Swimsuits, Gift Wrap and How To Love The Poor

Swimsuits, Gift Wrap and How To Love The Poor December 16, 2016


I checked in with our friends at The Friendship Room on their facebook page today. This is the time of year they’re open 24 hours, to give shelter to the homeless and people who can’t afford heating in their homes. They’re full to bursting with guests at all times and constantly asking for people to bring them hot soups.

This is the time of year you could actually die from sleeping outside in Steubenville– it was six degrees Fahrenheit this morning, with a wind chill well below zero. It will thaw this weekend, but first we’ll have an ice storm in the afternoon. I don’t let my daughter outside without her thermal snowsuit this time of year. It’s brutal weather.

Among other things, the Friendship Room was politely asking everyone on Facebook to stop donating swim suits, flip flops and sandals.  They’re not a thrift store; they just give whatever they have donated directly to their poor and homeless guests, and nobody needs a bathing suit in Steubenville in December. They have no room to store things they can’t give away at once. But apparently somebody donated a bathing suit– indeed, enough people did to merit a request to stop bringing them. I’m sure they had the best of intentions.

If I remember correctly, about a year or two ago, the Friendship Room had to ask people to stop donating random boxes of used wrapping paper and ribbons. That could have been a different charity in town. In January, multiple people donated their used wrapping to the poor, I suppose so that homeless people could give each other Epiphany gifts.

And I’ve seen similar things other places. Once I was riding in a car to run errands with someone who needed to stop at the charity thrift store for a minute, to drop off a donation. I went in with her. I saw that she was donating two garbage bags full of blank VHS tapes to the poor, because she had no room for them in her house.

Once a woman I knew mentioned that, when she was very poor, a rich neighbor gave her a box of her stained and used clothing, including an ugly Christmas cardigan. I’m sure the rich neighbor felt very generous to do this. The poor woman was resourceful; she removed all the tasteless Santa appliques from the Christmas cardigan and soaked the stains out in bleach. This ended up changing the cardigan from a bright tacky color to a tasteful light lavender, as well, and the poor woman found herself with a pretty new sweater.  When the rich woman saw her wearing it, she admired it. And she asked for it back.

This sort of thing seems to happen a lot.

A lot of people tend to think of the poor as their garbage disposal.

I’m not talking about a general thriftiness, the attitude that if I can’t use this or that serviceable item I’ll give it to a thrift store and see if anyone else wants it. That is not charity, and it can become ugly when people think that giving away their unwanted things is the same as being charitable. But thrift isn’t a bad thing in itself. It can be a virtue if it’s properly applied. We ought to be prudent with the gifts God gives us, and that’s one way to do it. I’m very grateful for the furniture and clothes I find at the Franciscans’ thrift store on Half Off Tuesday. It makes my day when someone gives away perfectly good clothes in my size, that they don’t want. My whole wardrobe is secondhand. I depend on other people’s thrift.

What I’m talking about is the general attitude that useless things I don’t like should be thrown at poor people instead of at dumpsters, and the poor ought to take them and be grateful. That if something isn’t good enough for me, it’s good enough for a person poorer than me, and that person should take it and like it because I gave it to them.

This isn’t loving your neighbor as yourself. This is using your neighbor– as a garbage can, and as something to ease your guilt and make you feel generous with no effort. It doesn’t benefit the poor in any way. It doesn’t benefit those who serve them. It’s not thrift; it’s more like littering with an extra middle man thrown in. And just using human beings for our own purposes is never okay. It’s the opposite of love. People aren’t props to make us feel charitable or to throw away our trash for us. People are icons, to be revered.

Go ahead and give your used items you don’t need to a thrift store, if you’re sure a thrift store can sell the things you’re giving away. That’s not a bad practice. But it isn’t an act of charity, any more than returning empty beer bottles is charity. Charity means loving your neighbor as yourself, giving to your neighbor what you’d like to be given. When you bring soup to the warming center, give them a soup you’d be proud to serve guests at your own house. When you give cans to a food pantry, give a can of food you like to eat yourself. Take off your own gloves to give to a homeless person, or keep an extra pair of your favorite gloves to give away; don’t buy them cheap gloves you wouldn’t wear yourself. If your neighbor is poor and can’t buy her own clothes, give her a cardigan that you wouldn’t be ashamed to wear to the office.

Don’t give bathing suits to the homeless in December.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the law and the prophets.

No one likes to be treated like a garbage can.

(image via Pixabay)


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