By Laura Camby McCaskill
CHARLESTON—When the pandemic hit, Joyce Tullis decided to step up and minister to those around her using one of her gifts: Sewing.
Tullis, a longtime member of Asbury St. James United Methodist Church, saw a social media post from a fabric company in Brevard, North Carolina, seeking home sewers. They would send a little kit with everything sewers needed to make 10 masks. The sewers would then return them within 48 hours.
Tullis answered the post.
“I’ve been sewing since I was 10 years old, I went through a quilting phase, so I had lots of scraps—lots of fabric left,” she said.
Then she looked around her own community.
“I wondered if we might actually need any,” Tullis said. “I thought, ‘I’ve learned how to do it, maybe I should make a few for family and friends,’ and that was kind of it.”
Tullis reached out to her pastor at Asbury St. James, the Rev. Tim Shaw, and told him of her idea.
“She was sitting at home and she sent me a text message,” Shaw said, “She said, ‘Preacher Man, I’ve been playing in my old fabric box in my house. I’ve got my old sewing machine going and I’ve decided I’m going to start making masks.’ They were beautiful, all these fabrics. I realized she had a little skill here.”
Tullis started making masks for all the members of her church, getting in her car and dropping them off at their front door or leaving them on her porch for pickup.
“It continued and it perpetuated itself,” Shaw said, “People started talking.”
Tullis is estimated to have made 150 masks so far, with no plans to stop. Each mask can be washed and go in the dryer. Some masks come with filter pockets.
“It takes longer to make those,” Tullis said, “It’s double—two layers of tightly woven cotton fabric. I got to where I was doing an assembly line. I work on them a couple hours a day. I cut in the morning and pin in the afternoon and sewing machine at night, then reverse it the next day.”
Each mask takes about 20-30 minutes to make, and longer for a filter pocket mask.
Her ministry of love has also reached those who had left the church years ago.
“It’s a great outreach tool. Joyce’s story is three-fold: Number One was ‘what can I do,’ Number Two was ‘I have a lot of time on my hands and I need to do something,’ and Number Three, ‘Why can’t I do something that will help others?’” Shaw said. “For Joyce and her beautiful spirit to think out of the box and say, ‘You know what, why not start making something to bless people’s lives with?’ So, on her own, in her little house, she’s over there sewing away.
“It’s amazing because so many times God puts obstacles in our lives that changes our direction. But He gives us a new opportunity.”
Early in the pandemic, communities on social media reached out asking for masks. Tullis answered their call. Collecting their addresses, she would either mail them or leave them on her front porch in a Ziplock bag for those who lived locally to pick up. Masks have been mailed to families in New York, Chicago and Savannah, as well as dispensed locally.
“I just started, and it was totally not a selfless act—it helped to fill up my days. I get in my zone when I’m sewing. It helps fill very long days, and there seems to be a need,” Tullis said. “People seemed appreciative. I’m on a good road to using up my stash.”
The elastic used to make the masks has become as scarce as masks and hand sanitizer themselves, she said.
“I even went into my mother’s old trunk of sewing notions, and I ended up using wide elastic and cutting it to make it small enough,” Tullis said. “I had a couple friends that called and said, ‘My mother used to sew and I have this elastic left, do you want it?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Yes!’”
It was a perfect storm and a great story, Shaw said of the way Tullis turned a negative into a positive.
“I think sometimes in life, God puts us in challenges that push us to the edge in order that we will come up with it, our own opportunity to give Him glory, and I see that in Joyce Tullis. Not to mention the fact that she is a wonderful spirit and a very talented lady,” Shaw said.
When Asbury St. James opened its doors again June 14, Tullis became the “Gatekeeper.” Guests who enter the front door meet Tullis first. There she takes their temperatures, documents their arrival, hands out masks and directs them to the washing stations. She has also been the Asbury St. James unknown poet for the past 12 years.
“I think we’re all looking, we’re all recreating ourselves, trying to come up with additional ideas to be effective in ministry,” Shaw said. “I tell them: You are the ministers of the world, not me. You’re going to run into people I won’t. I tell them on Sunday, ‘Now you’ve heard the message; now it’s your turn to be the messenger. Once I give it to you, you’re not supposed to go home and say, well, that was a good sermon, why don’t I just go take a nap now, while in the meantime, people need to be fed the word of Jesus Christ.’ I think it’s important that we all, whether it’s making masks, wiping down the pews after church or showing up early on Saturday morning to tape a service—whatever it is, I think God would have us to be busy about his business … during these trials and tribulations. I think a lot of people are getting weary.
“I feel that right now it’s a great opportunity to do some great evangelism because these are uncharted waters we’re in right now.”
Every time Tullis finishes a batch of masks, another need comes in.
“It’s sort of like a hurricane,” Tullis said. “You know something’s out there—it might be bad, it might come, it might not. There’s nothing you can do, but you prepare for it. You don’t know how to fight it, but you do the best you can. This has been the longest hurricane watch. It was one little thing I could do, hopefully it was helpful.”
Tullis said she never looked at her sewing ability as a talent, but her pastor’s teachings have made her realize it is.
“If you have a talent, share it,” Tullis said. “My mother passed it on to me and I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful that I was able to share it with people that I love.”