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Posted: 9:49 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012

The Christmas story captured in stitches

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The Christmas story captured in stitches photo
Bita Honarvar
The needlepoint creche that was created in honor of the 100th anniversary of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead two years ago. Photographed Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. BITA HONARVAR / BHONARVAR@AJC.COM
The Christmas story captured in stitches photo
Bita Honarvar
Hyland Justice explains to a Sunday School class at Peachtree Presbyterian Church the process by which she brought together 17 stitchers to create a needlepoint creche in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Buckhead church two years ago. Photographed Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. BITA HONARVAR / BHONARVAR@AJC.COM

By Gracie Bonds Staples

As Nativity scenes go, what this one shows is not unusual.

There’s baby Jesus lying in a manger, his mother Mary, Joseph, shepherds, all part of the Christmas story described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

What is unusual is the amount of time it took Hyland Justice and her band of Peachtree Presbyterian stitchers to create the creche, done almost entirely using needlepoint: a total of 2,973 hours.

Indeed, Kathy Ray, one of Peachtree Presbyterian’s newest members, assumed when she saw this Nativity scene for the first time last year that it had been around for a long time, that perhaps faithful people were adding to it each year.

“I was in awe when I learned otherwise,” she said. “It is an amazing story, full of God’s guidance and grace and the power of one woman’s idea. What a legacy these talented artists have given to future generations.”

The idea to create the needlepoint came to Justice in 2008 while she was traveling in the Holy Land.

Mosaics and other pieces of religious art there captured her imagination and wouldn’t let go, she said.

“I started to think about the idea of a needlepoint Nativity set but didn’t know how, when or why that could happen,” Justice said.

Then in August 2009, the church pastor announced plans to celebrate Peachtree’s upcoming 100th anniversary. Mark your calendars, the Rev. Vic Pentz told them that day.

“I can remember sitting there thinking that’s it,” Justice said. “This could be a centennial gift to the church.”

But a needlepoint?

Justice didn’t know any stitchers at Peachtree Presbyterian, but she’d long admired the handiwork of its members: colorful needlepoint cushions, chair covers, wall hangings, and table runners scattered about the 6,700-member church.

As far as she knew, “needlepoint hadn’t been done in 20 years at Peachtree.”

Justice couldn’t shake this call to create the Nativity scene.

That fall, she met weekly with a friend and prayed: Lord do you want me to do this or not and, if so, how?

December arrived and the “how” still alluded her. She realized if she were going to meet the deadline, she desperately needed to get started.

At an exercise class in January, Justice struck up a conversation with a woman named Rebecca Hinkle.

“We got to talking and realized we both loved to needlepoint,” she said.

She also discovered that Hinkle lived around the corner from her in Brookhaven and was a member of Peachtree.

With Hinkle on board, Justice put an announcement in the church bulletin asking other stitchers to join them.

On Feb. 17, which was Ash Wednesday, 27 members, including one man, showed up.

Justice divided the group according to their skill and personal commitment.

Seventeen of them would stitch the 23-piece Nativity scene and the remaining 10, along with 42 other stitchers from eight states, would each stitch a cross, part of an initiative to raise money for My Sister’s House, a transitional home for homeless women and children.

Once an artist finished painting the canvases, Hinkle and Justice created comprehensive stitch guides using 58 different stitches, 20 kinds of threads, and 129 colors.

Over the next eight months, twice each month they met at the church, sometimes at Hinkle’s home and other times at Justice’s place to work. They called themselves the PresbySTITCHians, a moniker Hinkle’s husband coined.

Joining the effort was natural for Hinkle. Not only was needlepoint an old hobby, she was a recent retiree.

“I had the hours to commit to a project of this magnitude,” she said. “Add Hyland, my love of needlepoint, and the opportunity to give back to Peachtree, and it was irresistible.”

William Swords, the lone man in the group, agreed, but quipped that he was initially turned away. “When I walked into the introduction meeting, I was told that I was in the wrong room,” he said.

But Swords knew better. He’d been needlepointing since 1974 and so, rather than join the meeting down the hall as he’d been instructed, he stayed put.

“Any man can work his way into an all-male group,” he said. “Being accepted as one of the gals, now that is something most men cannot do.”

As he and the gals moved from one piece to the next, they shared their expertise, personal stories, challenges and how they moved to resolutions.

“My faith has always been a friend to me and I have enjoyed learning how faith has helped others address and resolve their worries,” Swords said.

On Sept. 1, 2010 they were done. Justice collected the pieces and sent them off to be stuffed, weighted and corded before assembling them on a 6-by-3-foot display that included straw, wood and rocks from the Holy Land. An Israeli friend sent wood from Bethlehem to build the stable.

On Ash Wednesday, the creche was rolled to the Williams Center for members and visitors to enjoy.

“At every turn, when the project needed a resource, God provided,” Hinkle said. “Whether it was the money to purchase the canvases and threads, or finding our team of talented and enthusiastic stitchers, God provided.”

All indications are that He isn’t done. Justice recently started a new project to stitch a cushion for the church’s kneeling bench.

“I see this as the beginning of a lot more projects in the future,” she said.

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