We had a wedding at St. John this Saturday. We spiffed up the church a bit. I had to think for a moment about what to do with the free clothing rack that stands just outside the church door whenever weather allows. The answer was obvious: We put out all the upscale fun party gear we could find in our modest collection, including a little girl's dress from the 1950s, red and frilly. The couple loved it, and our regulars were amused, knowing that the usual range of items would be back the next day.

The rack has evolved over the years. It started when someone was cleaning out a house and asked us if we could use clothes. Of course!

Back then we charged a quarter per item, but eventually we realized that the cost was prohibitive for some. The rack sat indoors for years, until we realized that the people who needed the clothes were mostly outside.

We brought the rack in every night until once someone forgot. The next day a neighbor thanked me. She said she had seen lots of people who would have been too proud to take anything by day wandering by in the darkness. I'm glad they got what they needed.

Every once in a while people start thinking big. "Why not turn your hall into a thrift store? You could make some money for the church." But our goal here isn't making money — and besides, the scouts, the A.A. group, the knitters, and the folks who show up for a free meal need the hall to be the hall.

A professional do-gooder told me how we could get bales of clothes from a warehouse in Tennessee, sorted by gender, size, and season. But I said, "No, thanks." We average perhaps 300 items per week, not counting the occasional big clearances when we get overwhelmed, and we can't handle truckloads. Even at that, last year we gave away more than one item for every two people in town.

People bring us things - the good, the bad, the ugly — from mink coats (three that I know of) to stained t-shirts (workingmen like them just fine). Sometimes people bring clothes on hangers and put them directly on the rack. Sometimes they bring them back after taking them home to try on.

When we have to sort and hang the clothes ourselves, it takes volunteers perhaps a couple of hours per week to manage the whole thing. And sending a truck back and forth to Tennessee so that we can recycle hardly seems green.

The clothes rack is a small thing, a simple thing. But it has become a ministry that identifies our church: "Oh, the church with the clothes!"

And that statement is shorthand. It means:

  • A place I can come in the middle of the night, maintaining my privacy.
  • A place that keeps it simple, that doesn't require forms or keep files.
  • A place that operates leanly.
  • A place where I might or might not find a treasure at any given moment, but where the folks will keep an eye out for the things I really need.
  • A place where I can give something small and have it greatly appreciated.

There are big, well-funded programs that do great things, of course. But one subzero winter day, I saw a car packed full of men pull up in front of the church. They were obviously on their way home from a laboring job. A fella in a T-shirt got out, grabbed a coat from the rack, and said, "Looks like a warm one." He hopped back in the car.

At that moment, that was enough for him.

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