The Sew Powerful Purse

We launched our Sew Powerful Purse pattern on July 17th, 2014 in our weekly Liberty Jane Newsletter and asked that purses be sent to us by October 1st.  We really had no idea if anyone would be interested, but we announced a goal of 1,000 purses.

We are fortunate that we have an enthusiastic customer base of seamstresses that supports our work at Liberty Jane and Pixie Faire, our pattern marketplace. At the time our email list was about 50,000 seamstresses and they were used to us including small updates about Sew Powerful. But we had never asked for anything like this before.

We explained the program, asked them to do us a favor, and consider making a purse for a worthy cause. But we were really nervous that no one would take the time to make such a complicated purse as a gift for a girl on the other side of the world. Each purse takes a couple hours to make.

To make sure we got people's attention we set up and personally funded a trip contest. If you made a purse you'd be entered into a drawing and could win a trip to Zambia with us in May 2015. We thought if nothing else, it would definitely get people talking.

We also asked that each purse maker to take the time to include a personal note to the girl that would receive the purse. We asked them to take their time, realize how desperate these girls were, how big a gift this would be, and make sure the purse and note were truly heartfelt.

On the first day over 1,200 people downloaded the free purse pattern. That felt like a good start and as the date got closer the boxes started to pour in. We had them go to our P.O. Box and then I'd go and pick them up. We began to receive encouraging comments via email and social media and with each one we felt more and more like we had found a way to include our customers in the mission of Sew Powerful.

During August and September I'd go to the post office each week and collect the packages. The Post Office ladies started to get mad at me for the volume of packages they had to deal with, sometimes there would be four or five, which felt like a lot.

I tried to explain to them that it was for charity, but they didn't seem to care. I don't really blame them, there is always a really long line at our post office and I was always too embarrassed to explain the feminine hygiene part of the project to them. Each week I kept wondering if they understood the full program if that would make a difference. Mostly though, I was just thrilled there were packages each week. It felt like I was Santa's helper for the girls of Ngombe.

Our First Unboxing Party

On the night of October 1st we gathered at the house of one of our board members, Toby Capps, and asked a few friends from church to help us open all the packages and boxes. Toby and his wife Janairie had been with me on the trip to Ngombe in 2009 so our program was near and dear to their hearts. It took us several hours to open all the boxes, write notes if one wasn't included, remove the occasional piece of candy, and put the purses in the shipping boxes so they could be sent to Zambia.

We took our time and marveled over the creativity of what we saw. We really had no idea what to expect. It seemed like each package was filled with beautiful, intricate, high quality purses. They were shockingly good.

At the end of the night we had counted 388 purses, well short of our goal of 1,000. But we were anything but disappointed. We were blown away by the love and care that had gone into each purse. They were amazing and even the note cards were heartfelt and sincere.

Toward the end of the night, as we were unboxing the purses someone asked me why I had made the goal 1,000 and I said, "I don't know, I'm just a goal oriented guy and that seemed like a meaningful number."

Then they asked, "how many girls at the Needs Care School will need a purse?

I had to admit I wasn't sure. Our program wasn't an exact science at that point. I said, "well, they have 1,200 students from grades 1-7, so I'd imagine they have several hundred girls in grade 5, 6, and 7. So, maybe we have enough purses. Maybe we even have some extra."

"What are you going to do with the extra purses if there are more than the girls at Needs Care can use?"

"Um, I'm not sure..."

No one seemed to mind too much that I didn't have exact answers. I think they all realized we were making this up as we went along. But each question planted a seed in my mind that would grow into a future challenge to overcome. But the challenges seemed incredibly exciting.

Over the next few weeks we received more purses and we ended up collecting 503 in total during 2014. We received request after request from seamstresses around the world asking us if this was a one-time project, or if we were going to continue it into 2015 and beyond. Although there was no question in our mind, we still hadn't actually distributed the purses in Zambia, worked with the seamstresses there to make the reusable pads, or seen the health training. So we were stepping out in faith and had a lot of work ahead of us.

But Is Our Purse A Good Development Idea?

I Believe each of us struggle with knowing how to show care for others in an effective way. We all have our opinions about the best way to do things, from Bill & Melinda Gates with their billion dollar annual charity budget, to the fixed-income grandma. We care about how best to care.

