taking advantage of this time to sew without the distractions of home, caring for their children and the multiple daily tasks expected of women in Guatemala. For many, this was the first time they had been away from family overnight, and a couple of the women were not “allowed” permission to be gone. This meant they needed to make the bus trip home each evening to fulfill their duties so their husbands would “allow” them to return the next morning. Some came as early as 6 a.m. The one baby who came with his single mom was passed around so that she could keep up with the rest of the seamstresses!

These women are my heroes!

For three days, the 12 women from the Mam Presbyterian Women’s Sewing Project sat behind their treadle machines. Sewing teachers from the US came to teach them how to make new products that would potentially sell — hot pads, shopping bags, and cloth napkins were all sewn with beautiful and colorful woven fabric. Brian and I have been asked to help find a market in the US for Mam Sewing Project products.

“Now we’re going to talk about money!” I exclaimed. The 12 women participating in the sewing class all got up from their sewing machines. My first question was, “What do you think a fair hourly wage is?” They huddled together, speaking in their Mam language, which I don’t understand. With the scarcity of jobs, people are told what they will be paid, and often it is less than the minimum wage of approximately $1/hr. I waited for a response, but they were too shy, so I suggested $2/hr. And then we began the negotiation of what they would be paid for each of the items they had just learned to make. We were also making a commitment to work together in looking for ways to sell and continuing to help with new products.

Prior to serving in Guatemala, I managed a Fair Trade shop in a rural tourist town. Through that, I learned how we can support change in women’s lives by shopping differently and paying a price that will help people (mostly women) in developing countries have a bit more. Like many calls, we don’t know exactly where it will lead, but we said “yes,” and several US churches have committed to walk with the seamstresses and see what we can do together. Albany Presbytery in NY has had a long-term partnership with the Mam Presbytery. Albany, along with Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church, Spokane, WA; Newport Presbyterian Church, Seattle, WA; and Davis Community Church in Sacramento, CA, will help see us through this first phase. At the same time the sewing retreat was happening, another part of the US delegation was working alongside our Mam Presbyterian partners to expand the outgrown sewing classroom and create a better space for the growing class and new producers.

When groups come, we ask them to listen and learn about Guatemala and hear from our partners, the Sinodica (Presbyterian Women). This is often awkward for many who want to come and “do.” In January, Flint River Georgia Presbytery, which has a partnership with the Sinodica, came to be with their sisters and support a yearly spiritual retreat. Kathy Tesson shared a reflection on the visit: “Every team member agreed — it was a little hard to explain to others exactly what the purpose of this trip was. Most teams go to foreign missions to build something, conduct a Vacation Bible School, teach classes, and so forth. Besides the spiritual retreat, and visibly showing support for our mission co-workers when we went to a project kick-off meeting of the Mam Presbytery Women’s Sewing School Project, our goal was a little vague to me. But it became clearer as the trip progressed. Brian said to the team our first day, ‘the primary purpose of our mission is to build relationship,’ and as we spent several days with the Presbyterian women church leaders in Santiago Atitlán, the ways we can do that were revealed continuously.”

In expressing how she was changed by her visit in May 2017, Joy Bonds-Bairds from Sacramento, CA, explained, “I think it’s astounding how much has come from a handful of people who came on a trip to learn and listen: building and implementation of a sewing project, pastors coming this year to study Spanish, and hopefully a music exchange in the fall. That’s a lot of impact for a mission project which wasn’t ‘work-related.’ Makes me think about mission projects in an entirely different light. And you and Brian are the catalyst.”

Often our visits from delegations spark passion and a desire to return. Last year, one of our supporting churches, Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church, Spokane, WA, came to listen and learn about what we were doing in Guatemala. A visit to the Mam Presbyterian Sewing Project got Mary Mattie, an avid seamstress and retired nurse with a passion for mission, to want to come and “sew with the women!” She returned with other experienced seamstresses to teach the women how to make new products that will sell to the US market. Call answered, and the willingness to go even though it wasn’t all figured out. Since we have been in Guatemala, the Mam Sewing Project has grown, and we are asked regularly to help find some outside markets for the seamstresses. Orders have already begun, as have commitments from US churches to work together to help support the Mam Presbyterian Sewing Project. Please email if you are interested in knowing more.

These past six months have been difficult for Brian and me. First, I lost my mom in August, and Brian’s mom just passed on March 17. The love and support we have received from our Guatemalan friends and all of you have kept us lifted up. We thank you deep in our hearts. We are here because of you, and please know that we carry you with us as we love and serve! God is with us!

Our work with the Sinodica continues to grow and more than ever your financial support is needed. We are here because of your support!

Sandi and Brian

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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