Darryl Stoneworth of DNA Sweetgrass Baskets

One overarching theme on the track to adulthood is that as we mature, we will find a job and earn a living. Innocent questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” subtly plant the matter in the minds of children. Failure to find gainful employment dooms us to live on someone else’s nickel, so most of us generally seek to avoid that fate. For some that means punching a time clock, l along with a daily commitment to a meaningless task that is a cog in someone else’s wheel. With a little better fortune, we land on something we enjoy and in which we can see that we make a contribution of value to the world. Others have the pleasure of discovering activities that resonate with their interior core. In undertaking that work, they feel they have found the thing they were made to do. It can feel as though the forces in the universe have aligned and we are doing/being what we are called or meant to do/be.

I count myself among that latter group. Perhaps that is why “call” is something about which I frequently think. Even now, retired, I often ask myself if I’m giving time to the things that are mine to do. The idea of call became a reality for me years ago when I realized I was being summoned to leave behind an agricultural life and pursue ministry as a “profession.” Even though a ministry that also serves as a profession doesn’t get much respect in some Quaker circles, it was not frowned upon by my part of the tribe.

“Call” became a focus in a different way when I served as dean of a Quaker graduate school of religion whose program placed discernment of call at the core of its Masters of Divinity program. It was invigorating to travel alongside persons seeking to clarify the work that was in their heart, and witness their movement toward that end. Creative. Imaginative. Urgent. Those are the types of adjectives that best described those efforts.

An impressionable moment occurred the day I met an international student who arrived to campus carrying a single suitcase. Even more surprising was the fact it was scarcely larger than a generous-sized briefcase. It was the kind of luggage that might get me through an overnight stay, but even a weekend would be a stretch.

I said, “You’ve come for two-years, correct?”

“Yes!” he beamed in reply.

I couldn’t contain my laughter as I answered, “And this is all you brought?”

Rather sheepishly he responded, “I’ve been waiting to come for so many years. I didn’t think it was going to work out again because I didn’t have money for the plane ticket. When I learned that my community had finally succeeded in raising the funds I needed, I just threw some clothes in a suitcase and went to the airport as fast as I could before anyone changed their mind. I could not miss this opportunity.”

That is the mixture of determination and enthusiasm that accompanies the acceptance of a call. Some years later now, observing the good this person is doing in the world brings a smile to my face. It was worth both the wait and the effort. Sometimes a call simply introduces a small change into your life; but other times it upends your whole world. Either is fine, so long as it is as it should be.  

The beginning of each school year brings several orientation activities designed to welcome newcomers and begin the process of integrating them into the community. Near the end of one year’s activities, one new student said, “You can stop thanking me for coming. I’m here because I don’t have a choice.” To this day, when I remember his response, the words Martin Luther spoke to the Diet of Worms are not far behind: “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” There is something commanding about call. So much so that when I retired, one of the first things I did was write a book (When the Spirit Calls) about how to recognize and pursue it in one’s own life. Writing during retirement was nowhere on my radar, but when invited by a Friend to submit a book proposal, that is what emerged. Frankly, giving attention to that matter is one the most important things we will do in our lives.

Thoughts about call churned up anew over the holidays. A Road Scholar Christmas program in Charleston, S.C., presented the opportunity to listen to a presentation on sweetgrass basketmaking. The craft came to South Carolina from West Africa in the 17th century, just one of the things to wash ashore with the slave trade. A small group with connections to those enslaved workers remains along the south Atlantic coast today. They identify themselves as Gulah, Geechee, or Gulah-Geechee. Like many small groups, they struggle to keep their traditions alive for the next generation. One of those traditions is the art of basketmaking. You may well see them in city markets or roadside stands in the area, especially along Highway 17.

At the presentation, an African American man with a charismatic style of presentation and the name of Darryl introduced the craft to us. He distributed samples of the grass for us to touch, adding a tactile dimension to the learning process as he described the labor-intensive process of hunting and gathering the grass. No quick trip to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s is an option in this enterprise!  He briefly demonstrated the weaving craft. In the process, he also shared his story.

Born in Manhattan, he traveled back to his mother’s homeland in South Carolina for a visit and never left. There, it seems only right to say he found himself. He reconnected with family. He found a wife-to-be. And, certain elders began to teach him how to make a sweetgrass basket. He discovered a practice – a craft – an art – that became his passion. In time, he noticed that many other vendors were creating similar products, with very little distinction between them. Over the years, designs had remained the same. With that kind of competition for sales, how does one gain the notice of potential customers? In the midst of that experience, Darryl felt motivated to try something different. He began experimenting with new designs while staying true to the basic sweetgrass materials. As he describes it, he’s trying to help the craft evolve to a new level and pass those developments to the next generation.

As Darryl talked about his journey to the south, his passion for the basketmaking craft, and the partnership he has with his wife, I recognized a tingly sensation within me. As I focused on it, I realized it was because I was in the presence of one who was living out their calling. He didn’t name it as such, but I believe “call” was the dominant theme of the story being told. Afterward I sought him out. I wanted him to know what I’d experienced listening to him – that I felt as though I’d been in the presence of the incarnation of a call and affirmed his work.

I doubt my affirmation matters in the grand scheme of things, but Darryl thanked me just the same. The fact he was wearing a shirt with words on each sleeve and the chest which, when put together read “fearfully and wonderfully made” (an excerpt from Psalm 139) leads me to think that he just might have understood my point after all.

Ranging from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars, some of these baskets really are more craft than utensil. If you’d like to see a few samples, click here for their website. One of my favorites is the “Princess Leia basket” made by Angela, his wife, and pictured here.

On those holidays when participants in the Christian tradition remember and celebrate God’s gift to the world, this Charleston experience unexpectedly reminded me to celebrate another kind of gift. It is the kind that serves doubly. It helps us develop in the ways we contribute and work in the world, professionally or otherwise; and it touches lives and improves the lot in life of those we encounter and serve along the way. Fearfully and wonderfully made. That describes us all. Every single one. So, what is it you’re called to weave with your life?

Have any Question or Comment?

2 comments on “Weavings

Lois E. Jordan

Beautiful – the words and the basket.

Jay Marshall

Thank you, Lois!

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Further Reading

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“This is destined to become a new Quaker classic with its depths of insight on call and discernment.” — Carole Dale Spencer

“… the book is a rare and much needed Quaker-specific how-to manual for embracing our individual calls to ministry …” — Windy Cooler

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