Dear coat donor,

Did you know that the coat you donated to the local thrift shop had a faulty zipper? The coat was clean, a name brand, in nice shape, and we tried the zipper in the store to make sure it worked when inspecting the coat, because I have shopped in thrift shops enough to know to look for this sort of thing.

The zipper worked fine in the store—the problem only arose when the coat was worn for awhile—but came unzipped, from the bottom up, nearly each time my daughter wore the coat. Surely you knew this and got rid of the coat because it was no longer suitable for your child to wear.

I don’t know you—don’t know if you follow the Bible, don’t know if you are a Christian, although I think there is a good chance because this is a very Christian-y community, and folks who donate things are often church-goers. What I am going to tell you is of particular relevance to Christians, but, even if you are not, just like many of God’s other laws, like not killing and not stealing are good rules for all of us to follow, the following is a good rule of thumb as well.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” You know, the same type of thing as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Like if your husband had been laid off work for six months from the job he got after investing your life savings into a business that failed, and you needed a coat for your child, would you be happy to receive the one with the broken zipper? Now don’t get me wrong, the coat with the broken zipper is fine for days that are not that cold, when wearing an open coat keeps the chill off, on days when the winter wind isn’t blowing in ways that seem to cut clean through your bones. But on days that are actually cold, or when a little girl wants to play out in six inches of fresh snow, the coat you donated simply won’t do. Instead, although she is a medium going on large, her stained extra small coat will do one more year, worn over $3 snow pants covered by an adult small sized thermal vest, both thrift shop finds. The vest and snow pants are in fine shape, donated by someone who no longer needed them.

In my former life, with my husband’s six-figure salary, I donated things to thrift shops that weren’t nice enough to save for a possible second child and didn’t sell on a garage sale. Nice. My husband even thought it was okay to donate stained things, because he thought poor people would be happy to have any clothes at all, especially if they were cold. Now we scour clothes at thrift shops for pants for my husband to wear to work, the job he got laid off from eight months ago, and the job he is starting in another town January second. We find jeans and khakis for two or three dollars, some of them stained so badly, no self-respecting person would want to wear them out of the house (or in the house for that matter), or, what’s worse, stained lightly in places that are only evident in bright light and that you don’t notice until you wash them or even are walking to the car wearing them to your first day at a new job. Then you have to decide whether to be late and change your clothes, or go like you are. What do you think about people who go around wearing stained clothes? That they are careless? Undignified? Someone you would want to be friends with, or probably not? Would you want to go around in stained clothes? Or would you be embarrassed? If you didn’t have enough money to go to the mall to buy a pair of pants, or even to Target or Wal-Mart, and you had to go to a thrift shop, how would you feel if someone had donated stained pants? Love your neighbor as yourself.

I went to the food pantry a couple of months ago of a large church my husband, daughter and I had attended for nearly a year. We left the church after my four-year-old peed in her pants because the childrens’ program was so disorganized and chaotic that no one ever stopped to think that maybe little preschoolers couldn’t hold it for an hour and a half and had to be offered a chance to go potty. We also had a bad experience in a small group, which for you non-church types, is a group of people who meet once a week or so to study the Bible, or something like that, and love and support each other. The group never really bonded, and the husband of the couple who led the group, his wife told us one week when he had to be out of town, didn’t want children, which many of us had, in his house, for fear they would mess it up or damage his pool table. So we met in a cold, sterile room at the church, and had to fight with the small groups minister to also get another room for childcare. We had a good time the one week the husband was gone, when the wife welcomed us into their home after a planned picnic in the park got rained out, but then the husband came back, and the group started to disintegrate shortly thereafter. But his pool table was fine.

So this church hadn’t worked out, but I knew they had a food pantry, so I went there, and, rather than being welcomed into their huge atrium and given a warm cup of coffee, I kid you not, they had assembled about eight folding chairs in a dark stairwell, not anywhere near one of the main entrances, and the first time I went there, for their rather limited hours, I was sent away because they were too busy and didn’t have time for me to come in. They told me to come back the next day. When I did come back, I had to wait nearly an hour before being escorted (as if by prison guards) back to a small cage-like structure about six by eight feet, with shelves on all sides. The fifty-ish woman wearing glasses, who was standing way too close to me (but how could she stand much further away in such a small space?) gave me a small shopping cart (how was I going to push a shopping cart around in this tiny space anyway?) and proceeded to tell me the rules. You can fill up exactly one paper grocery bag, no more, nothing sticking out over the top; paper towels don’t count, toilet paper doesn’t count (and has been bagged up neatly in two-roll plastic bags, a family’s ration for six weeks), the Spanish named laundry soap, which I could feel making my skin break out without even opening the bottle, doesn’t count; only one of each item (you can take two cans of soup, but not two of the same kind, so that, for example, your entire family could have the same meal). She would set a timer for five minutes, she said perkily (I smiled and asked if she was joking—she wasn’t) and told me to get started. Trying hard not to cry, but with tears welling up in my eyes nonetheless, I attempted to shop. The perky woman followed me around the tiny space, hovering over my shoulder, watching my every move. (Rebelling against the oppressive rules, I took two cans of chicken and rice soup when she was not looking. Not so for Spagettios—I was afraid I would get busted and locked in some other cell like this, bereft of generic food.) Now, I have gastrointestinal problems, which have included several surgeries, and have some food restrictions, and tried to quickly peruse the food labels to make sure that I would actually be able to eat the food that I took home (a difficult feat with the five minute limit). Nervous about the time, I tried to hurry, cramming things in my bag as fast as I could, like on that game show, Supermarket Sweep, when people have to race through a pretend grocery store, filling their carts as fast as they can with various items, perhaps winning fantastic prizes and cash at the end. But there would be no prizes for me. Why is there only one jar of Welch’s jelly, I wondered, don’t these people who donate this stuff eat anything but generic food? I’ve been at their houses—I know they don’t eat this stuff! Love your neighbor as yourself.

DING! I jumped, startled.

Okay, are you almost done? the perky woman asked, standing too close to me again. We don’t want to rush you or anything, but we are closing. Three or four volunteers were now all following me around, staring at me like they were running late for yoga or forgot to set their Tivo to record Survivor. Would you like some bread or bagels? What kind are they? I asked. All mixed up, was the response (do you know what a blueberry bagel tastes like after it has been in a bag with an onion one for who knows how long? Besides, they looked a little freezer burned. Would you like something from our bonus table? I looked at a table with random odds and ends, including one small can of fruit, snack packs of various foods, and granola bars. You can pick three things from this table, said the perky woman, positively beaming at me. I took two granola bars and the small can of fruit, mostly to please her, because I sensed that somehow her day would be a massive disappointment if I didn’t take something from the bonus table and seem at least marginally excited about it. Thank you, I squeaked. We have some deer meat, that’s all we have (from the men’s hunting club, no doubt). You can have as much as you’d like; it kind of tastes like (pause) hamburger. Smiling and standing too close again, she said, do you want some? No thanks, I replied. They offered to help me carry my stuff to the car. No thanks, I said. Now remember, you can come back in six weeks, someone said, giving me a giant sheet of paper with October 12 written on it. Not before. I left the building as quickly as I could, and the tears poured out as soon as I escaped into the sunlight. I cried all the way to my car, and had the urge to fling the bag of food across the parking lot. Out of respect for God, I didn’t.