It all began 13 years ago with photos in an issue of International Wildlife–a dark- skinned woman from Botswana digging a hole deep in the ground to find precious (but decidedly brown) water; a woman from Bhutan with a ring in her nose holding a baby, two other children at her side; a determined-looking woman from Peru, a baby wrapped in bright colored cloth on her back.I remember how I felt when I was abruptly faced with the challenge of raising three children as a single parent. Although it was difficult, I had the support of family and friends. But who would help the women in the photos? I felt helpless and far away from them. What on earth could I do, in Missoula, Montana, about this enormous inequity?Bob Barns, a Right Sharing of World Resources proponent from Grass Valley Friends Meeting in northern California, came to the meeting of the Montana Gathering of Friends in the winter of 1998. Bob’s experience of living in poor countries led him to drastically simplify his life when he returned to the United States. He felt that it was a spiritual wrong for us to live in such comfort and material excess when others were going hungry and living in dire poverty. The burden of our taking more than our fair share as Americans weighs heavily on us if we open our eyes and ears. “As Quakers, who profess the testimony of simplicity, we need to pay attention and change our lives,” he said.
At this time I was a member of the RSWR Committee (when RSWR was a program of Friends World Committee for Consultation). I knew the importance of contributing to support projects that effectively address the needs of families in poor countries. But it wasn’t enough, the small sum that I was able to send. What if this concern that I felt so deeply became a concern of my monthly meeting? At 38 members, Missoula is a small meeting, true, but one filled with Spirit-led energy. I thought of all the organizations that raise money through challenge grants and wondered if, maybe, I could provide a challenge for our meeting.
I made some relatively minor lifestyle changes (such as buying used instead of new clothing) and, over time, saved $500, which I donated to the newly established RSWR fund in Missoula Meeting. Almost immediately three other members matched the donation. That put our fund at $2000, which was terrific! But we wanted to raise enough money to fund an entire project. The giving continued, but it was slow and we felt stuck. Now what?
Then we came up with the idea of a Simplify Life Garage Sale. We could engage the whole meeting in the process, provide a service to the community, eliminate excess stuff in our homes, and perhaps significantly increase our RSWR fund. Betty oversaw the first sale, held in May of 1999, working three days straight pricing pajamas, bowls, and books. A truck and driver appeared to pick up heavy items. The ad went into the paper. Volunteers showed up to price, sell, organize, and clean up afterwards. Boxes of goods appeared. JoAnn brought four pressed back oak chairs she had refinished herself! I brought house plants and herb starts. The aroma of freshly baked brownies filled the basement of the meetinghouse. Yellow and red garage sale signs were placed on nearby street corners to direct traffic to our sale. Friday morning, even before 8 am, dozens of serious garage sale enthusiasts arrived, bought things, and left. Then more customers came.
We raised almost $1000 from that sale. But the effects of the sale were not confined to the increase in our RSWR fund and the reduction in household junk. We began to notice that the process of clearing out unneeded possessions made us feel lighter. This was an almost physical sensation, something like carrying a heavy back pack many miles, then taking it off–how effortless walking then feels! Something deeper and more profound was happening as a result of our transformation of material excess into funds for RSWR. We began to imagine how our lives could change. “I can cancel my cable TV and donate the money to RSWR,” offered one. “I can reduce the number of times I eat out,” said another, “and give what I would have spent to RSWR.” Ideas flew thick and fast.
Many of us joined study groups on Voluntary Simplicity. The spiritual challenges of driving less, buying less, sharing more, and eating lower on the food chain became common ones. We learned that the ecological footprint of the US overwhelms the comparatively tiny footprint of the rest of the world. Americans consume 40% of the world’s gasoline and more paper, steel, aluminum, energy, water, and meat per capita than any other society on the planet. As we felt led to pare down, we inspired each other to more closely “mind the Light.” By simplifying, what felt at first like sacrifice became a way to make life more sacred. As our RSWR fund grew, we experienced spiritual dividends in increased energy and joy!
Meanwhile, donations continued. Clare sold note cards of photos of her weavings. Interested community folks brought over goods for the annual sales, saying that they wanted to support the good cause. Missoula Meeting members responded to the query, “Is there anything in your home that interferes with your relationship with your family or your relationship with Spirit?”
In two short years we raised over $6000, which we sent to RSWR. Although our journey began simply as a fund raising effort, it developed into a life-changing process. The Spirit was clearly at work helping us clear our clutter and make room for a deeper understanding of God’s love of all the inhabitants of the earth. For my part I remember the women in the photos–both their beauty and their struggle–and know that I’m living in closer solidarity with those working mothers, helping to create a sustainable future in both of our worlds.
(This article was originally published in the RSWR newsletter and in the September 2003 issue of Friends Bulletin. It has since been updated.)
Since the beginning of its effort to raise enough money to fund a RSWR project in India, Missoula Monthly Meeting has donated a total of $13,885 to RSWR. Most of the years between 2000 and the present the meeting held a Simplify Life Sale, often donating half of the proceeds to RSWR and half to a local poverty relief effort. Each year it seems that there could not be enough more excess stuff to fill another sale, yet each time we hold the sale, we sell close to $1000. And, just for perspective, Missoula Monthly Meeting is a very small meeting with average attendance on a 1st day of rarely more than 15.
If our small meeting can donate an average of more than $1000 a year to RSWR (totaling more than enough to fund two complete projects), just think what your meeting or church could do!
Linnea Wang (with contributions from many others)