This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
The first reading was from the article “Creating Social Value” by Philip Auerswald, in the spring, 2009, issue of Standford Social Innovation Review:
“For most of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, economists saw themselves as ‘moral philosophers,’ as qualified to comment on the equity of societal processes as on their efficiency. That tradition came to an end rather abruptly with the publication in 1939 by John R. Hicks of the classic book Value and Capital — a work that took the creation of value as a starting point for fundamental theoretical syntheses. At a time when ideological excesses, such as communism and fascism, were becoming the norm, Hicks and his colleagues at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge were intent on reestablishing the field of economics on firm scientific foundations, immune to whim or rhetoric. Hicks asserted forcefully that the field of economics should be based, not on the fantasy of objectively measured happiness, but rather on subjective judgments of value as revealed through market transactions. Because utility was not measurable, interpersonal comparisons were out of bounds.” [p. 54]
The second reading was from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65, Scholar’s Version translation:
“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him….”
Sermon — “Universal Thrift”
The best churches, churches that uphold the highest ideals, tend to be critical of the society around them. I believe that in this sense our church is one of the best churches, for we do uphold the highest ideals. When we look at the world around us, we see the many things that are wrong with human society; because of our high ideals, we see ways in which human society could be so much better than it is now. We not only hold high ideals, we also act on those ideals, and when we take action on our ideals we are being critical of the society around us.
This morning I’d like to speak with you about one church project in which we have lived out our ideals in two areas: sustainability, and helping out those of lower economic status. I am referring to Universal Thrift Store, the store we house in our church basement, which recycles used clothing and housewares by making them available at low prices to anyone who comes in the store. There’s nothing new about churches hosting thrift stores, but I find Universal Thrift more interesting than the average church thrift store, partly because of the store’s goals, and partly because of some of the innovative approaches to running a thrift store that are being taken. Let me tell you some of Universal Thrift’s story, and then I’ll relate the story of Universal Thrift to some larger religious questions.
Universal Thrift Store was started by Lorial Laughery-Weincek in 2003; the Board of Trustees voted to approve the Thrift Store on June 3, 2003, and it opened for business soon thereafter. As I understand it, a major part of Lorial’s motivation when she founded Universal Thrift was to raise funds to go towards the operating expenses of the church. Lorial knew that she had the skills to run a profitable thrift store and the church needed additional income, so everyone would benefit.
But Universal Thrift was always more than a way to raise money for the church. Lorial had contacts with many social service agencies in the city, and every now and again those social service agencies would send a person in need to Universal Thrift, with a letter asking if Lorial could give that person clothing or housewares at no cost. A family with small children might have had a fire in their apartment, and Universal Thrift could provide that family with basic clothing, and enough pots and pans and dishes so they could cook and eat. Or a woman with children who had escaped from an abusive relationship might need clothing and housewares, and again Universal Thrift could supply a few basic things for free, enough to get that family started in their new life.
Under Lorial’s management, Universal Thrift became more than just a store or social service provider. It was also something of a social center for several groups of people. There was the small and changing group of volunteers who would help Lorial, some on a regular basis and some on an irregular basis. There were the regular customers who came back week after week, and maybe they bought something, but maybe they came to chat with Lorial and the volunteers. And there were a few people who never bought anything, but Universal Thrift was one of their hangouts. Anyone, of any economic or social status, could come into Universal Thrift and be treated as a human being, treated with dignity and respect. Shoplifters were warned away, but even they were treated as human beings — misguided human beings, because who’d be silly enough to shoplift in a place like Universal Thrift, but human beings none the less.
Late last summer, we started experienced an economic crisis, which we now know is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At about the same time, Lorial underwent a serious illness. Now from 2003 through 2008, Lorial had run Universal Thrift herself. When I learned that Lorial was too ill to work at Universal Thrift, I thought that would be the end of it. So often, church projects like this fall apart when the founder stops working on it — even if they only stop working on it for a couple of months.
But three people, Bill Bennett, Maryellen Kenney, and Ted Schade, stepped forward and said they did not want see Universal Thrift Store close for even one day. With unemployment rising and the economy in freefall, they felt the surrounding community needed Universal Thrift more than ever. So they pitched in and kept the store open.
Their decision was a good one. Due to the economic downturn, sales in thrift stores rose 35% nationwide beginning last fall. Sales at Universal Thrift rose even higher than that; we don’t have seasonally-weighted records for previous years so I can’t give you an exact percentage, but I suspect fall sales at least doubled over the previous year.
