Sharon J. Mondragón is the facilitator for the prayer shawl ministry at St. Paul Episcopal Church and the knitting instructor at Ewe2 Yarn near her home in Midlothian, Texas. In addition to her knitting work, she has also been a school play therapist, a home-schooling military wife, and a writer whose work has earned recognition with both the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest and American Christian Fiction Writers.
It’s easy to fall into a routine that’s easy and comfortable because it’s what has always been done. But sometimes we need to get pushed out of our comfort zones in order to do the work God really calls us to do. That’s what happens to the members of the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry in Sharon J. Mondragón’s debut novel, The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady (Kregel Publications).
FF: Tell us a little bit about your new book, The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady.
The four knitters of the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry are stuck—in a comfortable mold of ministry, a stagnant church, and at the points of pain they each have in their own life. All this changes when their pastor kicks them out of the comfortable, quiet prayer chapel to take their ministry out into the world. They end up knitting way out of their comfort zone at the local mall during the Christmas shopping season where anything can happen.
FF: Introduce us to the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry. Who are the members and what is the mission of the ministry?
The Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry has met from 9:30-11:30 every Wednesday morning for the past seven years to knit prayer shawls. They knit in the peace and quiet of the Prayer Chapel of Hope of Glory Community Church, praying silently. Margaret is the self-appointed leader of the group (she tends to take charge of whatever she’s involved in). Jane, a mother of teens, gives Rose a ride from Fair Meadows Retirement Community every week. Fran is a recent widow learning to knit as she begins to emerge from the fog of grief.
The purpose of their ministry is to make shawls to comfort and encourage people who are ill, bereaved or otherwise going through a difficult time. They pray as they knit to infuse the shawls with a sense of the presence of God. The shawls are a tangible expression of God’s love and care—a hug from God.
FF: The prayer shawl knitters have been meeting in the church’s prayer chapel, but their routine gets turned upside down. What happened?
Their pastor, Father Pete, has been tasked with either reviving Hope of Glory or shutting it down. If he were a betting man, the bishop would put his money on closing the church. Father Pete, however, isn’t someone who gives up easily. He’s tried all the usual ways of stirring things up—sprucing up the church, expanding the children’s ministry, small groups, to no avail.
At a recent clergy conference, however, Father Pete gets a brainwave. The bishop tells the pastors in attendance that people are not coming to church anymore, therefore, they need to take church to the people. Father Pete decides that a great way to do this would be to send Hope of Glory (in the form of the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry) out to the people who aren’t coming to church. After all, what is as inviting and cozy as a group of knitters? He tells them that for the next month, while work is being done in the prayer chapel, they must meet in public.
FF: What starts to happen as the ladies start knitting in the middle of the mall?
People notice them. It starts with a college student, Sarah, who tells the knitters they remind her of her grandmother who makes afghans. After Rose explains prayer shawls to her, Sarah asks the group to pray about her upcoming test. Word gets out, and soon the knitters are fielding prayer requests from all over the mall—from a tire salesman up for promotion and retail workers barely making ends meet to the assistant manager at the bookstore who is worried about her gravely-ill boss.
The Heavenly Hugs also attract a few young women who want to learn to knit. Rose is delighted to pass on this skill, but the knitting lessons upset Margaret. Not only are they not getting much praying done when people stop by to talk to them, but teaching knitting has never been part of their ministry. She’s convinced the ministry is falling apart, even though some of the people they’ve talked with at the mall start showing up at church.
FF: What happens once a prayer shawl is finished? How is it decided who gets a shawl?
When one of the Heavenly Hugs ladies finishes a shawl, Margaret attaches a tag with the words “Made for you with love and prayer by the Heavenly Hugs Prayer Shawl Ministry” on one side and “You are not alone,” followed by the church’s contact information on the other. Then the shawl is delivered to the church, where Father Pete and the congregation pray over it the following Sunday. The shawl is then stored in the church office to be given out to those who request one for someone they know and care about who is having a rough time. On occasion, Father Pete or Lucille, the church administrator, give them to someone who has come for counseling or support.
FF: Why is Margaret so focused on an arbitrary set of rules that it keeps her from seeing the positives of knitting at the mall?
