With a career as an overseas English teacher, I often had the opportunity to travel and learn about the exotic. Silk has always fascinated me. Whether I encountered silk in the bold patterns and colors found amid the deep folds of Japanese kimonos or in softer pastel Taiwanese handkerchiefs, silk drew me. I once even had the luck to behold some rich silk Vietnamese paintings. I could spend hours going through Pakistani Kashmir silk shawls. In Indian shops, the glimmering threads slid through my fingertips; the luxurious fabric, so light and soft, felt almost weightless as I slipped on one salwar khamis after another in the dressing room. Royalty wore silk and yet there it lay in my path, a common traveler, for me to behold its splendor. Over the years, I learned a lot about silk.
One August my colleague Helen went on holiday in Laos. As she wandered the shops in Vientiane, she came across a textile co-operative with scarves so gorgeous it took her breath away. With colors from the palest of crème to glittering gold, from a deep blue-black to a rich reddish-rust, the scarves stood out as treasures.
A natural entrepreneur, Helen brokered a deal with the head of the co-op. “I live in the Middle East. If you ship me an assortment of 500 scarves, I will see to it that every piece gets sold.” Helen calculated her price to make sure the Laotian women got a fair wage but also she’d be able to resell them to make a profitable fundraiser for a prison ministry in the United Arab Emirates. The sale delighted everyone.
After a month, the shipment arrived and Helen was ready to work her magic on the female staff at our college. In the teacher’s lounge, women ooh’d and ah’d over scarves of all sizes and colors. Each one held the silky fabrics to their skin, trying to determine which one flattered their complexion best.
Helen handed me a tropical green scarf. “This one suits you well.”
It felt smooth as I draped it over one shoulder and let it drop behind the other. The delicate fringe hung from the ends, giving the piece an elegant and airy feel.
As much as I loved silk, I didn’t have many scarves and doubted that I’d ever actually wear one. I always admired silk but left them before buying. But what if I never had the opportunity to own such an exotic fashion accessory again? I lost my head and bought that one-of-a-kind tropical green beauty and five other scarves at a very hefty price. Buyer’s remorse soon crept in. How could I be so foolish with my money! I had to figure out a way to recoup what I had just spent or I’d be living on round bread and falafel for awhile.
A friend suggested I resell them to people back home in Pennsylvania during the summer holiday. I mulled it over. Suddenly I had a great idea; the previous summer I had visited a small village school in Kenya with virtually no textbooks. I had vowed to assist the school in some way. If I resold the scarves, I could use the money to help the Kenyan school kids. That gift would be worth changing my diet to bread and beans.
Before I knew it, the summer holiday rolled around, and I headed back to the US. My sister and I both sold the scarves, me at church, and she at the prison where she worked.
A few Sundays later, the teacher for the teen group at church asked me to speak to her ‘Young Women of Faith class about my teaching and travel experiences. On the appointed day, not only did the girls show up, but a few adult women also attended. Afterwards, a petite, dark-haired woman with a quick smile pulled me aside, “We heard you were collecting scarves for your mission trip to Kenya so a few of us brought you some.”
I noticed a cheery solid blue scarf, then a dressier pale yellow one with a dark print border. Peeking out from under that one was a silky crimson number. Another woman approached me and pressed a crème-colored silk scarf into my hands. A faint aroma of perfume still clung to the soft fabric. “I want you to have this,” her voice trembled, “It was my grandmother’s and she’s gone now. This means so much to me. Please give it to someone special.”
Lord, I have to tell her there’s been a misunderstanding. I can’t let her give her grandmother’s precious scarf away like this. But I didn’t want to offend her pride. Instead, we shared a hug. “Don’t worry. God will find the perfect woman to appreciate your sacrifice.”
My summer holiday came to an end and I returned to the Emirates with the scarves from church and the money earmarked for the Kenyan school. In December, a letter arrived from Maudi, a newly-widowed friend of mine in the United States. As I read the letter, I imagined Maudi trying to cope with her first Christmas without Ben. How could I reach out to my dear friend and comfort her?
As I lay in bed that night, I thought of the crème-colored scarf. I pictured the elegant silk scarf tucked into the opening of a dressy blazer or tied around a festive sweater Maudi might wear on Christmas Day. Send it to her! Of course, I would share the story behind the scarf. Understanding the sacrifice attached to the gift would lend it special meaning. I wrapped up the scarf and sent it off, praying that it would arrive to Maudi before Christmas Day.
The following January, I tossed the remaining American scarves into my bag as I packed for the mission trip to Kenya I’d planned to take place during the semester break. A few colleagues and their kids accompanied me there.
After we arrived at the village school, we presented the textbook funds we’d raised over the past year. The headmaster looked overwhelmed. “This is so much more than we expected. With all this money, we can buy new textbooks and have some left to pay for re-roofing the school!”
We had a wonderful time with the children. We shared Bible stories and they taught us Kenyan praise songs. Our hosts made us feel at home during our entire stay. On the day we left, we held a ceremony to honor the local women, and shared with them the scarves I brought. The women were so grateful for these small gifts that I had forgotten they were actually hand-me-downs from my congregation in Pennsylvania.
As my small mission team prepared to return to the United Arab Emirates, we talked about the mission. “Hey everyone, God had a plan for these and all the scarves, staring with those in Laos, you know.”
My close friend rolled up a mosquito net and placed it in her bag. “What was the one aspect they all had in common?”
“Mom, I know!’ her son piped up. “They all looked gorgeous!”
I smiled at him. “That’s right, Sami. Whether they were hand-made or hand-me-downs, they looked beautiful. But beauty also comes from the heart. God loves using our hearts, skills and experiences to bless others—whether it’s a poor artisan, someone in a Middle-eastern prison, a grieving widow, or women helping on a mission. Above all, God sees hearts. We just have to be willing to be used. God ties it all together.”
I knew a lot about silk but I didn’t know about one special quality until that day.
I picked up the last scarf, my tropical green beauty, and tied it to the handle of my suitcase to remind me that God’s love ties people together from diverse backgrounds and cultures.