Never a Dull Moment

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 this morning comes from Toni Morrision’s Nobel Prize lecture:

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness….

The second reading this morning is the continuation of the first reading:

They [the young people] stand before her [the old woman], and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender, or homeland. She only knows their motive.

The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Sermon — “Never a Dull Moment”

Somewhat to my surprise, this morning I find myself preaching yet another sermon about this history of our church. I decided I wanted to preach a sermon on how churches survive problems and conflicts — thus the title of this sermon, “Never a Dull Moment.” But I wanted to give specific examples of how Unitarian Universalist churches get through problems and conflicts, and then I thought about North Unitarian Church here in New Bedford, which went through more than its chare of problems and conflicts, and I decided I would speak about North Unitarian Church.

North Unitarian Church had its origins in Unity Home, which was a mission of First Unitarian Church to the immigrants in the north end of New Bedford. An unsigned handwritten manuscript in the church archives, titled “How our church began,” tells the story of how Unity Home came to be established, and I would like to read you an extended excerpt from that manuscript:

“It wasn’t long after Mr. Frothingham became minister [in 1892] that he began looking around to see what he would do to improve the community. With Mrs. Frothingham they started a club for girls, called ‘Girls Social Union’ they met in the chapel of the Unitarian Church. There were classes in sewing, millinery, & cooking, besides having fun playing all sorts of games. This was given free of charge to any girl who was interested in becoming a member.

“In 1894 it was decided to hire rooms in the North end of the city [at] 1651 Purchase St. where the girls could meet and they would be nearer their homes as they all lived in the north end of the city. It was in the same rooms Mr. Frothingham established a free kindergarten and secured a trained teacher for the children….

“At that time a Bohemian man [i.e., from what is now the Czech Republic] living in the north end, having read of the day nursery and of a sermon by Mr. Frothingham translated was deeply impressed, and said this is what I believe, and would like my children to go to the Sunday school where Mr. Frothingham is the minister. The children went to Sunday school, soon other children joined, and this was the beginning of our Sunday school….

“The Sunday school became so large in attendance that we were over crowded, so Mr. Frothingham decided we should have a place of our own. So in 1901 Unity Home was built….” (1)

This unsigned account of the early history of Unity Home was written about 1965, and it seems likely that the person who wrote lived through these events. Notice that Unity Home started as an outreach to young people in New Bedford, through non-religious programs for the children of immigrants. Then that Bohemian man read one of Paul Frothingham’s sermons in translation, and decided that he wanted his children to go to a Unitarian Sunday school. Rather than have the immigrant children come to the downtown church for Sunday school, Paul Revere Frothingham started a Sunday school in the North End.

So the religious programs at Unity Home began as a Sunday school for children. After Frothingham left the downtown church in 1900, the new minister, Rev. William Geohegan, began to get more adults involved in the work of Unity Home. In 1903, Geohegan founded the Channing Club, an organization for adults, at Unity Home. (2) By 1904, Geohegan started evening worship services at Unity Home, with music provided by a quartet of young people from the Sunday school. (3) This was yet another new direction for Unity Home.

Then in 1905, the downtown church decided to hire an assistant minister who would be the director of Unity Home. This assistant minister would be paid by, and would report to, the downtown church, but would work primarily at Unity Home. Rev. Bertram Boivin, a newly-ordained minister, served for one year. Rev. Bertland Morrison came to Unity Home next, and he stayed from 1906 to 1910. He submitted written reports to the downtown church each year, and in 1909 he wrote, “Sunday school is the most important work, with an average attendance of 25. Sunday evening worship services attract an average of only a dozen people. Many other activities go on in Unity Home.” (4) In other words, there were many activities at Unity Home, but the actual religious activities taking place on Sunday probably involved no more than a dozen families.

Yet some of the other activities at Unity Home were of a religious character. The Unity Home Branch of the Women’s Alliance was ready to affiliate with the national Alliance of Unitarian Women in 1914, with as many as twenty women active. They felt the most important local work was in their influence and financial assistance to keep Unity Home open on week days, with an attendant. (5) At the same time, the downtown church had begun to think about Unity Home as a church, for when they hired Rev. Louis Henry Buckshorn in 1913, his title was not director, but “minister of Unity Home.” (6)

Buckshorn lasted about two years before he was ousted. A report to the downtown church told the story this way: “The Home was not open during the summer, and when Mr. Buckshorn returned in the autumn there seemed to be some friction. He tendered his resignation to take effect Nov. 1st and the Committee feel they were most fortunate in securing the services of Mr. and Mrs. Wood who came from the East End Settlement House in Boston.” (7) Buckshorn may have been hired by the downtown church, and paid by the downtown church, but the people who made up the church at Unity Home ousted him.