For one thing, Margaret is used to being in charge. She doesn’t like being told what to do. She invokes those arbitrary rules in order to maintain the status quo. She likes having the prayer shawl ministry in the neat little box of the Prayer Chapel, where nothing unexpected happens and no-one challenges her authority.
She is also using those rules much like the Pharisees used theirs—to keep God at arm’s length. It looks like she’s ministering on the outside, but she’s using those rules to keep from engaging with God. Meeting at the mall changes the way the group ministers. It makes them aware of “the wants and needs” of a group of people they hadn’t thought about before. Being out among the people they’re praying for forces awareness of these needs and shakes them out of complacency. While Rose, Fran, and Jane come to embrace this, Margaret continues to be uncomfortable with the changes and unpredictability. She’d rather keep the people and their problems at arm’s length, too, especially as they begin to inch her toward facing a long-buried hurt.
FF: After a couple of months, why is it so difficult for Margaret to admit Father Pete may have been right in kicking the knitters out of the prayer chapel? Why does she always have to be in control?
Margaret is something of a matriarch at Hope of Glory, the church “Dragon Lady.” She’s seen pastors come and pastors go, but she has maintained her firm grip on “the way we’ve always done things.” It’s a matter of pride for her to always be right. Having opposed Father Pete, she can’t swallow her pride and admit that he was right.
This issue of control is something I’ve thought about a great deal. There are a number of bossy women in my life. Not being bossy myself, I’ve been perplexed about how these women can feel so comfortable telling others what to do and always getting their own way. Margaret’s character began as an attempt to understand bossy women. I hoped that by getting inside her head and heart, seeing things through her eyes, I might gain insight into the inner workings of my own bossy women.
What I’ve discovered is that not all bossy women have the same motivations. For some it’s about power, the flexing of “muscles” to be able to make others do things. Others believe they have the best ideas, so naturally, others should do as they say. For women like Margaret, there’s an element of pride. They want everything they do to come out in a way that reflects well on them, regardless of much steamrolling they must do to achieve it.
For Margaret, however, it goes even deeper. She is trying to fend something off by controlling as much as she can. Realizing this was an epiphany for me. I realized that I, too, had struggled with the issue of trying to protect myself vs. trusting God with my future and my heart. I found that my bossy character and I had common ground after all.
FF: What happens that finally starts to turn Margaret’s heart around?
Through one of the prayer requests at the mall, Margaret comes face-to-face with a situation which hits uncannily close to home, a situation from which she has been running for over two decades. This trauma has been at the bottom of her steely and desperate need to control. She is finally moved toward change and healing when she decides to try to save someone else from the regrets that have haunted her for over twenty-five years.
FF: Can you share what the other members of the group are struggling with in their lives?
Rose Harker is eighty-five, widowed, and has relished her independence. She enjoyed her involvement at church, her friendships with the families in her neighborhood, and driving herself whenever she wanted to go somewhere—until she mowed down her daughter’s mailbox while she was backing out of the driveway, that is. Her bossy daughter thinks the best place for Rose is Fair Meadows Retirement Community, so that’s where she’s living now. That doesn’t mean she has to like it, though. At the beginning of the story, Rose is not adjusting well to life at Fair Meadows, shunning new friendships and wishing she could go back to living on her own.
Jane Crenshaw is the harried mother of three contentious teenagers—a nineteen-year-old son, Kenny, and two daughters, Anna and Emily, who are fifteen and thirteen. Jane thought that once troublemaker Kenny was out of the house, things would settle down, but the girls are still intensely quarrelsome with each other and with Jane. Kenny’s behavior has hurt Jane deeply, to the point that she is estranged from him. Rose reminds her that she needs to forgive him, but Jane can’t see how that will ever be possible.
Fran McMillan is beginning to emerge from the shock of sudden bereavement. One minute she was planning a cruise to celebrate her husband Ed’s retirement from a busy, demanding career (he would have time for her at last!), and the next she was planning his funeral after a heart attack. At the beginning of the story, we meet a timid woman who is just coming out of not only the shadow of grief, but the shadow of her husband. She’s learning to knit and has started to venture out into the world again beyond just going to church. Knitting at the mall is out of her comfort zone, but she braves it anyway. Who knows what’s in store for her?
FF: You are involved in actual prayer shawl ministry, aren’t you? Can you tell us more about it?
