Admit it! We have all done it, haven't we? Stuffed our old clothes in a bag, or maybe, first washed and folded them neatly, and then given them away. Sometimes, the clothes just do not fit anymore. Or, we need more room in our drawers for newer clothes and are just too tired of folding that sweater we have not worn in forever. At other times, we call it cleaning out our closets. I have heard of some who give away an old item every time they buy something new.
I work in a food pantry with a section reserved for what we affectionately refer to as the clothing closet: a room dedicated to clothing and household items. It is such a blessing to be able to help out a mother of five with pajamas, for example, or an outfit that one of her children can wear to school. A discarded and functional lamp or gently used set of dishes can make such a difference to a newly arrived immigrant who is trying to put a home together. During the holiday season, we are inundated with coats. I am always so happy when someone comes into the pantry during the middle of winter and we can offer a warm jacket. This gently used clothing includes everything from socks to formal evening wear. Someone recently gave us a pair of golf shoes.
One frequently asked question I get from donors is, "Do people ever give you clothing you cannot use?" Or they just come right out with it and say, "I bet you get a lot of junk." When asked by a prospective donor what kind of clothing is needed, my first answer is always the one rule of thumb about the clothing we give out: Each item has to pass the "I would wear it" test.
The giving away of used clothing seems to be an institutional phenomenon. We have whole industries, such as Goodwill, which are supported economically by used clothing. How many parishes do you know that collect any used items offered from parishioners and offer these to needier parishes, or hold coat drives during the Thanksgiving or Christmas season? My motherhouse has a "nearly new" room. I frequent it often. Used clothing from the United States even goes overseas. In my years as a missionary in South America, every place I went, big or small, had used clothing from the U.S. for sale in local markets.
The opportunity to share what one person no longer wants or desires with another who is in need has been such an eye-opener for me. When I first arrived at the food pantry, I struggled with some donations. Why aren't these clothes cleaner or more neatly folded? What could possibly possess one to give? It was easy to fall into the dualistic trap: a donation was either good or bad, right or wrong. I felt judgmental and cynical at times. And, worse, I felt superior. I realized I needed a major attitude adjustment. I decided to go to the source — to the Gospels — for healing and conversion.
John the Baptist tells us that if we want to prepare our way for following Jesus, we are supposed to offer another what we do not need; "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none. . ." (Luke 3:11). Jesus made it very clear that any possession, material or spiritual, is given to be put at the service of the poor. In fact, the earliest records of our Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles support the common good over individual needs.
"The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need." (Acts 4.32-35)
Giving of what we have is a way of living out the Resurrection of Christ. It is our form of kenosis or self-emptying. We give to imitate the love of Jesus we have been offered as gift. In other words, the giving of our possessions, no matter how they look, is how each of us strives to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. We give to demonstrate that we are made in God's image and likeness.
Now, when a donation comes in the door, I can accept it with delight and gratefulness. I can offer the giver my sincere gratitude. I can perceive the goodness in the giver's heart and not just pay attention to what is in his or her bag of donations. I can rejoice that the Body of Christ is being made manifest in our midst.
St. Catherine of Siena said: "The soul, as soon as she comes to know me, reaches out to love her neighbors." Each donor represents God's loving embrace for others.
[Peggy Ryan is a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa who recently completed her Doctor of Ministry degree from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. As part of her parish ministry, Peggy and the other Dominican Sisters with whom she lives, offer weekend retreats of service and theological reflection.]