“They don’t sell clothes; They sell dignity”

I was traveling with a wise elder minister. We drove through a town and saw two different churches side by side.  The United Methodist church ran a clothing store where clothing was sold for .25 cents, jeans for $1, shoes for $2, etc. The other church advertised free clothes, jeans, and shoes.  Neither was open at that time in the evening so I had no idea of which was busier.

My travel companion and I had the following conversation:

Me: Well, I hope the Methodists don’t get put outta business.

Elder (craning her neck to see the churches): I would hope so, because that means that everyone is clothed and taken care of.

Me: I meant that the other church is giving clothes away while the UM church is selling their clothes. Seems like an easy choice.

Elder (twinkle in her eye): You think the UM church is selling clothes? They aren’t. Anytime you can buy something and feel a bit more like the rest of the world, you are getting dignity in the deal. So they aren’t selling clothes. They’re selling dignity.

Wow.  Neat.


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  1. Warren says

    I don't disagree that this likely describes the reality of the situation.

    But I do have a moral problem with the linkage between being able to buy something and a person's dignity. There is something about linking our financial success (how much we can spend) with our human worth (dignity) that I find ethically repugnant. It's the natural ends of capitalism, and therein lies my problem.

    And so I see how the church is doing good within the system, but there are major flaws with the system.

  2. Matt Algren says

    Several years ago my church (Midwestern small city) opened a food pantry, and while there are many statistics I could point at to gauge our success (served per month, new served per month, pounds bought, etc), I'm most proud of a factor that you'll never see on a spreadsheet.

    We have an open pantry. That is to say, people aren't handed a full bag of groceries as if they're in the middle school one-size-fits-all lunch line. Instead, they come in and choose their food, just like (or similar to) what you do at the grocery store.

    The concept seems so simple, but it works so well. It takes these people who swallowed their pride and came to us looking for a way to feed their children, and lets them take their dignity back home with them too.

  3. bblacksten says

    Bob Lupton and other CCDA folks have a lot to say on this. I think one of their principles is never to do for someone else what they can do for themselves, and I think this follows a similar thought pattern. The idea is that by allowing people to participate in the exchange, the seller is acknowledging that they have something to offer, whereas the one giving clothes away implicitly communicates that the people have nothing to give, hence, dignity. I think that there is a lot of good in this line of thought. Often ministry to the poor treats them as objects. Suburban churches come into the city to minister to the poor, but how would they respond if homeless folks came to minister to them?

    Like Warren, however, I am wary of equating dignity with ability to consume. I'm not sure that I can affirm one model over the other, but I am sure that ministry with the poor must affirm the Imago Dei in all people by its practice.

  4. pastorbecca says

    Our church has some free clothes and more clothes for sale in a different part of the building. The free clothes actually are set aside *first* and tend to be of a higher quality than the ones for sale. But, our clothing for sale does better 'business.' Many people do seem to like having the option of buying something they like at a great price, and leaving the free clothing for people "*really* in need," as many a person has said (although they were in various stages of need and want themselves). I wouldn't say dignity so much as empowerment, but I totally agree with your elder and with the comments above, especially bblacksten.

    Our food pantry is pack-your-own, too, and people seem to really love it.


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