Clothes Closets and Compassion

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While volunteering on a remodeling project in our inner-city church, I came across a yellowed paper sign taped to the wall of an old storage room. CLOTHES CLOSET it was entitled. I glanced at it casually before snatching it down. A closer look revealed it to be more than an old sign — it was an important historical document. Its lined-out, crayoned-in revisions and parenthesized explanations told a fascinating story of the evolution of a ministry. Between its lines one could read of a classic struggle between Christians in charge and people in need. I gently peeled the document from its place to preserve it for further study. Clothes Closet

Look carefully at the sign and you can decipher unwritten content between the lines. The minimum ten cent charge is the first attempt to control the greed of recipients who are abusing the church’s generosity. The scratched out 10¢ to 15¢ garment-price-controls reveals their obvious failure to adequately limit the abuse. OK, five articles total, that’s it! Unless a receiver gets a note signed by one of the pastors. NO CREDIT! No money, no admission — nice and clear. Keeping track of credit accounts is too complicated and time-consuming, and collecting unpaid debts is just too troublesome. NO FREE CLOTHES without a special written dispensation from one of the preachers. This rule is designed to cut off the end-runs around the system. Only an ordained minister can authorize exceptions to the rules. All sales and recipients will be reported to the Christian Council. Such documentation is necessary to foil the greedy who are making the rounds to church clothes closets all over the city. The interpretation of the meaning of “no one” requires clarification. The five garment limit is for one family, not five articles for every family member. NO SMOKING. Of course.

Can you envision the challenging, the tightening of rules, the manipulative ploys, the counter-moves that transpired between good church folk and those they were trying to help? Like temple police, they enacted their one-sided legislation and diligently guarded the resources of the Kingdom as if they were their own. Somewhere in the process of ministering, the poor became their adversaries.

Anyone who has been given the unfortunate task of dispensing free (or nearly free) commodities will soon have familiar war stories to tell. Something seems to go wrong when one with valued resources attempts to distribute them to others in need. The transactions, no matter how compassionate, seem to go sour in the gut of both giver and recipient. A subtle, unintentional message slips through: “You have nothing of worth which I desire in return.” The giver remains protected by his one-up status while the recipient is exposed and vulnerable. Little wonder that negative attitudes surface. It becomes hard to be a cheerful giver. And even harder to be a cheerful recipient.

Ancient Hebrew wisdom describes four levels of charity. The highest level is to provide a job for one in need without his knowledge that you provided it. The next lower level is to provide work that the needy one knows you provided. The third level is to give an anonymous gift to meet an immediate need. The lowest level of charity, to be avoided if at all possible, is to give a poor person a gift with his full knowledge that you are the donor.

Perhaps the deepest poverty of all is to have nothing of value to offer in exchange. Charity that fosters such poverty must be challenged. We know from 40 years of failed social policy that welfare depletes self-esteem while honorable work produces dignity. We know that reciprocity builds mutual respect while one-way giving brews contempt. Yet we continue to run clothes closets and free food pantries and give-away benevolence accounts and wonder why the joy is missing.

Perhaps it is our time and place in history to re-implement the wisdom of the ages and fashion contemporary models of thoughtful compassion. Our donated clothes could create thrift stores and job training. Our benevolence dollars could develop mini-economies within the economy — daycare, janitorial, fix-the-widow’s-roof services that would employ the jobless in esteem-building work. “Your work is your calling” declared the reformer Luther. Does not the role of the church in our day include the enabling of the poor to find their calling?

Reprinted from my new book Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life (Regal).

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