A renewal of sorts is building momentum in the Northeastern Iowa Synod, where some enterprising women are giving discarded bags a new purpose in mission.

In 2016, Marilyn Westpfahl, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Hawkeye, Iowa, learned about a supply of bags wrapped in plastic packaging that were earmarked for the landfill because a company no longer had use for them. She had a better idea for the bags—remake them to send to Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and other nonprofit organizations.

Westpfahl took a few to her congregation’s sewing group, and they discovered the canvas bags were sturdy and easy to work with, whether cutting or sewing. Excitement quickly grew for the possibilities the bags could bring. “So many people have had such fantastic ideas on how to use them,” she said.

One bag provides enough material to sew a drawstring backpack for LWR’s school kit program and another smaller bag with straps. Trinity’s sewing group has been experimenting with various styles so as much of the fabric as possible can be repurposed.

The group initially sewed 200 over-the-shoulder bags that were sent to a Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, and the project has only grown from there. They made 200 drawstring backpacks for LWR and created 74 tote bags to give to an area women’s shelter.

They passed on 150 of the recycled bags for a mission trip to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. A mission-minded seamstress from a nearby town took 200 of them to sew LWR backpacks. And neighboring United Methodist congregations have used them to sew more than 100 bags for relief school kits.

Plenty of the bags are available for recycling. Westpfahl and her husband, Keith, travel the 320-mile round trip to collect 400 to 700 of them at a time.

Trinity member Jan Pleggenkuhle doesn’t sew, but when she saw the potential for stewardship from this project, she volunteered to help get the word out so others could find a use for the bags. She and Westpfahl told their story at this year’s synod assembly and invited other congregations to request a supply for their mission work.

“Recycling, reusing and repurposing these bags equips us to be truly responsible stewards,” Pleggenkuhle said.

A member of the Top of Iowa Quilters club heard about the bags at the Synodical Women’s Convention and requested a supply. The quilters cover each with a quilt block and remake the bags to hold their patriotic quilts, which are given to veterans in appreciation for their service.

“Recycling, reusing and repurposing these bags equips us to be truly responsible stewards.” — Jan Pleggenkuhle

Club member Bev Attig says her congregation, Bethany Lutheran in Joice, Iowa, plans to use some of the recyclables to sew LWR school bags and is considering other uses, such as sewing bags for foster children. “We’ve always made bags, but now we won’t have to scrounge around to find fabric,” she said.

Some uses don’t involve the fabric. Keith Westpfahl removed some of the plastic connection pieces attached to the bags and saved them for Sunday school classes to decorate and use as holders for pens, pencils, scissors or cellphones.

And with so many bags available, Bethany members have invited the other four congregations of their One in Christ Lutheran Parish to look at ways to use them. “We’ve thrown it out so everybody is thinking of ideas,” Attig said.

While one of the recycled bags is almost big enough to make two of the drawstring backpacks requested by LWR, there isn’t quite enough fabric. Trinity member Joanie Weidemann, an experienced seamstress, designed an over-the-shoulder style that makes two school bags out of one recyclable that can still hold the required school supplies. The Trinity group sent their revised pattern to LWR, along with samples.

“It’s our hope that the LWR committee can use this ‘over-the-shoulder’ bag design in addition to the current drawstring backpack pattern,” Pleggenkuhle said.

Whether the new design is approved or not, the women say they’ll keep coming up with new styles and uses for the bags. And they’ll continue to get the word out to let more people know that the bags are available for congregations and charitable organizations to remake to help others.

“We’re so excited when someone sees value and potential for the bags,” Westpfahl said.

How to request bags

Congregations and nonprofit organizations can request bags by contacting Trinity Lutheran Church in Hawkeye, Iowa, at 563-427-3358.

Marcia Hahn
Marcia Hahn is coordinator for communications and events for the ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod.

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