April 08, 2014

Peru: A Stitch Sublime

A church sewing program in Peru brought job training and a sense of community. But could it save a child's life?

  • A Sense of Empowerment

    About a dozen women gather each week to learn sewing techniques. The hope is that these news skills will help the women find steady work in the textile industry.

  • Ministry

    Program director Patricia Arfinengo leads a devotional for women in the Ciudad de Dios sewing program.

  • Christian Community

    Elena Ima (right) and her friend Maria Ines walk home after attending the sewing program and prayer group. The Christian community that came around Elena was instrumental in saving the life of Elena's son Gabriel.

  • Urban Outreach

    The sewing program and community center planned for Ciudad de Dios is a ministry of El Camino Church, led by pastor and TEAM missionary Craig Querfeld.

Elena Ima was 10 when she left home forever to clean the homes of others. From her village, perched on the roof of Peru at a dizzying altitude of more than 12,000 feet, she went first to Cuzco and washed floors and dishes for five years. Then she took a bus south to Arequipa, a big city that offered her something the village couldn’t: an education.

But money for school was elusive. So Elena cleaned houses more often then she went to class. And it was like that for 20 years.

Elena is a pebble in a landslide of millions of indigenous villagers who have descended Peru’s snow-capped mountains since World War II in search of opportunity in cities along the coast. Most of them settle in Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital. But others go to cities like Arequipa, where Elena’s story would unfold like that of so many of those millions, a journey steered by the powerful forces of global industry, a faithless husband, and a loving God.

Elena’s neighborhood, Ciudad de Dios — “City of God” — is full of migrants like her. It is a dusty quilt of low concrete structures and rock walls that stretch across a moon-like desert on the northwest edge of Arequipa. Named with the ironic idealism of so many slums and housing projects around the world, Ciudad de Dios is what Peruvians call un pueblo joven, “a young town,” etched in the dirt by squatters who quietly work undesirable jobs and build better lives until a government eventually connects them to water pipes and roads.

As marginalized communities go, Ciudad de Dios is not a bad place, unspoiled by the rampant crime and overcrowding that typify the urban-slum image. Elena married her husband, Eloy, and they built a home there, near a church. They raised two children there. She cleaned houses and, in her spare time in the evenings, she knitted. She loved knitting and imagined doing it for a living someday, working from home and getting paid to fill orders for Peru’s massive textile industry.

Everything changed the day she discovered there was a baby growing inside her. With two preteens already under roof, getting pregnant was not part of their plan, and she had been so careful. When she told Eloy, he told her there could be no baby and she should take care of it with some pills. So Elena swallowed them — one, two, three, four little morning-after pills. They waited for the miscarriage.

In fact, the so-called Plan B pill has no effect once a woman is already pregnant. By the time they realized that, Eloy was angry. He told her to kill it, to take the baby out before it was too late and it was born with problems. With all those pills, it was sure to have problems, they thought.

“Do not have this baby,” he ordered. He threatened to leave her if she did. So Elena thought the unthinkable, where to get an abortion.

It would take a dream, a knitting group, and a chorus of prayers to save that baby.

***

Peruvians were sewing long before there was a Peru. Quechua people in the Andes had been making sophisticated alpaca textiles for hundreds of years when the Inca conquered them in the 15th century, and Inca rulers offered fine clothing to entice rival tribes to join their empire. Spanish conquistadors were awed by their textile skills when they arrived in 1526.

“Andeans have such great ability with their hands, their creativity and the way they knit. It was always like this,” says Patricia Arfinengo, a quality-control inspector in the Peruvian garment industry. “You can see a little girl that is five years old up in the Andes that is just sitting there, knitting.”

That heritage undergirds a major segment of Peru’s economy. Textiles generate more than $2 billion of revenue a year in Peru, from fields of grazing alpacas to steamy factories that ingest bales of cotton and spit out sweaters and suits. According to the country’s Ministry of Production, over 1.5 million Peruvian workers depend on the industry for their livelihood.

Many of those workers are women, scattered throughout neighborhoods like Ciudad de Dios. From within their homes, they contract to do what in the industry is called finishing work: stitching buttons and decorative patterns, and adding other effects to clothing. They have sewing in their blood, passed down from generations of mothers and grandmothers who fought cold mountain winds with needles and thread.

