By Kathy Staudt
I’ve never been a big fan of church fundraisers, but for various reasons I’ve spent the past few months helping organize a rummage sale at church. To my surprise, the process has been something of a spiritual practice for me and I think for others involved: A spiritual practice, i.e. something we do that helps us to be more open to the Holy Spirit at work in our common life, and to become more and more available to God.
Like many congregations, we had some history to challenge us in this area: for years, the women’s group of the founding congregation had run a monthly “opportunity shop” — it dwindled in the late 1990’s when it became clear that there was not a sufficient critical mass of women in the new generation who could devote the huge amounts of during-the-day time required for the monthly sorting and pricing. If that was the only way to do a rummage sale, then the times for such events has simply passed. But after many years’ hiatus, some newer members had become established members, and wondered why we couldn’t have a rummage sale? Their experience of rummage sales came out of church experience in West Africa. A few of the “op shop” women were still willing to pass on some of their wisdom and to give generously of time– a lot of daytime hours — for this one event. So the challenge was to pass on the wisdom and still share ownership of new ways of doing this. It could not “belong” to just one small group, or it would be too much work. So we made it about participation: open to anyone: People could participate by coming to sort and price for an hour or two or by working on a Monday holiday, or by coming in the evening the night before the sale. There were still people who worked longer hours than others, but it was like the parable of the laborers in the vineyard: everyone who participated contributed something, and the rewards were the same for all. Meanwhile, energy grew around the emerging “rummage sale committee” and many of the women of the church — now representing the many cultural backgrounds in our congregation — began to offer time, cooking, ideas. Planning meetings started to happen – boisterous and disorganized by my own standards, but ultimately kind of fun.
Now, none of what we were doing looked particularly spiritual: the process involved organizational meetings, dickering over who was supposed to do publicity and how it should be done; navigating potential “turf wars,” and in our multicultural congregation, making sure we were really “hearing” each other, addressing perceived slights before they escalated, giving everyone a voice. We did pretty well — not perfectly– at this. There was tension sometimes, and there was also some hilarity: (I never knew how much the phrase “white elephant” belonged to my northern “yankee” tradition — my Southern US and west African sisters were mystified by the term until I was able to show them how it applied to some of the more outrageous pieces of household junk we received!) Everyone will have feedback about what didn’t work, and I’ll chalk those up to “lessons learned” for another time. But my sense is that at the end of the event we all felt we had done something good together, and for the church. To quote some wise words of our friend the Rev. Rondesia Jarrett, “Everybody got fed. No one got hurt.” Not a bad mantra for any family event.
The other thing a rummage sale offers is what I’d call the “ministry of stuff.” Knowing it was happening allowed me to finally bite the bullet and clean out my closets and it has been great to lighten the load of stuff in my household. (the books, alas, will have to await another year). Some of what we sold included the possessions of people who had died– a chance for widows and widowers to let go of those things and give them to the church. We spent hours and hours sorting through people’s stuff, a ministry in itself — and deciding how to price and organize and present and publicize. There was potential controversy in all of these steps- – and it took a lot of good will for newcomers and old timers to work it out together. But we did. The process of pricing and sorting creates its own little women’s culture, where the things create stories: “Oh, that’s a dress I made of silk I bought in Japan in the 1970’s.” “Now there’s a clever gadget: I never thought of that before. . . “ etc. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re buying these plates: I really used to enjoy them when I did more entertaining!”
The day of the sale, people from the neighborhood came by, as well as people from all over the county who had seen our ad. A young adult woman from the neighborhood recalled Girl Scout meetings and community events from her childhood that happened in our building and shared a sense of “coming home.” Others remembered the “op shop” at our church building years before, and wondered if we were bringing it back. Meanwhile, Spanish-speaking members of the congregation came to shop and help interpret if necessary — and reminded us that another year we should do a lot more advertising in Spanish because that’s who lives around here. All of this reminded us of where we are located in this community. I was glad of what some people saw when they came: – a multi-racial, cross-cultural community, working together and getting along. I hope there was a gospel word in just the way we were together.
When it was all over, the clothes went to a local clothes closet for the homeless, and the leftovers from the bake sale will go into lunch bags for the community shelter week: further reminders of how we are connected to our local community.
We made some money, too – a little over $1500 after expenses. I was glad of that and already reflecting on how to do better next time. But for me the experience was about working together in community. The fact that it was “for the church” was the bond: And in much of what we were doing here, we were learning how to be together, trying to be, truly the “church of Our Saviour” — which is also the name of our parish. We may do better next time. But this time through, we worked together to make something good happen in our neighborhood, and we did it well. And I for one learned something about the nitty-gritty of loving one another, navigating interpersonal, intercultural challenges because deep down what draws us all here is the desire to be a part of a common life. Perhaps this will shape us. Perhaps our neighbors saw it, too. That is my hope and my prayer.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.