Here’s what I learn from this church conflict: no one was quite sure what Unity Home was any more. Was it primarily a church, or was it primarily a non-religious outreach program? They didn’t know what their mission was. Without a widely-shared sense of mission, Unity Home was ripe for power struggles and conflict.


After a year of Mr. Wood, the downtown church apparently decided that they were going to try again to turn Unity Home into a church. In 1916, they had Unity Home ordain Leon Sherman Pratt; in the Unitarian tradition, only churches can ordain ministers, so the act of ordaining Pratt shows that now Unity Home was expected to be a church. On March 12, 1917, under Pratt’s leadership, the people of Unity Home voted on a profession of faith, a statement which would serve as the basis for membership. It was a fairly common Unitarian profession of faith for that day, and it read like this: “This church accepts the religion of Jesus holding that true religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. We the undersigned holding these principles unite for the worship of God and service of man.” (8) I would call this statement a church covenant, so by my standards they became a church on March 12, 1917. A week later, on March 19, 1917, they voted on a new name: henceforth, they would call themselves North Unitarian Church. (9)

I make this sound very optimistic, but Pratt himself was not so optimistic. In May, 1917, he reported on his efforts to the American Unitarian Association as follows: “In answer to your request there is very little to say. I came to New Bedford early in November to take charge of the mission work at Unity Home. This mission as you doubtless know is maintained by the Unitarian Church in New Bedford. I have very little success to report in my work…. I found a large Sunday school, but practically no interest in a service for older people…. Also it seemed to me that there should be more of an effort on the part of the people who came to Unity Home to become self-supporting. With these points in mind, I have been working and we have organized a church — North Unitarian Church — having now about 90 names of people on our book who signed our covenant….” (10) Here, Pratt outlines he believes the mission of a church should be: worship services for adults, and substantial financial contributions.

Leon Pratt went off to volunteer in an effort related to the First World War. A social worker named Edith E. Beane was hired to serve as director of Unity Home for a year, (11) until a new minister could be found.

Rev. Samuel Louis Elberfeld was an experienced minister when he arrived at North Unitarian Church. He had been ordained in 1897, and had served congregations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Illinois. He lasted for a little less than four years. Each year, he wrote an annual report for the downtown church (they paid most of his salary), and his reports sound increasingly discouraged. Finally, on November 17, 1922, a small group of lay leaders held a meeting that managed to grab the attention of the New Bedford Standard Times, and here’s how they reported the story:

“At a meeting of members of the North Unitarian Church held in Unity Home, Tallman street, last night, a vote was taken on the dismissal of the Rev. Samuel L. Elberfeld, pastor of the church. There were 36 members present, and the voted was 26 for dismissal, and three for his retention. There were seven blanks cast.

“According to previous announcements, the meeting was called for the purpose of discussing the future policy of the church, bearing on the question of whether the social and athletic activities are to be carried on as extensively as they are at present, or whether they are to be made subservient to the work of the church proper.

“The meeting resolved itself into a discussion of the dismissal of the pastor. The vote it is said did not represent the sentiment of the full church body for the reason that there are at least 125 accredited members of the parish, and that our of this number only 36 were present. Of the 36 who attended, it was pointed out that the majority was entirely out of sympathy with the pastor. Members of this majority, it is said, were the instigators in the removal proceedings that were first brought to light as a result of a meeting a week ago.” (12)

You can see why the Standard-Times wanted to report on this story! Newspapers love it when there is scandal in churches. And the anonymous reporter goes on to report the real reason behind the vote to dismiss Elberfeld: “The difficulties involving the pastor, it was learned, were brought about by a certain faction who charged he was more interested in and giving more of his time to the development of the Sunday school, the Women’s club and the social and athletic activities, than to the work of the church proper.” (13) Elberfeld, it seems, spent much of his time on outreach to the community; that certainly would seem to be the priority of the downtown church, who paid his salary, for the downtown church saw Unity Home as a mission.

