Giving our best

Gina Grate Pottenger
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

In Lebanon, it is not common for people to purchase second-hand items as a cost-savings method for acquiring new-to-you clothes, shoes, furniture or household items. People want the things they own to be new, one local friend told me. Thus, it’s hard to find second-hand or charity shops there.

So, it's ground-breaking in this culture that the Beirut Church of the Nazarene has opened a second-hand store that sells clothing, shoes, bags for just a few dollars each. The purpose is to meet the needs of the huge influx of destitute refugees into the country from Syria and Iraq. Lebanon reported a population of 4.5 million prior to the refugees' arrival, and the United Nations estimates that, by now, 1 million refugees live there. A conservative estimate is that 1 in every 5 people in Lebanon is a refugee. Many believe it is more. Thus, affordable clothing and household goods is a very real need.

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Karibe opened in 2014, in space shared rent-free to the church by a Catholic Abbey, whose leaders believe in the project. “Karibe” means, “My Neighbor,” a reference to Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan, which he told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” For the Church of the Nazarene in Beirut, “neighbor” isn’t just a symbolic term, but a literal one, as the church’s neighborhood has filled up with refugees in the past six years.

In February I had the chance to visit the Karibe store and warehouse to see this ministry in action. The shop gives the church members who work there a way to meet and further support people who desperately need material assistance, such as the large food packages the church also distributes to people who have registered for help.

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When we went down to the storage rooms the abbey had also made available for this work, the church leaders showed me large boxes filled with the remaining donated clothes, toys, belts, bags, shoes and more, that are waiting to be put out on the shop shelves.

As I wandered through the room shooting pictures of the items waiting to be displayed upstairs in the shop, I noticed a corduroy jacket with very visible stains on the light-colored material. I pointed this out to the volunteers.

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They said, "Yes, in fact about 20 percent of what we receive in the shipments is not fit to be sold to our clients. The items are damaged, stained or not in good condition."

"Twenty percent?" I repeated, disbelieving. One of the women showed me a pair of shoes of which the leather exterior was peeling horribly.

"Yes. And it cost $5,000 to get the shipment through customs. And yet, we cannot use up to 20 percent of it, maybe more," I was told.

A standard practice is for donors to send the funds needed to clear the containers through the receiving nation's customs. Lebanon's process for containers like this costs $5,000. In one case, the donor only sent $1,000, so the church needed to come up with the rest.

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Although I had not personally participated in the donations of these items, I felt embarrassed. I imagine that further back in the past I have probably donated items I would not be proud to find in these boxes today. (Is it any different from those times when I cleaned out food from my cupboards that I didn't want, like canned peas and kidney beans, and put them in the food drive box at church mainly as a way to just get rid of them? I didn't spend time thinking about who would receive them and if they'd want to eat them anymore than I did.)

Looking at the shoes and the stained jacket, I tried to assume the best. Perhaps there was a mistake somewhere in collecting these items, or those who packed up the shipments didn't have time to carefully sort through the items before sending them on. I was relieved to hear that the items were not sent by Nazarenes. But I thought about the $5,000 required to get the clothes out of customs, and how much of that money was essentially wasted on worthless clothing.

What message might it communicate if we send ripped, stained or damaged clothes and other goods to people in need? Do we unintentionally denigrate their dignity and value as fellow human beings? On the other hand, what message would it communicate if we sent new, clean and beautiful items as gifts to fellow human beings in need? How would that make them feel?

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In the Old Testament, specifically Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, God laid down many laws for his people that clearly illustrate his high standards. When God asked his people for sacrifices, he expected them to give every firstborn animal of their livestock, as well as the first fruits of all their harvests. Every animal sacrifice thereafter should be without blemish. It should be healthy, whole, and perfect. God didn't want their cast offs -- animals or crops that they would be happy to get rid of while keeping the best for themselves. He gave them his best and he wanted them to give their best in return. Centuries later, he gave all of us his best: his Son. After that, God gave us himself in the Holy Spirit.

We follow this same standard when we give away items we ourselves would be proud to wear, or use, or decorate with. A rule I've heard for donating tangible items is: If YOU wouldn't use it, don't donate it.

Thanks to the many nice items that have been donated, the church in Beirut has a large shop space bursting with very good, gently used clothing, shoes and toys for adults and children. I even saw a beautiful wedding dress. Through this ministry they are making face-to-face contact with people at a painful place in life, and starting to establish relationships that hopefully will become a life-transforming journey together in the hard road of life. Some will come to know Jesus personally and join a supporting, loving church family. In fact, thanks to the loving kindness of Nazarenes in Beirut, a whole new church has been planted. Its attendees are all refugees, led by a pastor who is also a refugee.

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This is what comes when a church gives its best to its community.