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The story behind the stoles

Newly elected co-moderators delight the assembly with their custom, symbolic stoles.

Newly elected co-Moderators of the 226th General Assembly: Rev. CeCe Armstrong and Rev. Tony Larson. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Salt Lake City – When CeCe Armstrong and Tony Larson stepped on the stage of the 226th General Assembly to stand for co-moderator, the gathered delegation couldn’t help but notice their unique stoles. Each wore a stole with half of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cross logo so the logo was only complete when they stood together. In their opening remarks, they noted the stoles and stepped apart from each other to either side of the podium. 

“Apart from each other, we are not the whole church. But when we stand together, we can be the body of Christ,” Armstrong said.

“Apart from each other, we are not the whole church. But when we stand together, we can be the body of Christ.” — CeCe Armstrong 

The stoles were sewn by Armstrong’s friend Michelle Phillips, who works as the director of Christian education at The Kirk in Kansas City. Armstrong and Phillips met when Big Tent was held in Louisville, Kentucky, and Phillips recruited Armstrong to help with the middle school youth program. Their friendship developed over the years as they connected at various church conferences, and it solidified when they worked together at Triennium with Armstrong as the conference pastor and Phillips serving in a support role. Phillips describes her friend and newly elected co-moderator Armstrong as having, “An infectious zeal for life, God, love, and sharing all of that with others.” 

Michelle Phillips. Photo courtesy of The Kirk.

Phillips learned to design and sew stoles at an Arts, Worship and Recreation (ARW) Conference years ago, and she has been making them for her friends as gifts over the years. When Armstrong announced that she would be standing for co-moderator, Phillips offered to make matching stoles for Armstrong and Larson. 

“What if you made the PC(USA) symbol across both of our stoles?” Armstrong asked. “The PC(USA) cross logo is important and it would be really cool if it could symbolize that we stand together.” Phillips got to work on the stoles with the goal of finishing them in early June. Life got in the way so she ended up having to mail them overnight on June 25 — just as Armstrong was packing her bags to come to the assembly. 

Phillips said, “I loved what she said: ‘Apart we are not the body of Christ, but together, we are.’ I’m honored to be a part of their journey.” 

Phillips shared that for her, making stoles is a spiritual discipline. 

“I do it because I love my friends and I love how God can work through me to create something crafty.” — Michelle Phillips

“I do it because I love my friends, and I love how God can work through me to create something crafty,” she said. Her creative process includes sketching out the ideas and getting her friend’s approval. Then she goes to the fabric store and finds just the right materials. She draws the pattern on the material, uses a Cricut machine to cut the pieces, and then sews them together.

The reverse side of Armstrong and Larson’s co-moderator stoles. Photo courtesy of Michelle Phillips.

Phillips said that all of her stoles are imperfect, which gives them character and reminds the recipient that they are hand-made with love. She notes that she always tries to make her stoles reversible so the recipients can flip them over and wear them for multiple purposes or liturgical seasons. She enjoys finding fabric that represents water so that the stoles can be used during baptisms, and the back of the PC(USA) cross logo stoles she made for the co-moderators do have a reverse side with a beautiful green-and-blue material that could be used during ordinary time or for a baptism. 

Phillips “signs” her stoles with a lopsided heart made of fabric with a puzzle piece pattern symbolizing autism awareness with the sentiment that, just like her stoles, we are all “imperfectly perfect.” This fits perfectly for Armstrong and Larson as they begin their terms as co-moderators of the 226th General Assembly with stoles that represent unity and were made with love.