Since Unity Home started as an outreach to the young people of the city, it would seem that Elberfeld wasn’t doing anything radical. But by 1922, some lay leaders in Unity Home had a new understanding of themselves: they were an independent church, not a mission of the downtown church. They wanted a minister who paid attention to them, not someone who spent time on kids who didn’t even come to church. They didn’t have the legal authority to fire Elberfeld, but they made his position untenable. Elberfeld left, and went on to a long-term ministry in the old East Boston Unitarian church. And in 1923, North Unitarian Church voted to give up their charter as a separate church. (14) Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure they were pressured to give up their charter by the downtown church. North Unitarian Church was utterly dependent on the financial assistance of the downtown church, and the downtown church did not want them to show too much independence.

Here’s what I learn from this church conflict: Be careful when powerful people have very different expectations for a church. The lay leaders of North Unitarian felt the mission of their church was to focus on the church members. Samuel Elberfeld felt his mission was to help the young people in the surrounding community. And the downtown church wanted something in between these two extremes. This church conflict arose because there were three powerful groups or individuals who three different ideas of what the church should be doing. You will notice that the group who controlled the finances got to have the final say.


1923 was the end of full-time ministry at North Unitarian Church. Leon Pratt came back to work at Unity Home on Sundays only. When he resigned in 1926, Florence Parkins (later Florence Cross) became the director of Unity Home; she, too, worked part-time. The manuscript titled “How Our Church Began” tells us that “Florence Cross took charge of the Sunday school” and “was superintendent” but that “during that time there were no church services.” (15)

Florence Cross presided over a long peaceful time at Unity Home. There may not have been worship services, but some children spent three or four nights a week at Unity Home, participating in various activities. Florence Cross resigned in 1937. Soon the downtown church had a new, dynamic minister named Duncan Howlett, and he began to turn his attention to Unity Home. He started up worship services again, with the help of a student minister named Robert Holden. And then he managed to get Maja Capek to come to Unity Home. Maja Capek, with her husband Norbert Capek, had built the largest Unitarian church in the world in Czechoslovakia between the world wars; she was stranded in the United States after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Howlett managed to get the American Unitarian Association to help pay Maja Capek’s full-time salary. (16)

For the first time since Samuel Elberfeld, Unity Home had a full-time, experienced minister working with them. Like Elberfeld, Capek was focused on children; unlike Elberfeld, she strengthened the children’s programs that were already there, building on the existing mission of Unity Home. She helped Unity Home organize into an unincorporated church, which affiliated with the American Unitarian Association on 5 May 1942. (17) When Capek left in 1943 to work for the American Unitarian Association doing war relief work, Unity Home had found a new sense of direction, and seemed headed towards a renaissance. For the next year, a talented and dynamic student minister named Max Gaebler kept Unity Home focused on finding a permanent full-time minister.

In a special worship service on October 8, 1944, North Unitarian Church received their charter of incorporation, ordained Orval Simeon Clay, and installed Clay as their new minister. Participating in this service were Rev. Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association, and Rev. Dan Huntington Fenn, director of ministry for the American Unitarian Association; clearly, the American Unitarian Association had high hopes for North Unitarian Church. Those hopes were not to be realized. By 1946, Clay had resigned and left the ministry.

Rev. Horace Westwood, a Unitarian minister who knew him well, said that Orval Clay was new and inexperienced, but that he had a keen intellect and lots of potential. (18) A healthy church can nurture such a new, inexperienced minister, helping to transform him or her into an amazing spiritual leader who helps the church live out its mission and reach its ideals. A healthy church does this by keeping its attention focused on its mission and its ideals. By contrast, a church which has lost its focus on its mission can become overly dependent on its minister. (18.5) I believe North Unitarian Church somehow lost sight of its mission as a church. Perhaps it felt a real church should move beyond the old focus on children and families. Perhaps the church had become overly dependent on the leadership of Maja Capek, Duncan Howlett, and Max Gaebler. In any case, it had lost its ability to nurture inexperienced leaders. Clay lasted less than two years at North Unitarian Church; he moved to California, became a teacher, and left the Unitarian ministry. (19)