Frequently we have family members that need our help and support. Sometimes our community needs our help and support. Then of course, there are the orphans in far off places. How do we respond to the issues we see in places like Africa?

Sadly, there are tons of people who are self-focused to an extreme, spending all their time and energy trying to find happiness in another trip to the mall, another expensive purse, car, or fancy meal. Even mission trips can be a form of self-indulgence.

Who To Help & How To Help Them

Usually though, at some point, we achieve a bit of success in life, we grow up a little, and even the most selfish people move into the make-meaningful-contributions phase of life. It is at that point we face the dilemma of who to help and how to help them.

This isn't a new issue of course. When a scholar stood up to test Jesus about his views on eternal life, Jesus first response was to confirm that he understood the Jewish belief system for going to Heaven, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.'

The expert in the law pushed back, by asking the question, "who is my neighbor?" In otherwords,

"Whom am I supposed to love as much as I love myself?"

Jesus responded with this well-known story we call the Good Samaritan. As you read it again, consider these questions,

Question #1 - Who am I supposed to demonstrate love toward?

Question #2 - How am I supposed to be of help?


“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


Here are my reflections. I've broken them down to focus on the two primary questions of "who" and "how".

Answering The Who Question:

It's Not Just Family Bound: Jesus constructed this story to ensure we saw helping others as something that is not tied to just our family relationships. Of course, I'm not saying we shouldn't care for our immediate family members, of course we should. But this story suggests we shouldn't stop there. We should have the mental and emotional maturity to envision a future where we are helping people outside our immediate family.

It's Not Just Community Bound: Jesus goes out of his way to describe the people in his story by region in order to prove a very specific point. You should be helpful to people regardless of whether they are from your tribe or not. We should get over our prejudices, stereotypes, and biases and not let them hold us back from doing what is right.

We occasionally get a response back to Sew Powerful emails that goes something like this,

“There is a lot of need here in the U.S. why don't you focus your purse project in America?

Our response is always the same,

“We feel a burden for Zambia, so that is where we focus, but we’d love to have you use our purse pattern and program model to make a difference in your community – let us know how it goes!”

It's About Who God Puts In Your Path: It might sound simplistic, but my interpretation of the Good Samaritan story is that we are supposed to help the people in need that God puts in our life path. When we encounter them, we are supposed to respond in a very specific way, which we should call using our resources to provide extravagant love and care.

It's About Who Catches Your Eye & Breaks-Your-Heart: I don't believe we are called to care for every single circumstance we encounter in life. If we did, we would be overwhelmed, spread way too thin, and ultimately ineffective.

Jesus said the Good Samaritan..."came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him."

Is it wrong to think that God has a few specific charitable assignments in your life that he wants you to invest into in a deep way and that when you see them your heart will know it?

Could it be that he'll orchestrate the events of your life, your skills, talents and your creative energy to be a perfect match for helping achieve a specific charitable mission? I think so.

But How Are We Supposed To Help?

Demonstrating Love & Care: The Good Samaritan story outlines a series of actions that the Good Samaritan took in response to the situation. It was not simply handing the guy a $5 bill and saying, ‘God Bless’.

The story shows a series of wise actions and responses that demonstrated genuine love and care. This wasn't simply about absolving himself of the duty of responding; this guy actually demonstrated awesome, beautiful, deeply authentic care in a way that was effective. How did he do it?

Participation: Jesus said, "He went to him". I've found that one of the hardest things to do is to be in the presence of trauma. There are two types of emergencies. The first is a rapid-onset emergency, like a Hurricane. The second is a slow-onset emergency like HIV/AIDS. But demonstrating true care means being willing to go into the emergency and get involved via thoughtful and wise, action. That's a commitment of time as well as mental and emotional energy. Money isn't necessarily the primary response tool.

Using What You Have To Show You Care: Did you ever wonder where the Good Samaritan got the bandages? I'd imagine he made them on the fly out of some nice materials that he had with him. Imagine that, even the Good Samaritan had a stash of fabric!

Jesus said, "he bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine." Obviously that means the Good Samaritans had items that he was willing to give to the needy person.