Arfinengo looks out across Ciudad de Dios and sees an entire community of women who grew up knitting but are unemployed — women who, with a little help, could harness their centuries-old skills and find their own place in the industry.

One day she thought, I could be that help.

The first time Arfinengo made the 40-minute drive from her home near downtown Arequipa to visit Ciudad de Dios seven years ago, it was to keep an eye on her daughter. Their church, a TEAM church plant called Iglesia El Camino, asked for volunteers to go to the community on Sundays and help with an outreach program there. Arfinengo’s daughter volunteered and she tagged along, not about to let her go alone to a rough part of town. They played with children at the event, and Arfinengo will be the first to say, children are not really her thing.

But everything changed when she met the women. The church outreach program drew a core group of ladies from the neighborhood who got together each week for Bible studies. They were full of promise and spirit, and Arfinengo was hooked.

“I saw all the ladies, and I said, gee, this is something huge,” says Arfinengo, who has been visiting the community ever since. “I felt there are a lot of things to do here, and I still have a lot of dreams for many, many things that can be done here.”

Those dreams revolve around a community center and development program El Camino is leading in Ciudad de Dios. The center is the brainchild of Arfinengo and the church’s pastor, TEAM missionary Craig Querfeld. They want to plant a church in the neighborhood, but not the kind with a pastor and a steeple, at least not at first. Instead, they envision a group of local Christians working together to support each other and impact their community, meeting felt needs and growing a church organically along the way.

The heart of the development program is a knitting workshop, which Arfinengo launched two years ago with some of the women she had met. A dozen women gather each week in a local home and sew while volunteers — often Arfinengo — corral their children long enough for the ladies to sit through a class and a devotional. Arfinengo tapped her industry connections and hired instructors, most recently a pattern maker at the largest alpaca factory in Arequipa, who train the women on the critical minutiae of industrialized clothing like stitch width and measurements. They work out their mistakes on practice sweaters and hats, knit from yarn donated by local companies.

The women pay one Peruvian sol — about 35 cents — each time they come. It hardly covers the program’s costs, but that’s beside the point. The principle is that you must invest something in life to get returns. “The idea was to teach them responsibility,” Arfinengo says. “They are getting materials, they are getting lessons.”

They are also investing in the future of their community. El Camino has nearly finished construction on a permanent community center building almost next door to the home where the women currently meet. Querfeld, the pastor, is well aware that impoverished communities have a spotty track record of supporting church plants with tithes alone. His plan calls for microenterprises like the knitting program to grow in number, their collective fees eventually covering the utility costs of the building, which could then double as a church facility. He imagines a daycare or a bakery going in, or renting rooms to women during the week who need space to do sewing work.

“The way we are going to impact the society is through the community center, establishing ways to meet their needs. And through meeting their physical needs, the church will evolve,” Querfeld says. “So we have a DNA from the very beginning of the church that is, hey, we’re here to help the community.”

Elena Ima has been with the knitting program since the beginning, long before she got pregnant. She and Arfinengo met during weekly Bible studies that grew out of the Ciudad de Dios outreaches. Elena was a Christian but didn’t know much about the Bible, and the women became her tightest group of friends. “They helped me a lot spiritually,” she says. “They taught me about what the word of the Lord is.”

Together they hatched the idea of starting a knitting workshop. Elena volunteered to host it at her home, a short walk from where the women were already meeting. Roughly 20 women showed up the first week. For their first project, they made scarves.

Then Elena got pregnant, unknown to the other women, and the problems began. The atmosphere at the house was tense. One Sunday afternoon, Arfinengo noticed. She asked Elena why she was so sad, and Elena broke down. She told her everything. She was thinking about an abortion.

“What do I do?” she asked.

“Talk to the Lord as you talked to me,” Arfinengo said. “Just ask the Lord, what do I do?” They agreed that maybe it was for the best if the knitting group met at another house.

That night, Elena went home and prayed like never before. “Should I not have this baby?” she pleaded with God. She fell asleep late, and dreamed about potatoes.