I made my first prayer shawl in 2008. It was for myself, akin to how flight attendants tell us to put the oxygen masks on ourselves before helping others with theirs. In 2009, I joined my first prayer shawl group. I was, once again, the new girl at church, due to a military move (my husband had been assigned to Fort Gordon, located just outside Augusta, Georgia). I joined the prayer shawl group in hopes of making some friends. It turned out to be so much more!
The Hands of Comfort Prayer Shawl Ministry did not meet at The Church of the Holy Comforter, but in the café of a local health food store. The pastor wanted us to ply our needles in public, not hidden away in the church building. People often stopped by our table to ask what we were making or to tell us about someone they loved who also knitted or crocheted. We were a warm and comforting presence in that space every week.
At first, I thought of prayer shawl making as something nice to do for hurting people, but I soon discovered that God wanted something deeper from me. Most of the shawls I made went into the supply at church. They were an act of faith, as I never knew who would receive them or exactly why the shawls were needed. Then I started to experience what I call “The Nudge,” that urge to make a shawl for a particular person. This involved a great deal of listening as I searched for the right yarn and pattern for each shawl. I began to pay attention to the situations that prompted the nudge and caught a glimpse of how much God cares about fractured relationships, unspeakable sorrow, and weariness of soul. Prayer shawl making has become a way to draw closer to the heart of God, to see people and situations through His eyes.
At the end of my husband’s military career in 2014, we moved to Texas to be closer to family (especially our marvelous grandchildren). I’ve since become the facilitator for the prayer shawl ministry at our church. Those who are able meet on Friday afternoons at a local coffee shop. We are not only friends and knitting (and crochet) buddies, but prayer partners, lifting up and encouraging one another.
FF: Do you have a new writing project in the works?
Yes, I do. I’m working on another prayer shawl novel. This story takes place at the retirement community where my character Rose lives. Sam Talbot is barely existing since his wife went into Memory Care at Fair Meadows Retirement Community. Life has lost all color and meaning—until he gets tangled up with flirtatious Jenny Alderman, crotchety crocheter Edna Booth, and the rest of the prayer shawl group Rose is heading up at Fair Meadows. The Woolgatherers make prayer shawls for the caretakers of folks with dementia, but they soon find out that God has much more in mind for each of them. Jenny, Edna, and Sam come face to face with uncomfortable truths about themselves and are challenged to embrace new ways of living and relating to God and others. It’s a story of love and loss, the pain of loneliness, and the power of community.
I’m excited about this book because I feel it’s important to reach out and support those who love and care for people with memory issues. We tend not to want to think about this situation because the thought of developing memory problems ourselves is frightening. It’s deeply distressing to watch someone’s memory and function fade. Caretakers, however, need our love, concern, and support, even if it’s simply a listening ear and a hug from someone who can recognize them. In this book, I hope readers will gain a sense of God’s heart for caretakers and follow Him in loving and caring for them. The care of both memory patients and their caretakers is truly a place where courage and kindness meet.
The Unlikely Yarn of the Dragon Lady
Release Date: September 21, 2021
A simple change of scenery can change lives in powerful ways
Margaret, Rose, Jane, and Fran had a good thing going: meet every week in the quiet of their peaceful chapel and knit prayer shawls. No muss, just ministry. That is, until their pastor boots them out of the church in his last-ditch effort to revive the dwindling congregation.
Uptight Margaret isn’t having it. Knitting prayer shawls where people can watch is the most ridiculous idea she’s ever heard of, and she’s heard plenty. Prayer belongs in the church, not out among the heathen masses. How are they supposed to knit holiness into these shawls if they’re constantly distracted by the public? But with no choice, the others embrace the challenge. They pack their knitting bags and drag Margaret–grumbling the whole way–to the mall with them. She can’t wait to prove them all wrong when it fails miserably, and show the pastor that she always knows best.
Without the familiar mold the group has been stuck in, their own losses, pain, and struggles rise to the surface. And the people and situations they encounter every time they try to sit quietly and knit are taking them a lot further out of their comfort zone than they ever imagined. Can they find the courage to tackle the increasing number of knotty issues they learn about in the community–or will the tangle be too much to unravel?
Sharon Mondragon’s debut is warm and delightful, full of real laughter, grief, and personality. It beautifully illustrates the power of women across generations to reach people for Christ.
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