He gave items that were used to directly solve an obvious need and he was willing to give it as part of his authentic care. We should meditate on this idea. I believe,

When we make supporting the needy a money-only proposition, we eliminate the creativity, talent, and application of life experiences that God has given us.

First Responders: Jesus said, "Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him."  It's common that people in trauma are unable to administer good solutions. It's a function of their stress and overwhelm. The Good Samaritan dealt with the immediate trauma effectively.

Organizers Of Longer-Term Plans: Jesus said, "The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

Finding and implementing long-term solutions isn't about having money, it is about having a plan. It is about expressing love and care in a dedicated way. What Eugene Peterson calls, "a long obedience in the same direction."

Of course, we like to say, 'the Good Samaritan must have been rich to do all of this stuff.' But the story doesn't indicate that he was a rich person. It just indicates that he was willing to give in a meaningful and thoughtful way.

Mistakes To Avoid

Some skeptics have wisely asked, "can't our giving actually hurt the recipient?" Truth is, many donors have come to realize that giving can go very wrong. There are several negative issues that can arise in the process. As it turns out giving can damage the giver and it can also damage the receiver. How? Consider these mistakes to avoid,

A Messiah Complex In The Heart Of The Giver: There is a huge opportunity for the giver to begin to feel superior and assume that they are special. People call this a 'Messiah Complex' even though my Messiah was a humble and gracious servant. Unfortunately when ego gets involved, things can get ugly. There is nothing worse than a rich egomaniac going on a crusade to help the poor. No one wants to work with a self-absorbed giver.

Dependency On The Part Of The Receiver: Any parent raising a teenager can tell you there is a balancing act that must be managed. It's a balance between meeting needs in kindness and enabling bad behavior. Struggle makes people stronger.

We want to help meet the needs of people, but on the other-hand you want to ensure they are honest, self-reliant, prepared for life's challenges, strong, and successful in life.  

Robbing Parents & Community Of The Dignity Of Self Improvement

We are not the parent of the poor children of Ngombe. Even if we adopt them in our heart, we still need to honor the role of the guardians and local community in their care. If long-term friendship and collaboration is going to develop there has to be an equal partnership based on trust and mutual respect.

Falling For Guilt Trips By Abusers: Abusers manipulate others by preying on their generosity and in that way they aren’t good partners. They don’t demonstrate respect in the process and in our view, it disqualifies them from ongoing support.

The victim on the Jericho road was a real victim of actual trauma. Abusers manipulate these ideas to try to force you into supporting their poor lifestyle choices. They get a 'free pass' on being judged, or working to turn their life around, and you get the permanent assignment to comply with their wishes in support of their particular vice. That's wrong.

We all need to be liberated from guilt trips and have the emotional, spiritual and social power to speak the truth in love. We need to get smart about our charitable efforts.

Power imbalance: There is a funny version of the Golden Rule that people sometimes use to explain a relational power imbalance. It is, "he who has the gold - makes the rules." That's a funny way of describing what can be a serious problem.

Donors can frequently get a sense of superiority and begin imposing all sorts of burdens on the recipient. It must be guarded against.

Destroying Markets: Large-scale programmatic giving can easily destroy local markets. We want to avoid this in both the school uniform market and the reusable feminine hygiene product market. We'd rather see local industry in Zambia thrive, and figure out how to be a part of that industry, than grow a large western charity.

It's true that we donate our reusable feminine hygiene products to schoolgirls. But the seamstresses making the product are paid a good wage to make it - and in that way - we are developing a market, rather than destroying it.

We are in the business of employing seamstresses to make purposeful products. We want customers to pay for our products. In this way we foster local economies, rather than hurting them.

Our Program Oath

Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries created an insightful oath, which we've modified and adapted for our own use. As we work with the sewing cooperative participants, and other program recipients, we will focus on these principles,

We won't do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves.

We co-create programs with community members. We are not bosses, and they are not our workers. We are partners.

We will respect the skills, experiences, and abilities our partners have in solving problems in their community and not assume we know what is best.

We will work to make the seamstresses, teachers, and moms the hero of the story and empower them to support their sons and daughters with dignity and skill.

We will work to listen and carefully assess both spoken and unspoken needs of our partners, so our actions will ultimately strengthen rather than weaken the hand of those we serve.

Above all, we will work to the best of our ability to do no harm.

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