It was August in her dream, and she walked up to an old peasant man bent over in a muddy field high in the Andes. He was picking potatoes, a staple that has sustained Peruvians for over 6,000 years, but he was hopelessly behind — the potato harvest had finished months earlier. Any left in the ground were rotted by now.

Tío,” Elena asked, “are you really picking these potatoes?”

“Collect all you can, because it has rained and the potatoes are going bad,” the old man said to her. But there were still good ones. “Pick those.”

Elena stooped and dug into the earth, and pulled up a single, large potato. Rot was eating away its edges. She clutched it and left the field.

Elena woke from the dream with a sinking heart. A rotting potato. “What were you trying to tell me?” Elena prayed. “Is my baby really going to have problems?”

She went to a doctor for an ultrasound, just to be sure. When she saw the baby inside her, the pulsing mass of flesh and blood, the old man from her dream filled her thoughts. “I knew it was the Lord,” she said. Like potatoes and babies, some things are too precious to waste. She had been given a gift, problems or not. And she was going to keep it.

When Elena told Eloy, he said he was done with her. And he left.

“I will not lose this baby,” she prayed. “If you’re giving me this baby, I will fight alone.”

***

It’s unclear exactly what happened to change Eloy into the kind of man who rejects his baby and leaves his wife. But by everyone’s guess, copper had something to do with it.

The Cerro Verde copper mine is a gaping hole in the earth about 20 miles southwest of Eloy’s home. At night, its lights pierce the black strip of the horizon. Trucks the size of buildings crawl over its surface like ants, digging more than 300,000 tons of rocks each day and dumping them into roaring machines that pulverize them and extract copper. The metal rides trains and more trucks to a port 70 miles further south, where ships sail most of it across the world to fuel China’s hungry economy.

Copper is Peru’s leading export and has almost singlehandedly created an economic boom there in recent years. The allure of high-paying jobs in Peru’s copper industry — not to mention its other lucrative gold, silver and iron industries — has drawn scores of hopeful Peruvians to the mines.

Eloy was one of them. About a year before he left Elena, he had been working as a private security guard when he got his break driving trucks at Cerro Verde. The money was great, but it kept him away from home for long stretches and he saw his family only a few days a month. He began dressing differently. He started a fling with another woman. And according to Elena’s friends, that is when the abuse began.

The mining boom and Peru’s economic growth have created a shortage of skilled textile labor in places like Arequipa, garment industry leaders say. Young people, in particular, would rather work jobs at one of the estimated 10 new shopping malls opening in Peru each year. “It has been difficult to find workers,” says Diana Córdova, a commercial account rep at the Michell Group, one of Arequipa’s largest manufacturers of alpaca products. “Many of them want to work in mining, which pays very well. They also want to work in the malls, at Kentucky (KFC), places like that.”

Arfinengo is hoping her industry expertise can help the Ciudad de Dios program capitalize on the labor shortage. She says that five of the women in the program are almost skilled enough to find employment in the textiles industry, either at a factory or, more likely, working remotely as contractors. A hard-working knitter could earn as much as $25 in a day. It’s not a particularly high wage in Peru nowadays — the average annual salary for a top Peruvian miner is over $73,000. But unlike nearly all other jobs, knitting allows women with relatively little formal education to both work and stay home with their children, a major benefit in a community where parents often go to jobs and have to leave children home alone. A key component of El Camino’s community center will be to offer child care, so women unable to work from home could work there and rest easy about their children.

Arfinengo also believes the women’s faith and involvement in a Christian community will help them get jobs and produce at a higher level for their employers. “They are going to work based on God,” she says. “It’s going to be with more respect, more commitment, and discipline that comes from God’s guidance.”

Employment in the textile industry is not guaranteed, to be sure. Which is why the women in the program are also learning entrepreneurial skills. Their first project has been knitting handbags for sale locally on the Peruvian market, which ideally the women could sell themselves. But these handbags have a twist: they are made of recycled plastic.

