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I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
’Tis the season to think about the needs of others, as well as to simplify and purge — mostly our hearts, but also our homes. But before you throw the junk lying around your house into a big bag to donate locally or overseas, pause and think for a moment about what you’re giving and why. Does what you’re putting in that box honor the people it will go to? Is it your junk, or is it a sacrificial gift?
It’s all too easy to make ourselves feel good that we’re “giving to the needy” when really we’re just finding an excuse to get rid of our junk. What we give to others should communicate that they are valuable.
A few years ago I was de-cluttering our closets and stuffed a worn pair of pants and some stained shirts, among other things, into a bag. It was my husband who made me pause. “Those should just be tossed in the garbage,” he said about the shirts. “You can’t give them to anyone.”
The idea of throwing them in the garbage bothered me, but it got me thinking. Why am I giving the needy items I consider too junky to wear myself, or too old for my family to wear? Don’t those who need clothing deserve better?
Yes, they do. It’s not about passing on designer clothes to people who may never have heard of Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein — it’s about treating our brothers and sisters with respect and acknowledging their dignity by giving them things we ourselves value. The poor suffer many indignities; this is one small way we can honor them, a way we can treat them as we would Jesus.
Clothing, shoes and jewelry may seem insignificant in the big scheme of things, but they matter — perhaps more to the poor than anyone else. Because what each of us wears and how we present ourselves gives us a sense of self-worth, self-respect and belonging.
When I visited Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, I was struck by the beauty and dignity of the people — especially the women. So many of them had no running water, no electricity, very little food, makeshift mud-floor huts and babies to feed, yet they still adorned themselves in colorful scarves and jewelry, their nails sometimes painted. Their clothes were clean, and when they attended liturgy, their traditional garments were a spotless white.
Whether they are overseas or in our local neighborhoods, the poor like to look and feel good, just like you and I. They need good things for practical reasons too — for job interviews, for attending houses of worship and for their daily lives.
As you go about paring down in these remaining days of Advent to make room for the new stuff that will be under your tree, or during the new year, consider donating some of your professional wardrobe or a few pairs of lightly worn shoes that sit in the back of your closet. Give a dress that will make a poor woman in Ghana smile. Give a nice sweater you don’t wear much so that a man in your city can replace the worn-out one he has.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with secondhand clothes — many of us choose them first and shop consignment on a regular basis. But there’s a difference between secondhand and junk. Stained, ripped, worn-out clothes should be put in a different pile, not shipped off to the needy. That goes for house wares, technology, toys and even food.
We’re still left with a dilemma, of course: What to do with our piles of crap? Well, some things just need to go into the garbage, but we can also begin to think more creatively and sustainably about our stuff: Can we repair and reuse something? Can it be repurposed or recycled?
A few years ago a small kids’ clothing online company sent me sweaters for my new daughters. The garments were made from adult sweaters headed for the landfill that were rescued, cut up and sewn into unique and fabulous children’s sweaters.
That’s certainly well above my skill level, but the point is, let’s be more thoughtful about our stuff from before we even buy it to its final destination. And let’s not give from our throwaways but from the things we ourselves like and use. It’s one way we can show mercy to the least among us. Which is, after all, what this new year is all about.
[At the start of the Year of Mercy, we suggested 56 Ways to be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy; we’re also talking about practical applications to those suggestions. By doing better in sharing our stuff with the less fortunate, we’re getting a jump on suggestion number two: “Pare down possessions: share your things with the needy.” – Ed.]
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer for Aleteia.