Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coming out of the closet

Posted by Jack

As many of you know, we have a community closet here at Mulberry House. (If you didn’t know that, shame on you! Didn’t you watch the cheesy video tour?)

In fact, many of you are so familiar with the concept that you have graciously offered to donate your stuff to us… lots of your stuff.

I (Jack) have been doing some serious thinking lately (unemployment lends itself well to serious thinking), and I arrived at the conclusion that we need some clarifications in this area.

Let’s start with the basics: why would we even consider such a feature in our house?

“If anyone has the world’s goods and he sees his brother or sister in need, and does not open his hand to them, how can he say the love of the Father is in him?”

That’s Bible.

We value the idea of having a community closet because it provides us with a mechanism for sharing. We live in a “me first” society. The ever-present danger of becoming mere cogs in the consumerist machine has caused us to recognize that if we are going to share, we must be intentional about it. By devoting an entire section of our house to sharing, we are making a clear and concerted effort to liberate our “stuff” and put it into the hands of our friends in need.

We are also very fond of that silly, silly notion of redistribution of wealth. Throughout the Bible, you can find examples of the people of God doing absurd things to upset the “balance” of the majority culture, including such bizarre measures as debt forgiveness and resource sharing.

Crazy, I know.

Despite these very valid and relevant aspects of our discipleship (intentional sharing and redistribution), we also recognize the dangers of such an endeavor.

First of all, we want to avoid becoming more “white guys with free stuff.” There are plenty of those in the ‘hood. In fact, the most common form of inner-city ministry involves passing out free stuff.

[Knock, knock]

“Hi, my name is Pastor Fred. We have come from the suburbs to pass out free stuff so you will love Jesus too. Here’s a Frisbee and some microwave popcorn.”

“Great. Thanks. Throw it in the back room with the other stuff. Yeah, yeah… praise Jesus.”

This is not to say that giving things away is wrong. In fact, there are certain times when giving someone a gift is the most logical and necessary step in a relationship. I am merely suggesting that blind, tacit giving-of-free-stuff is the most shallow, empty form of service. Dropping more “stuff” into a broken neighborhood does little more than increase the level of clutter.

This approach to ministry also creates the very real danger of one-way, dependent relationships, which are not at all what God intends for His people. It helps us buy into the lie that what they need most is us, that our role is to hand them things, and that they have nothing to offer us. I think one of the reasons the church at large likes to donate material possessions or money is because it puts us in the dominant position of handing down that which we don’t need.

“I have enough. You don’t. I have saved the day by giving you my leftovers.”

It’s straight up evil, but we feel pretty good when we do it, don’t we?

Secondly, I do not want this house to become a storehouse for the stuff people don’t want. It is easy to drop off some canned food at the food pantry. It is easy to write a check and send it off to a mission. And it is actually pretty convenient to take those old clothes from the basement and dump them at the community closet. But what Jesus has called us to do is far deeper than that.

I was reading an essay by some trouble-maker named Shane Claiborne, and he said something to this effect: in Matthew 25, Jesus did not say, “I was hungry and you gave money to the United Way so they could feed me.” Jesus did not say, “I was naked and you gave me the address of that clothing closet where you dropped off your old duds.”

We don’t need more people sending material possessions in the general direction of the poor. We need more people to sacrifice their material possessions and join the poor. By opening our doors for the church to drop off their old stuff, we at Mulberry House are enabling Christians to remain believers in Jesus without becoming followers of Jesus.

Finally, I do not want our house to be the place where neighborhood folks come to shop. Brokerage is a shallow substitution for meaningful relationships, and it is therefore our enemy. If the main reason people come to visit us is to thumb through our old stuff, we will have failed as disciples of Jesus Christ.

All that to say, we will still take your donations, but keep the following in mind:

1) We are not a drop-off point for large amounts of junk that you no longer need. No one has used us like that yet (thankfully), but we certainly do not want anyone to start.

2) The actual closet in our house may change shape. We might keep a more focused list of house items that would be useful for neighbors in need, such as food, hygiene supplies, and non-luxury, need-based items. Other donations, such as clothing, toys, and whatnot, will be distributed in some other way, away from the house. Tim and I are working on that still…

One option on the table is to establish a "Share shop" or "Free store" at another location. This is a possibility, but it will take some planning and thinking.

So, thanks for your donations, and thanks for keeping us in mind. Just know that we may treat future donations with more scrutiny.

It is my prayer that God’s church will come out of the closet. I pray that we will come out from behind the bulletproof glass and shake hands with our friends in the city. I pray that we will drop our soup ladles, take off our hairnets, and join our family at the table. I pray that we will abandon our half-hearted efforts to jumble up our material possessions and instead devote our whole-hearted energy to hospitality and friendship.

Will you help us? I hope so, because we can’t do it by ourselves.

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