Universal Thrift Store also saw an increase in volunteer participation. People in the church and in the surrounding community knew how bad the economy had gotten, and they knew that Universal Thrift was providing an essential service to people in economic need. Donations to Universal Thrift increased, and volunteers began helping out in many ways. Many people began taking a load of donated clothing every Sunday and running it through their washing machine at home, and then bringing it back to church, laundered and folded, the next Sunday. More volunteers began helping out during store hours, both people who come to our worship services and other people whose only exposure to First Unitarian is through their volunteer work with Universal Thrift.
By now, in April, 2009, the pundits tell us that the economy is no longer in freefall, that we have hit bottom, and that some economic signs are actually beginning to look positive. But the pundits also warn us that it is going to be a long, slow recovery, that unemployment will continue to rise for some time, that many families will not see any real improvement in their economic status for some time. Thus many people in the surrounding community will continue to rely on Universal Thrift for some time.
I try to drop in to Universal Thrift once a week to talk with the volunteers to hear how things are going, and just to see what’s going on. The people who shop in Universal Thrift are a diverse bunch: I see people with all different shades and colors of skin; I hear different languages being spoken, English, Spanish, and Portuguese for sure, and sometimes other languages I can’t identify; I see parents with children, single people, older couples, people of all ages. While you can never be sure how much money someone has just by looking at them, I suspect some of the people who come in are comfortably middle class or upper middle class; while some of the people who shop at Universal Thrift (as Bill Bennett has pointed out) put their purchases in a wheeled shopping cart parked on the sidewalk because they don’t have a car. While you can never be certain how much education someone has, some people who come into the store seem as if they have a college education, and others who seem as if they don’t. In short, the wide diversity of the people who shop at Universal Thrift reflects the wide diversity of our church’s neighborhood.
Let me summarize what Universal Thrift does:
Whether someone shops at Universal Thrriftt out of choice or because they can’t afford to shop somewhere else, the store is a resource for the community. Almost as important, Universal Thrift also helps out people who are in dire need and who have no money at all, supplying free clothing and housewares when the need is great. And for all customers, Universal Thrift doesn’t threaten anyone’s personal pride: customers are treated with respect; and most goods are not given away free, thus preventing guilt, shame, and dependency.
Universal Thrift provides a benefit to volunteers, giving an outlet for people to help others through important and meaningful work. And Universal Thrift helps the church: it is now the biggest single fundraising effort in our church, and current projections are that Universal Thrift will gross somewhere around four thousand dollars this fiscal year, twice as much money as the next biggest fundraising effort. We are doing good for others, while doing well for ourselves.
Finally, Universal Thrift recycles perfectly useable clothing and other household goods that might otherwise have gone into the landfill. That is to say, Universal Thrift promotes a culture of sustainability and thrift, in direct opposition to the American consumer culture of unsustainability and waste. In this sense, the phrase “Universal Thrift” is not just the name of the store, it is also an economic manifesto. The goal of Universal Thrift is not to maximize profit at the expense of moral goals; instead, the goal of Universal Thrift is to increase profitability while upholding moral goals like sustainability and human dignity.
I promised you that I would explain something of the religious significance of Universal Thrift. And given who I am, the best way I know how to do that is to retell a story that is originally attributed to Jesus of Nazareth — who was himself an outspoken critic of the economic problems of his day.
Here’s the story Jesus told, as it comes down to us in the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65:
“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
In the standard Christian interpretation, this story is an allegory that has something to do with some kind of foreshadowing of Jesus getting executed by the Romans on trumped-up political charges. But forget the standard Christian interpretation: it takes a lot of work to turn this story into an allegory of Jesus’s execution.
It makes much more sense to take this story at face value. Taken at face value, this story is an accurate description of the economic situation during Jesus’s time. There were many people who were tenant farmers — we used to call them sharecroppers here in the United States. Jesus’s original listeners would have know that the tenant farmers were badly exploited by wealthy landowners — just as we know that sharecroppers here in the United States were badly exploited by landowners. Implicit in the knowledge that the tenant farmers were being badly exploited was the knowledge that in order to make any kind of living, they in turn would have had to exploit the land, farming it unsustainably so that they could hope grow just enough extra to allow them to provide for their own families.
