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Book review: Thrift store experience teaches valuable lessons

By Jean Peerenboom

Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 cents at a Time by Jane Knuth (Loyola Press, $13.95).

Catholicism in action is the way I would describe Jane Knuth’s Thrift Store Saints.

Knuth, a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer in Kalamazoo, Mich. for 15 years, shares her experiences and insights in this entertaining book of true stories.

The book held special interest for me because I am the volunteer coordinator at the St. Vincent de Paul Store in Appleton. The author was right on target when it came to her observations and insights. She could have been writing about my store and its volunteers and clients.

The most interesting part for me was her recounting of her transformation concerning “the poor.”

She tells of a man who was raking leaves at the store in exchange for clothes. Over the course of a few months, she gradually realizes the volunteers at St. Vinnie’s “are not trying to change the world. We aren’t trying to change poor people either. The only thing it seems we are trying to change is ourselves.”

That was clearly not her intention when she started as a volunteer. She is a baby boomer programmed to change the world. The Lord does work in mysterious ways!

The lesson for her, she says, is “Charity does not excuse treating people without dignity.”

As anyone who volunteers at a SVdP store knows, all new people come in with the intent of organizing the place. They can’t help themselves. There is just so much to organize, but “eventually it occurs to us that our purpose is not to run the most profitable, shrewd, efficient, riff-raff-free store in town. Our purpose is to help the poor and to change our own way of thinking and being. It only looks as though we run a store. The store is just our cover. It’s such an ingenious disguise that we fool a lot of people, sometimes even ourselves,” she says.

Knuth captures the essence of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in an easy-to-read style that will have readers laughing and crying. She touches hearts just as the folks she encounters have touched hers.

St. Vincent de Paul volunteers will see themselves on page after page, but anyone who works with the needy – of any kind – will identify with the stories and the “saints” in her life.

Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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