Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Publishers will tell you that it's hard to interest people in books about social justice. Most of us feel guilty enough already. Besides, let's face it - so many books in that category are not only guilt-producing, they're mind-numbingly dull. Phrases like "the preferential option for the poor" do not roll trippingly off the tongue.

Thrift Store Saints, however, is one book about helping the poor that won't make you feel bad about yourself and won't put you to sleep. In fact, it may make you chuckle, if you're the chuckling sort. And if you'd like to get involved with serving the poor but don't have a clue where to start, this is the book for you.

Some 15 years ago, while looking for a rosary for her daughter's First Communion, Jane Knuth somehow ended up at a St. Vincent de Paul store. Noticing the mixture of used merchandise and holy hardware - "as if someone set up a chapel inside a garage sale" - she briefly wondered if the store was "a front for illegal activity."

After waiting an eternity while a small, elderly clerk dealt with a gigantic, stinking drunk, Knuth discovered that St. Vincent de Paul didn't accept credit cards. The clerk cheerfully offered to let her take the rosary anyway and pay later - and then asked if she'd consider volunteering to work at the store. Amazed, Knuth agreed, and then immediately regretted her words.

"Being Catholic," she writes, "I'm all for martyrs, but not as a personal vocation." But she went ahead, reluctant and ill at ease, and that is how Knuth's long involvement with the poor of Kalamazoo began.

The rest of the book covers what she learned from working with the poor (and with other volunteers, which could be even more challenging), but it's not your typical social justice book. Most books about poverty present a lot of facts, data, theory, and theology, interspersing the sober exposition with occasional anecdotes in hopes of keeping the reader's attention. This book turns that approach inside out. Knuth tells story after story, only occasionally supplementing her tales with commentary, as she gently and with self-deprecating humor leads readers into a new way of seeing.

The book, says its author, is "about recognizing God among us when the language is rough, the labor seems mindless, and everybody is wearing old clothes." An engaging storyteller, Knuth invites us to come inside with the customers, learn about their lives, and be changed.
Disclaimer: I used to work for Loyola Press, and Jane Knuth graciously included my name among the acknowledgments. However, I was not involved with editing the book, I have no financial interest in it, and Loyola didn't ask me to promote it. I just think it's an unusually winsome introduction to volunteer ministry. See for yourself - you can read the first two chapters here.


  1. Thanks for this Lavonne & David! Sounds like the best thing to come along in this regard since the Advent Conspiracy initiative. Blessings to you both!

  2. My husband and I both enjoyed the book very much. Looking forward to the next one. We hope.