Simplifying Life in Our Corner of the World

In June 2003, our Friends Meeting in Klamath Falls, Oregon, held a "Simplify Your Life" yard sale and raised $3,200 for Right Sharing of World Resources. But there’s more to the story than that. I found that this event wasn’t just about raising money for a great cause.

When our pastor, Faith Marsalli, showed us the Right Sharing video during our meeting, I felt an immediate "yes" in response to the Quaker values in the video. I have lived in voluntary simplicity for many years, both from a spiritual and an environmental ethic. When our Peace and Social Concerns clerk, Jeanette Rutherford, announced that we would sponsor a yard sale as suggested in the video, I volunteered to work on the project.

We did a number of initial things to bring in donations. We developed a flyer aimed at those who might like to simplify their lives by donating material items. We distributed this broadly all over our small town, including radio stations. We also invited Colin Saxton, a Quaker pastor and board member for RSWR, to be our guest speaker at a free community Peace Supper and passed out these flyers to those who came. Our pastor also encouraged our meeting to think of offering donations as a spiritual exercise, recognizing how both simplicity and right sharing with others are ways of following Christ. And boy, did the donations come in! We eventually had to put the brakes on the donations toward the end; we simply had no more room in the basement to receive them.

Beyond getting lots of good stuff and raising money for a great cause, what did this all mean to us? First, it was truly amazing to see what people in the U.S. can peel off as unwanted or unneeded material excess when encouraged to do so. We asked for high-quality donations and, for the most part, that’s what we received. Personally, from handling thousands of items, I renewed my vow to reduce consumption and carefully consider each material possession I bring into my home. In a very hands-on way, I was dismayed by the excessive materialism of our culture, some of which was mine.

Another observation I had was that there is a broad "people’s economy" that is alive and well in our country. Some of us who sorted the goods replaced items, traded items, and purchased second-hand items ourselves from the sale. Our sale attracted a wide spectrum of people all day long without any lulls. At the end of the day, as we packed up, we had to tell shoppers that the sale was over. And the next day at meeting, many of us showed up in each other’s clothes. I came to see that with ingenuity and persistence, one can live quite well on second-hand America. By doing this, we can slow our intense demand for new goods and ease our use of world resources. I gained a new understanding of this reality.

Our small meeting was not used to pulling off an event like this. One of the questions I pondered with Faith after spending many hours alone sorting through stuff was how to engage our group more in the process. As a relatively new member, I did not know whom to approach for help. But how to spark action without making others feel guilty or shamed is the question, as people are often very busy. I found that if an organizer provides lots of big and small ways to help, and communicates the need for help with sign-up sheets and announcements, people will rise to the occasion. Our group certainly did after I started asking for more help. I also tried to add some fun to the event, by holding a pizza/pricing party. We all wore hats donated to the yard sale—Dr. Seuss, the Princess, the Cowboy, the Sailor, the English Gentleman, the Punker, the French Girl, the Church Lady, the Elegant Lady and more. We also had a contest to guess the final total of the sale, with movie tickets going to the winner.

In the final stretches of the yard sale, we had many hands helping out. We all felt that this shared work brought us together as a faith community. I personally felt an electric sense of joy with this project. We got to know each other better. We had fun working together. We got on each other’s nerves (yes, there’s always a down side). And we knew that we were doing something that helped others in need. Over and over, I heard the sentiment that we should work together on projects like this more often. Some described this work together as "sweet" and "full of grace." I think we demonstrated that in serving others, it is often we ourselves who are "helped."

Now we are considering how we will donate our yard sale proceedings. Right Sharing has provided us with a list of projects that are in need of donations, and they are all very worthy. It’s hard to decide. When I shared with a friend that one project would increase the daily income for a group of Indian women from 50 cents to a dollar per day, her response was "Oh my God, I’m going to go to hell when I die." When you hold this poverty in the light, along with the material excess that created our funds, you dramatically see the twin "burdens of materialism and poverty" that are noted in the RSWR mission statement.

This whole experience has left me wondering just how I am being called as an individual and as a member of my faith community to serve the poor. As a college administrator, I know that I have skills to offer, but that I am also limited in time. I hate to say that, but time limitations are a reality for me. I long to be called to a higher purpose, but am also frightened about the changes or burdens this might mean in my life. This is an important spiritual question for me, and I am waiting for that still, small inner voice to speak.

As for our meeting, we are situated in a disadvantaged neighborhood and many of our yard sale customers were from the surrounding area. Some of their needs were quite evident—dental and health care, adult and children’s clothing, and other basic home resources. As a faith community, we know that we face an important question: what are we called to do as a group to be helpful in our immediate neighborhood? To explore this question, we’re holding a threshing soon.

I think the yard sale and the threshing will help me and our meeting face many central spiritual questions. Who am I as a Christ follower? Is my life a true reflection of Quaker values? How will I partner with those with fewer resources in a direct way? How can I, as an overly busy U.S. citizen, carve out time for service? These are tough questions for those of us living in First-World countries. And you would think that holding a yard sale to raise funds wouldn’t cause us to face ourselves so deeply. But that’s just what happened in our little corner of the First World.
This article appeared in the Right Sharing of World Resources Newsletter, third quarter, 2003.

Beth Murphy

Beth Murphy is a member of Klamath Falls Friends Church in Klamath, Oreg.