Have you ever preferred to simply write a check to charity rather than get involved in people’s messy, desperate lives? I confess that I have. Thankfully, some people are more courageous and compassionate than I am. One of them is Jane Knuth, a suburban math teacher from Michigan who began volunteering at a Catholic charity for the poor. She’s written a beautiful book about how volunteer work changed her life.
Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time is described as “a collection of true stories based on Jane Knuth s experiences serving the poor at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in the inner city of Kalamazoo, Michigan. At the outset of the book, Knuth is a reluctant new volunteer at the store, sharing that her middle-class, suburban, church-going background has not prepared her well for this kind of work. By the end of the book, Knuth has undergone a transformation of sorts, and neither she nor we can ever view the poor in the same way again.”
This excerpt, reprinted with the kind permission of Loyola Press, is from Chapter 16, titled “Four Women.” –JKR
I am sometimes aware of my own motives. I have secretly hoped it might be possible to get to heaven by learning all I need to know through reading books and articles. After only a short time at St. Vincent de Paul, I can see now where that may not be the way it works. Juris Rubenis, a Latvian pastor, wrote, “Theology is talking about God when God is not in the room.”
I recognize that situation. I’ve been in that room. It’s comfortable.
Well, the St. Vincent de Paul shop seems to be more like talking with God when he is not only in the room, but he smells, and cries, and prefers to do all the talking himself. It’s this type of messiness that I have spent considerable effort to avoid.
There are times when I see the suffering around the world and around our town, and I just plain look in the other direction.
When earthquakes strike in remote places, a call goes out for search-and-rescue teams, medical personnel, and the military. It is not a coincidence that I chose to teach math as a career. As far as I know, there has never been an emergency call put out for the immediate assistance of the nation’s geometry teachers.
I am perfectly willing to put a check in the mail to whatever group is responding, perfectly content to let them handle it. I prefer to help people when they are calm, courteous, and grateful. I say to myself, “After they get things cleaned up, after the chaos is under control, if they need to learn a little about the Pythagorean theorem then I’m on it.”
Within a week, four women come through the door of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Each of them is facing homelessness, and their stories are the messy kind that do not respond well to geometric logic. I am in high-avoidance mode.
The first is a widow who has two teenagers to support on a part-time income. She is sweet and grateful and gets teary-eyed as she tells me about the many people who have helped her. But in the fog of grief—both hers and the children’s—she hasn’t been able to find the type of job she needs to pay the bills. She is stuck in despair, can’t go back to school, can’t fill out job applications, and can’t move out of a house that is too much work and too much money.
“I just haven’t been able to figure out finances,” she explains. “My husband used to do all that, and I don’t understand it.”
I nod sympathetically as I fill in the paperwork. “When did you lose your husband?”
“Fifteen years ago.”
I stop writing. Oh, my.
This woman is not just a little depressed. She is not going to be helped by a few encouraging words and some extra money for the mortgage. Her situation is way beyond my kind of help.
I revert to my geometry-teacher mode and call in the rescue squad. “Have you told your doctor about that?”
She looks confused. “Why would I tell my doctor about my finances?”
“I think he may have some ideas, that’s all. Doctors know a lot.”
The second woman calls us on the phone and sobs out a story of a drug-addicted husband who has stolen money from her parents, causing her to lose their trust. He then spent all the mortgage money on his drugs, and after that, in a rage, he broke her hand.
“I can’t drive; the doctor put a pin in the bone, and they told me not to use my hand at all. I don’t know what to do. They told me not to lift over five pounds, but I have a baby and a two-year-old.”
“Hold on, hold on,” I say in a not-so-calming voice. “Where is your husband right now?”
“He’s in jail. The hospital called the sheriff because he went domestic on me.”
“He went domestic?” I am confused.
“Yeah. They charged him with domestic because he broke my hand.”
“Oh. Good. That’s good.” I take a breath. “And where are you?”
“I’m home with the babies. But I don’t have any money—it’s all too much!”
Too much for me too.
I tell her the number of the local women’s shelter. “You need to call these people. They know how to help you. If after you’ve seen them, you still need some money for the bills, call us back, okay?”
“Okay,” she whimpers, “thanks.”
The third lady is working two jobs, yet still facing eviction and an empty pantry. I arrange to visit her at work because she can’t afford to take time off to ask for help. She is a greeter at a local big box store: one of those people who stand in the drafty doorway all day, saying, “Welcome to .” And “Have a nice day!”
It is four-thirty in the afternoon before I can arrange to meet her. I walk in the second entrance as instructed and spot a fiftyish woman wearing a red scarf, just like she said she would. I approach her with my clutch of paperwork and say, “Hi. I’m Jane from St. Vincent de Paul. Are you Lucille?”
She looks relieved and embarrassed. “This is so nice of you to meet me here. I didn’t know how I was going—;” she smiles over my shoulder, “Welcome to .” She reaches behind her and yanks out a shopping cart for the customer. “Here you go, Sir.”
I have taken a couple of steps aside so as not to interfere. The man looks at me briefly and moves on. My client smiles broadly and says, “Have a nice day!” to someone who is walking out the door.
I look around to see if anyone else is approaching from either direction, and quickly say to Lucille, “Do you have a break time soon, when we could talk?”
She shakes her head. “Have a nice day, Ma’am! Not until I get off work at eight, and then I have to go to my night job. Welcome to ! Can you just get what you need from me here? Welcome to ! Do you need a cart?”
I unfold the papers and pull a pen out of my purse. “I’m going to need your landlord’s name and phone number, your address, and the last four digits of your Social Security.”
“Have a nice day! His name is and he lives on . Have a nice day! And my Social Security number is . Need a cart today, Miss?”
I would start giggling except Lucille doesn’t think it’s funny. She is worried because her boss might spot us, and she could get fired for fraternizing with a charity that helps underemployed people. She wipes away tears of anger as she looks warily around for signs of her employer. We finish the paperwork in a rudimentary way. I give her a promise of some money and the name of a church that helps people over the phone. “Call these folks and tell them you already spoke with us.” I shove the papers in my pocket and she says, “Thanks so much— Welcome to !” And I escape from her world as swiftly as humanly possible.
The fourth woman I see this week is already living on the street. She is unnaturally thin and wears her hair in a long, limp ponytail. She has no appointment to see us and nearly walks away when we ask if she does. We call her back and with a little prompting find out what she wants. All she asks for is warm clothing and a blanket. We give her that, and she turns to go.
The first three women apologized to me for their tears. They were trying their best to cope, but life seemed to go from bad to worse. When I gave the small comfort of a listening ear, the widow responded by pouring out her feelings of profound shock; the second one’s voice shook with fear; and the third was just plain angry.
“It’s okay,” I told them. “In your situation, I would cry too.”
The fourth lady, the one who wants a blanket, is past crying. She doesn’t appear to care at all what happens to her next. I ask what other assistance we can offer her. “Nothing,” she says. She takes the clothing and the blanket, politely thanks me, and leaves the store with the same blank expression she came in with.
It is not a good thing when someone is so easily helped. It is not good when the poor are silent. It is her face that haunts me at night, hers that I remember.
Slowly, I am beginning to realize that I prefer tears to resignation. I prefer shouting, anger, and bitterness to a courteous hopelessness. I would rather deal with someone’s mess than with their silence, because there is no way to clean up silence.
It must be I was never meant to discuss theology.
I prefer to talk about God when God is in the room.