If we take this story at face value, as a story about morally corrupt exploitation of tenant farmers and of the land, we can see how the different characters are driven to act by their economic circumstances. The farmers deplete the land, beat up the slaves sent to collect the crop, and kill the landowner’s son. The slaves, forced to act as the agent of the exploitative landowner, are essentially helpless and get beaten almost to death. As for the wealthy landowner, he seems to me to be morally despicable simply because he is so clueless. He obviously has no real understanding of the extent to which he exploited the tenant farmers. He doesn’t get how unjust it is that he should sit back and do nothing, and reap all the benefits of the tenant farmers’ hard work; that is to say, he doesn’t understand that exploitation is bad.
And the rich landowner has no excuse for not understanding that exploitation is bad. Jesus of Nazareth, who told this story, was a Jew, and his listeners were Jews, and we can assume that the rich landowner in the story is a Jew. As a Jew, the rich landowner should know what is said in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus [Lev. 25.1-7], where the God of the Israelites commanded them that they shall periodically let the land lie fallow, that is, commanded them to not over-exploit the land. And when the God of the Israelites prohibits more than just exploitation, their God is also prohibiting wasteful, unsustainable practices. (Yes, the God of the Israelites was an early environmentalist.)
Not only that, but later in the book of Leviticus [25.23], the God of the Israelites commanded them as follows: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” In other words, God owns all the land, and all human beings are nothing more than tenant farmers. So that rich landowner is violating his God’s commandments in at least three ways: first, he is exploiting the land; second, he thinks he owns what really only his God owns; and third, he is living wastefully and unsustainably.
We are not contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth, and probably most of us here would not consider ourselves to be good observant Jews who are obliged to follow the commandments of the God of the Israelites. But although we may not observe the specifics of Jewish law, we are inheritors of the long tradition that began with the Torah, was interpreted by Rabbi Jesus, and lives on with us today as deeply-felt moral teachings. As a religious people, we know that exploitation is morally wrong: we know that we should not exploit either the natural environment, or other people. As a religious people, we know that living a wasteful and unsustainable lifestyle is morally wrong: we know that we should promote thrift, and an economy based on sustainability.
The religious significance of our Universal Thrift Store should now become more clear. Obviously, we can’t change the whole American consumer economy all by ourselves. But what we can do is try to create moral alternatives to the wasteful, unsustainable, morally wrong American consumer lifestyle. That is precisely what we are doing with Universal Thrift Store. We are running a socially-conscious business venture that is both profitable and moral. Our business model for Universal Thrift generates income, and promotes a thrift-based, sustainable economic alternative. The very existence of Universal Thrift Store serves as a gentle but effective critique of the American consumer economy, showing we can generate income sustainably, and without exploitation.
Let me very briefly outline the business theory behind what we’re doing with Universal Thrift. Obviously, any business tries to generate value — value for the customer, and value for the business owner. But what do we mean by value? Is value to be measured solely in terms of the monetary profit that is generated? Or when we talk about “value,” do we also include sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity?
The way we run Universal Thrift, we want to generate value that includes sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity. And when we generate value, that value accrues, not to individuals (although many individuals do get value out of Thrift Store), but rather to a non-profit organization with a mission to further spread value through society.
Universal Thrift is a form of social entrepreneurship. We aim to maximize income for our church, while also maximizing benefit to the customers and to the wider society. We promote sustainability by promoting thrift, provide an alternative to the throw-away society, while at the same time we make money. We aim to produce equity by helping those with excess goods donate them to help generate income for the church, while also reducing the waste that comes with manufacturing too many consumer goods. We hope to generate profit while also carrying out larger social goals. This is why I call Universal Thrift an example of social entrepreneurship, because it combines a for-profit business model with a non-profit morality.
In closing, I should say that I believe that Universal Thrift could get significantly larger. I believe we could generate lots more income for the church — I think twelve thousand dollars in annual sales could be within reach within a couple of years. I believe we could help spread the idea of social entrepreneurship more widely in our community — as more volunteers learn the principles of social entrepreneurship through involvement with Universal Thrift, they can spread those principles more widely. Some people might even find a way to become social entrepreneurs who start new projects in such a way that they create jobs for themselves. I believe further innovation could grow out of Universal Thrift, innovations that will further the goals of sustainability while benefiting the wider community.
I don’t claim that socially entrepreneurial projects like Universal Thrift will save civilization as we know it. But I do know that these projects have the potential to turn us away from an economics with a moral void at its center; and turn us towards an economics of universal thrift, human dignity, and sustainability. And so may the phrase “universal thrift” become an integral part of a new, morally sound, economic manifesto.