I have served almost exclusively in small-town and rural congregations in the Upper Midwest. Each of those congregations has a quilting group that makes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of quilts each year. Today I’m thinking about two of those groups. In one group, one of the members made it her special ministry to cut up the donated fabric into standard size squares, pin the squares into bundles so they could be sewn together into strips, and ordered the strips into a pleasing design of colors and prints. The tops were stitched together, batting was added, and a coordinating backing added to the quilt. The other quilters occasionally grumbled about her high standards, but the quilts they produced were lovely, sturdy, and warm.
In the other group, the phrase I heard most often was “It’s just for mission.” The quilts were usually made from donated bed sheets. Fitted sheets had the elastic cut off, and the corner seams cut out. Some other random-color fabric was used to patch the empty corner. A second sheet, or perhaps a donated tablecloth, was used as the “batting” and another sheet (similarly patched in one corner) was used for the backing. Newcomers to the group who asked about finding coordinating colors for the patches or warmer material for the inside layer were quickly reminded that such effort wasn’t necessary. “It’s just for mission.”
Hearing the phrase “It’s just…” makes me cringe, every single time. It has also taught me to listen for the occasions when the word “just” is used to demean and dehumanize those whom we claim to care for, to excuse a lesser degree of caring for our neighbor. How often do we think or speak the word “just” as we provide lesser quantity or lesser quality items to be given to those in need. Anyone who has volunteered at a food pantry can tell stories of donated items with expiration dates several years in the past. A few years ago, I helped to organize a drive to gather shoes to be distributed through clothing “free stores” in a several county area. Despite our requests for new shoes only, we filled a few shopping bags with well-worn (and sometimes aromatic) shoes to be discarded.
I have sometimes found it difficult to encourage members of my congregations to consider their “it’s just…” words. Sometimes they are proud that they can donate more pairs of shoes if they buy inexpensive, inferior brands. My spirit resists that quantity-over-quality reasoning. Still, it’s important that I keep raising the question. “It’s just” language can grow roots and turn into “it’s just” attitudes. “It’s just” attitudes can create a background against which “it’s just” actions can flourish. “It’s just” a refugee, a poor person, an LGBTQ+ person, a woman, a child, a person suffering from mental illness. “It’s just” someone we can ignore, someone we can make assumptions about, someone we can separate from their families, or imprison, or kill, without ever actually seeing them as God’s beloved children.
A number of years ago, I learned a lesson from a friend and mentor. In one of our “coffee and wisdom” conversations, she told me that when she looks in her grocery cart or her cart from Target, she doesn’t want anyone to be able to guess which items are for her family and which are to be donated. I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way before. But ever since that conversation, I have made it a practice to shop for donations from exactly the same stores and brands that I shop for myself.
Buying Campbell’s soup instead of a house brand isn’t going to end poverty and discrimination or stop police shootings of people of color. And it may not even make a huge difference in the life of the person who gets that can of soup at a food pantry. What it does, however, is change me. It makes me more aware of the recipients of this food as individuals with names and lives and families and stories to tell. It’s not “just” for the food pantry, or for mission, or for disaster relief. It never is.
Barbara Bruneau is a retired Lutheran pastor, living in southeastern Minnesota and currently serving in interim ministry. She is a knitter, a weaver, and a very occasional blogger at An Explosion of Texture and Color.
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