When I agreed to write this reflection, I expected to remind readers about the importance of spring cleaning and dutifully taking our gently used items to the local second-hand store. I did not anticipate that I would unearth questions of vulnerability, the dignity of the human body, and the (perceived) value we place on material goods.
When we are called to clothe the naked, we are bidden to watch over those who are unduly exposed to the physical elements, those who are subject to unjust working conditions, and the personal choices we make in regards to our own physical comfort.
Clothing the naked invites us to consider those who are without appropriate outerwear, but the heart of this work of mercy – nakedness – is tied to vulnerability. Above all else, we are called to clothe the poor with dignity.
How NOT to serve the poor:
As I consider what it means to clothe the naked, I often go back to this reflection about the things we dare to give away to the poor. It reminds of a story about shoes.
I have a friend who spent a year teaching in Nicaragua, where kids often run around barefoot or wearing flimsy sandals at best. He told me about a church group who traveled from the United States bringing with them several hundred pairs of donated shoes. While their efforts were well intentioned, the situation proved to be problematic. When the shoes were nearly gone, the last remaining kids were teenage boys, and the only remaining shoes were adorned with sparkles and pink shoelaces. Furthermore, the volunteers became indignant when these young men refused to accept their gift of free shoes.
At one time or another, we have probably all dumped our unused junk into a garbage bag and placed it in a bin outside a thrift store. How much thought do we put into the items we donate to charity? Are we motivated by guilt (I only used it twice; it would be a shame to throw it away), or do we consider the best interests of the receiver? Further, how can we be better stewards of the items we purchase for ourselves? Do I think twice before I buy something new?
My friend explained that shoes are readily available in Nicaragua, often at a reasonable price. The American volunteers could have supported the local economy by buying the shoes there and ensured every child received a pair of shoes in the appropriate size and style.
The poor already have the odds stacked against them. Donating hand-me-downs to charity may provide a sense of personal satisfaction, but it is not always the best solution.
You can clothe the poor with dignity:
- Support your local Catholic Charities or Catholic Relief Services during emergencies
- Donate used prom dresses or bridesmaids dresses to underserved high school students
- Support dry cleaners who offer free services for the unemployed
- Donate gentle used business suits/ties/dresses for those in career transitions
- Find an organization that collects gently-used sports uniforms (think about your 3rd grader’s soccer team) for inner-city youth sports leagues
- Many cities have a women’s center or crisis pregnancy center where you can donate maternity clothes, diapers, blankets, and clothing for infants and toddlers.
In addition to those who cannot afford new clothing, consider those who spend their lives making the items we wear. The dignity of factory workers is often compromised by unfair wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Many people will remember the story of those who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh and others stories that have gone unnoticed.
Fair and ethical trade seeks greater equity for all people. It includes a commitment to pay fair wages, engaging in environmentally sustainable practices, building long-term trade relationships, and providing safe and healthy working conditions.
You can clothe the poor with dignity:
- Pray for those who are forced into unjust labor practices
- Learn more about ethical purchasing from Catholic Relief Services.
- Support local Fair Trade merchants or check out these online retailers: Catholic Relief Services/SERRV , Ethix Merch , Alta Gracia Apparel
The every day way we clothe the naked:
I spend a lot of time with my best friends and their kids (three under age four!). Spending time with not-yet-self-sufficient toddlers, I’m reminded of the everyday ways we clothe the naked: changing diapers, tucking little ones into bed, and endless loads of laundry. Whether you clothe your loved ones with care each day or donate your gently used items to complete strangers – remember that we do so out of our shared humanity and with great dignity for all those in need.