Up until about a generation ago, the Evangelical Free Church of America included the Women’s Missionary Society, which supported women who served as home or overseas missionaries, or as traveling evangelists. Under that umbrella, EFCA churches would then create circles—groups of women of a similar age. First Free Rockford once had seven of these circles, each named after a female missionary that they would “adopt,” writing cards and letters, hosting them when they were stateside, helping with whatever needs arose.
One component of all that was White Cross. Women’s circles would create and ship supplies for developing hospitals and health centers in Africa. Nancy Carlson organized First Free’s White Cross work for many years, keeping track of supplies and setting up work days at church for the circles. Nancy served in this role until 2017, long after circles had mostly disappeared here. Two years later, Luaine Oleson and Corey Forstrom from the Cornerstone adult community decided to revive the White Cross ministry to benefit people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before they had gained much momentum, the pandemic delayed things for two years.
But in March 2021, two groups of four to six women started meeting. All are from First Free and residents of Fairhaven Christian Retirement Center. They gather one afternoon a month in the basement of Don and Luaine Oleson’s Fairhaven duplex.
“It started with people from Cornerstone who live on our street, Luaine says, “and it just kind of took off from that. We’re all about 80 and older.”
Pat Peterson from the Faith Builders adult community heard about what they were doing and wanted in, too. So a third group meets at her house. Pat and Corey also take work home, doing individual sewing of various hospital supplies.
Packing and shipping
At the Olesons’, the groups gather around a ping-pong table, cutting out sewing patterns for shorts, dresses or book bags. Those all get packed into Ziplock bags as separate kits for women learning to sew. Each kit also includes scissors, thread, pins and needles.
For a hospital and health centers, the women rip and roll bandages from cotton sheets. They create Scripture cards that are included in all kits. “Touch of Love” kits include personal care items, and “Touch of Mercy” kits are for people and families living with HIV/AIDS. “Days for Girls” kits provide menstrual supplies which allow girls to keep attending school, work or family activities during their periods.
To date, the three groups have packed eight 35-gallon totes full of White Cross kits and supplies. Each tote costs $250 to ship; that’s covered by First Free’s missions fund through the Global Outreach Team. Julie Turnquist helps Luaine pack everything into totes and adds the paperwork. Each time a 90-pound tote is filled, Don lugs it up the stairs and loads them into Julie’s car. She in turn drives it to an international shipper in Palatine, who collects them from church groups all over northern Illinois and ships them to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The journey takes four to six months.
In the Ubangi province of northwestern DRC, the totes are received by Rachel Balia, ReachGlobal’s Global Fingerprints Congo coordinator. She distributes the kits and supplies to a hospital, plus dozens of health centers and ELIKAYA Centers where widows and older orphans receive training in reading, writing, sewing and more. These are similar, but not directly related, to the Tabitha Centers that First Free has supported in DRC’s capital city of Kinshasa.
Rachel is the sister of First Free’s Ruth Snyder. Ruth’s husband, Jim, is Africa director for ReachGlobal, the world missions arm of the EFCA. In that role, Jim oversees Global Fingerprints, which works with the CECU (Free) church of Congo in caring for about 1,700 orphans. The church also is heavily involved with ELIKAYA Centers, the 200-bed Tandala hospital and 35 health centers in the Ubangi province.
The bandages and medical linens sent by the groups are worth more than money, Rachel says. They often can’t be found for purchase in northwest Congo. The hospital has relied on White Cross for more than 70 years—allowing staff to care for patients rather than scrounging for supplies.
“And I wish you could see the joy and excitement on a little girl’s face when she tries on a dress that has been sewn just for her,” she adds. “Or the love and mercy kits—what treasures! All of these gifts are a reminder to each child that they are loved by God and by his people.
“And I know many women pray as they cut and sew. Only God knows the difference their prayers have made in the life of a child—orphaned, vulnerable, sick, often rejected—but not forgotten by God.”