There is a free store here at Peace House, Ypsi. A corner of the basement where I’ve pushed together some cheep closet racks (repaired with duck tape and held up with belts and faith), a few shelves and plastic bins where folks who come in can “shop” for donated items. Clothes, toiletries, a few household items, blankets, and a food pantry focused on camp friendly food.
Often I love this opportunity for folks to engage. There are guests who check it out routinely upon arrival, and some who timidly ask if they can take this or that. I find a lot of joy in watching our regular guests see things they believe another will like and bringing it to them, or taking a new guest into the basement to find something. It feels like the best of community – watching out for one another.
It is also a challenge. A friend who practices Buddhism once joked with me that it is my version of a Sand Mandala – while not as beautiful it certainly keeps me grounded in a lack of permanence and the transitory nature of things. No matter how much time I spend organizing it, or how it is organized (by size, color, type of item… ) it only takes one day of open hours or one event at the house to find it a mess. So, I try to keep in mind the beautiful images he referenced when I re-organize- each time holding in my heart a sense of gratitude and love. Well, trying to! A reminder that prayer and meditation happen in every action if we do it with an attitude of prayer and meditation. Occasionally guests will join in the clean up, and I get to remember to let go of the illusion of control (does it really matter where the t-shirts get hung?!) turning clean up into a celebration of community.
Recently, however, I realized a new challenge with our free store. It brought me face to face with my own lack of faith in abundance.
We try to create a sense of abundance in a community where there is often such a sense of scarcity. I will set a few items aside, squirreled away for those who have a specific need. A certain hard to find shoe size, an interview outfit, or some hard to find necessity. Items needed for survival (tents, sleeping bags… get stored separately and given our one at a time on request ) But mostly, everything is out; “take what you need” is the message. Some folks come and hesitate; “are you sure it is okay if I take 2 pairs of socks?” “I don’t need more than one pair of pants, leave it for someone who does.” I think about my multiple scarves, drawer full of socks and enough shirts that they require a second drawer. Do I need them all?
And sometimes when people first start coming, oh do they need. I will watch as someone will walk out with a garbage bag full of clothes. Things they will never wear, things that don’t fit, things that I have no earthly idea how they are going to carry to camp let alone from place to place should camp be evicted. Sometimes other guests or volunteers will chime in “Does she really need all of that?” “You should put a limit on what people can take.” Maybe. Most of the time I don’t know… there is no set way to love and we are all making it up as we go.
But, here is what I have seen. That person who walks out with a garbage bag full of stuff the first time (and maybe even the 2nd and the 3rd) eventually starts taking only one or 2 items. This is the same person who after a month of carrying out all they can (or 3 months or 6…) eventually says “I only need one pari of pants, leave those for someone else.”. The people who walk out with a garbage bag full of clothes today start bringing them back tomorrow (or next week, or next month…). I’ve seen this time and time again. It is predictable magic.
Yet recently, as I said, I found myself struggling with my own sense of scarcity and lack of faith in abundance. A new group of folks have started coming on Sundays. Camped not far away they often show up together hungry for breakfast. Hungry. I’ve found myself having to improvise a quick round #2 of breakfast as the items from the initial menu get devoured. I find myself worrying, “will there be enough.”
Two Sundays in a row I went down to the free store after open hours and found empty bins, bare hangers and lonely looking closet racks. I’m not proud of my reaction. “It has like a plague of locust has descended” I said to Pat. I found myself worried that we wouldn’t have anything else to share. I tried to trust. I tried to hold on to a sense of abundance. I didn’t feel it. Knowing sometime the actions come before the feeling. So I acted as if I had faith that more would come. I smiled at the guest who carried our our last large duffle bag crammed full of clothing, towels and toiletries, “oh good, I’m so glad you found what you needed.” I put up a note on facebook and sent out an email. And the donations arrived. Friends and supporters cleaned out their closets, hit the thrift stores and climbed into dumpsters at student move out. Bags of clothing arrived. Abundance.
It can be such a challenge to hold on to that faith in abundance. The free store looks bare. The cupboards get emptied. It can be hard. And it also works both ways
Last summer and fall friends dropped off veggies from their gardens. Peggy called me from Mercy House, MASCO had planted a community garden for them and the veggies just weren’t all getting used at Mercy House. Abundance comes with sharing. Not wanting them to go to waste she wondered if we could use them. “Of course”, this former vegetarian happily agreed, “yay for veggies! bring them by.” She dropped off a couple big bags of goodies – mostly zucchini. That same day a friend volunteering with food gatherers brought us some left overs – a giant case of zucchini.
Too much abundance. Over-abundance. Embarrassment of riches. What am I going to do with all this zucchini?
We had stir fry, zucchini fritters and veggies lasagna. And we made mountains of zucchini muffins. Zucchini muffins with nuts, zucchini muffins without nuts, chocolate zucchini muffins, chocoalte chip zucchini muffins, gluten free zucchini muffins. We ate them. We shared them with the neighbors. Baskets delivered to neighbor’s doorsteps. We also set up a small card table just outside the front fence. Groaning under the weight of veggies and displaying a hand written sign “FREE VEGGIES: our friends and their gardens are abundant. Help yourself #mutualaid #sharingiscaring. ” Abundance comes with sharing. They disappeared in no time and it was such a joy to sit on the porch or in the window and watch the excited response from those who walked by on their way in and out of DHS or Packard Health. Abundance shared with nothing to waste. Perhaps there is a lesson in that which can remind my faith when the cupboards get emptied and the free store looks bare.
And so it was as we entered the Memorial Day weekend. We’d had a busy week open hours full and the weekend was looking no less busy. A movie night on Friday where we borrowed a projector and showed a movie outside projected onto our shed, a gathering Saturday to write letters to incarcerated friends and loved ones. Sunday open hours and Monday open hours with a Memorial Day Cook out. Would we have enough food? Would folks find what they need? Would the donation room be bare again and could I ask for more stuff so soon ? Lots of thoughts. Sometimes my thoughts get in the way of my believing.
The movie night went wonderfully. A guest from the near-by camp brought some wood and we made a little fire in the fire pit. Another used their bridge card to pick up some snacks. Pat bought us dinner. Another guest used a gift card from Amazon to rent the movie. Community made abundance. Our letter writing day went much the same; I was able to get some snacks thanks to the generosity of folks getting this email. Others provided stamps. A friend showed up with notebooks of plain white paper rescued after student move out. Again shared abundance. Open hours on Sunday was busy and complete with an unexpected birthday celebration. Our Memorial Day picnic during open hours included an abundance of food donated, again, by some of those of you receiving this email and guests chipping in change and bridge card purchases.
I didn’t need to worry.
Our free store is full again – for a week or two — but more than that my faith is too. Sharing often creates abundance.
Community is powerful. Love is powerful. Thanks for being a part of that!