After Clay left, North Unitarian struggled to find its way. Somehow, children were no longer welcome in the church; by 1949, the Sunday school was shrinking rapidly. (21) Soon thereafter, there were no children at all, as families transferred their membership to the downtown church, to First Unitarian Church. (22) Unity Home had begun as a mission to children, and when North Unitarian lost sight of that there wasn’t much left. North Unitarian stayed in existence for two more decades, but it was a tiny, inflexible church with an aging membership that slowly died off. Worship services ended in 1968, and North Unitarian finally consolidated with First Unitarian in 1971. (23)

Here’s what I learn from North Unitarian Church’s experience with Orval Clay: the healthy church is the church that focuses on its mission in the world, that is flexible enough to be able to adapt itself to changing conditions in order to keep on living out its mission. Thus a healthy church can cope with a new inexperienced minister. But if a church loses its sense of mission, if a church tries to depend on overly talented ministers to come up with a mission for it, that church is not long for this world.


North Unitarian Church was a wonderful, warm, welcoming religious community for many, many years. Conflicts did not stop it. Power struggles with the downtown church did not stop it. Why would such petty things stop a church that provided such good nurture to its children and families? North Unitarian Church was a wonderful place to be.

In the readings this morning, we heard a story told by Toni Morrison, and that story can be retold so that it applies to churches: “An old blind woman lives on the town’s outskirts. Several children decide to fool her. One of them says he has a bird in his hand and asks her to tell him if it is alive or dead. The woman is silent for a long time. Finally she announces, ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” (24)

That is the message of this sermon: it is in your hands. A church that stays true to its mission will overcome all obstacles. There is no one else who can stay true except you: it is in your hands.

(1) “How Our Church Began,” unsigned manuscript in North Unitarian Church records in the church archives, pp. 1-2.
(2) “How Our Church Began,” p. 3.
(3) “How Our Church Began,” p. 3. The 1904 Unitarian Yearbook (c. 1 July 1904) lists Unity Home for the first time, with William Geohegan as the minister; however, “How Our Church Began” states that William Brunton, then minister of the Fairhaven Unitarian church, led the first worship services.
(4) “Unity Home Report for 1909,” Bertland Worth Morrison, Mss 42 Sub-group 2, Series A, Sub-series 3, Folder 1 in the Old Dartmouth Historical Society (ODHS) library.
(5) Unitarian Word and Work: The Monthly Bulletin of the American Unitarian Association, National Alliance of Unitarian Women, Young People’s Religious Union, and Unitarian Temperance Society, May, 1914 (vol. 17 no. 8), p. 15.
(6) “Annual report of the Committee on Unity Home” for the year ending 26 January 1914, in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(7) (no title) in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(8) North Unitarian Church Book 1917-1920, in ODHS library, entry for 12 March 1917.
(9) Ibid., entry for 19 March 1917.
(10) Handwritten letter by Pratt dated 14 May 1917, in the inactive minister file for Leon Sherman Pratt, bMS 1446 Box 171, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
(11) Unity Home Committee report dated 27 January 1919, in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Sub-group 2 Series A Sub-series 2 Folder 1.
(12) From the New Bedford Daily Standard of 18 November 1922 (clipping in North Unitarian Church files of ODHS).
(13) Unity Home Committee report dated January 1924, in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(14) Unity Home Committee report dated January 1925 (second of two such documents), in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(15) “How Our Church Began,” p. 3.
(16) Report of the Unity Home committee, 1941.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Letter from Horace Westwood to Dan Huntington Fenn dated 3 October 1944, in the inactive minister file for Orval Simeon Clay, bMS 1446 Box 33, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
(18.5) Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations, Herndon, Virginia: Alban Institute, 1996, chapter 4.
(19) Materials in the inactive minister file for Orval Simeon Clay, bMS 1446 Box 33, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
(21) North Unitarian Church files in the church records.
(22) Audrey Steele, untitled typescript, undated memories of Unity Home, in the North Unitarian Church files in the church records.
(23) Both congregations took initial votes to consolidate in 1970. After the state legislature granted approval for the two corporations to consolidate, both corporations voted unanimously in favor of consolidation on 19 December 1971.
(24) This retelling of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech from Peter L. Steinke, p. 103.

Universal Thrift

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.