Under the glow of a floodlamp and a bare lightbulb, the women circle around a table in a tin room and cut a rainbow of plastic shopping bags into strips that effectively turn into yarn once knit together. Arfinengo and their instructor give them industry-standard instructions for the bags, and the women are left on their own to explore color pallets and designs. The resulting bags, large enough to carry a couple of towels and a book to the beach, are almost indestructible and unlike any other textile available in Arequipa.

The bags sell locally for about $12 each, half of which goes back to the women, and the other half covers supplies and instructional costs. They debuted in 2012 at El Camino, where they sold as a sort of test. The church members — who also donate many of the recycled plastic bags used as raw material — loved the handbags, and the women made their first profit.

“Finally, they could see that for all the time they are going every Saturday and learning, they are getting something that benefits them, too,” Arfinengo says. “It was just before Christmas, and they were really happy because then they could buy things for the house and for the kids.”

In 2013, the bags sold briskly again at El Camino, and the program shipped its first small orders to TEAM ministry partners in the United States. It’s a modest start — to date, the women have earned around $1,150 through handbag sales. But the bags are a tested concept. Development organizations around the world have been working for years to introduce ways to upcycle waste plastic into fair-trade baskets, textiles and crafts. A South African woman visiting Arequipa on a short-term missions trip first introduced the idea to Arfinengo. And in Lobitos, a small beach town in northern Peru known for its surfing, a Dutch NGO works with women to knit similar plastic beach bags and sell them to tourists.

Arfinengo is working to slowly grow a market for the bags outside church circles. During a recent visit to a local textile factory, she chatted and laughed with half a dozen well-dressed young women in a tightly-packed business office that offers a clear view of the top of the textiles food chain. They rifled through a colorful pile of handbags, slipping them on and off their shoulders and posing for each other. Arfinengo sold nine before she left.

***

Elena was having a boy.

Around the time Elena entered the second trimester of her pregnancy, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was speaking to a room full of suits far away in a fancy hotel in one of Lima’s upscale business districts. She talked about empowering women and their daughters. “In today’s interconnected global economy, one woman with a needle and determination can give hundreds of women quality jobs stitching, literally stitching new hope into their families’ futures and new economic growth for their country,” Clinton said.

She might as well have been talking about Elena, who still dreams of someday working for herself in her own workshop, a dream tied to her son and the community forming around her as much as it is to profit. “It has always been my dream to have a workshop where I could take my women’s group,” Elena says. “I could create from my house and also watch my son at home, and devote my time to creating woven fabrics and always teaching others.”

Elena tells people that, after Eloy left her, she fought alone to keep her baby. But she was never alone. The women in the group rallied around her. They visited and prayed with her. When she decided to stop carrying heavy objects and hauling water by hand to protect the unborn child, the women helped as she installed a water tank in her home. When a doctor told her the baby could have problems because of the number of pills she took, they ladies prayed with her as she cried. When Eloy returned from the mine every so often to see his children and was abusive, the women helped her heal.

And when the baby was born, the women loved it like their own. Elena named him Gabriel. It means “able-bodied man of God.” He is a smiling, giggling, plump little ball who so far shows no signs of physical problems.

Arfinengo and TEAM missionary Querfeld say the community the women have formed together is remarkable among Andean women, who are famously reserved. They would visit Arfinengo and bring her food when she was recovering from a broken ankle. They brought one woman’s husband to tears by visiting him as he tended his sick mother in the hospital. When an elderly man from the community wandered into their weekly women’s Bible study, they welcomed him and began delivering hot water and lunch to his home.

Arfinengo says the sense of community is evidence the women are beginning to feel empowered. That is essential to the strategy for the community center and women’s groups, which Arfinengo describes as “not coming to fix their problems, but to teach them how to solve their problems.”

“The idea was to build a relationship with them and get closer to them as a community, so they could feel that we care about them really and truly,” Arfinengo says. “They really trust us now. They see us like we’re really part of them.”

To Querfeld, it’s all beginning to look a lot like a church. In his mind, there is a lot more to be done to get church members at El Camino to take ownership and be more deeply involved in volunteering and discipling in Ciudad de Dios. But they’ve come a long way.

“I think, man, that’s working,” Querfeld says. “It’s the community. It’s not just textiles, not just funding, it’s people ministering to people.”

-Written and photographed by Andy Olsen

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