Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
I have a confession to make: in high school, I coveted a pair of bowling shoes from a bowling alley. I wore my oldest, ugliest tennis shoes to the alley, rented the shoes and many times was tempted to leave with them after bowling three terrible games.
There, now you know my dark secret.
I thought they were super cool, with their tri-colored leather uppers, and the number on the back indicated the size in a little white circle. I wanted to wear them to school.
See, I had been looking to buy myself a pair of them for months. MONTHS. Do any of you recall the days before the Internet? When you couldn't just Google "bowling shoes" and have vendors pop up with websites for you to buy your heart's desire?
When I was in high school, Tim Berners Lee, the British Unitarian who gave birth to the World Wide Web, hadn't done so yet.
We used to use these things called "the Yellow Pages," in which businesses were filed by subject "washing machines," "dog grooming" and the like. I could not find "awesome, used bowling shoes" anywhere in there.
My search for said shoes, though, was how I discovered one of the loves of my life: Thrift Stores.
Yes, it's true, I was one of those suburban teenagers who helped make thrift stores cool. Or so I tell myself. I had several stores that haunted on a regular basis, much to the horror of my parents who, truth be told, had grown up fairly poor and worked hard their whole lives so they'd never have to shop in one again.
For me they were places of adventure. How many here remember the song "Second Hand Rose," from Funny Girl?
Father has a business strictly second hand
I always especially liked the line about Jake the Plumber.
I remember seeing in a movie once, a scene where someone examines a lost button, and she muses about the button's story. Who had owned the button before, what had the button seen in it's travels? And the character thinks of giving this new-to-her button a new lease on life by sewing it to her sweater.
This is how I felt about thrift stores while I was in high school. "Give me the luxuries of life and I will gladly do without the necessities," Frank Lloyd Wright famously pronounced. Actually, I still might edit Frank's quote "Give me the second-hand luxuries of life ... ."
When I was in seminary, I was inspired by the song "Second Hand Rose" and started a blog "Second Hand Joe." I was going to try a to spend one year buying things only in thrift and charity shops, and document my spiritual journey in so doing. There were exceptions, of course. I wasn't going to buy underwear and socks there, and clearly some items must be purchased new, like food. The other exception was supplies for school. One doesn't find many second hand copies of "The Almost Church" in thrift stores. But my classmates and I did go on a plan of book sharing and buying used copies where possible.
The rule was that I had to buy everything in thrift stores, and if I couldn't find what I needed in a thrift store, I was then allowed to purchase this item from a fair trade source. This was pretty easy for me since at the time I worked in a Fair Trade store in Chicago, called the Fair Trader. The store grew out of Fair Trade Coffee sales that some of the women from my home church had been doing as a fund-raiser for the church. So these three Unitarian Universalist women set up shop, hired their favorite seminarian, and we were off and running. For three years I was the perpetual "employee of the month." This was due, not entirely, to the fact that I was the only employee.
If Fair Trade didn't work out, I could buy the item new.
Like many great ideas in seminary, the blog didn't last, but the practice has.
I stand before you this morning decked out completely in thrift store bargains. The computer on which I composed this sermon was second hand. Even this stole, an ordination gift from Denis, is made of shirts we purchased at thrift stores.
Here I'll quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay Social Aims: "The sense of being well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow."
I believe in trying to be a responsible consumer. It's a big part of the reason I thrift shop so much. Not only am I saving money, I'm giving something a new lease on life AND keeping it out of the landfill.
But sometimes it's difficult.
Beyond the constraints of time and a potential dearth well-stocked thrift stores that have clothes that are just your size, some things just don't come used.
Shortly after we arrived in town, we were at the ReStore, a thift shop which benefits Habitat for Humanity. We didn't find anything to buy there, but up McHenry, there was a sign for Stetson Hats. I've been looking for a nice summer hat to both cover my bald spot, and to help me look a little more "suave." So we popped into Rossini's Men's Store, where we looked at hats. There were some suits there. Suits are definitely "suave" so I inquired as to the prices of the suits. Because, let's face it, I'm never going to find a suit at the Hope Chest.
I found out that I could buy a new suit for $199, which is a really good price.
And then, thinking back to my Second Hand Joe blog, I realized that I should ask where it was made.
In my mind all I could see were sweatshops and little children working from dawn to dusk for pennies an hour.
I noticed that they also sell American, Union Made suits. Starting at $799.
But where do the components of the suit come from? The fabric, the thread, etc. The store owner couldn't tell me. I assumed "Bangladesh" or a similar place.
And therein lies the difficulty: which such universal and global trading, how does one really know who the good guys and the bad guys of commerce are?
For about 2 years now, I have longed for an iPad. I'm convinced that it will make my work easier, and what's more awesome than delivering sermons to a UU Congregation paper-free?!? But unless you've been living under a rock, you know that iPads are made in China. The factory there, FoxConn, has been in the news for a while now, with two explosions, and living conditions so terrible that they company has installed "suicide nets" around their dormitories.
This has kept me from purchasing what I believe would be a useful tool in my work.
On February 21st, ABC News reporter Bill Weir was invited to look at the factory [note 1] Coinciding with Mr. Weir's visit, the first Western reporter allowed with cameras into the facility, The Fair Labor Association, a trade group, was invited to audit the factory where Apple products are made.
I won't share the whole report to you, but it turns out that FoxConn pays a pretty good wage for the area, which Apple has requested be doubled, and the suicide rate in the factory town, so to speak, is actually lower than the suicide rate in the general populace, and the factory has psychologists there. This was not always the case, but the FoxConn executives have begun to re-assess their model and made adjustments to it.
After watching the report, I'm feeling less conflicted about buying the iPad 3 when it comes out later this week. Or so the rumors go. If the iPad 3 doesn't come out this week, don't blame me, blame applerumors.com for misleading me.
When I was hired to come to Modesto, we bought a new car. Well, a new-to-us car, of course. New car shopping was a harrying experience for me. I wanted the Honda reliability I had so enjoyed with my Civic, but it my heart I'm still a boy from Detroit, and oh the waves of guilt and shame I felt over-coming me when I thought of buying a new, foreign car! It does little to help me rationalize my fears by telling me what I know is true, that there is so much globalization in the auto industry that no car is entirely American made anymore. So we bought our new car, new-to-us. What's the dumb phrase they use now instead of used? "Pre-owned?" In buying my Honda used, I'm not contributing to the downfall of my hometown of Detroit, I'm actually only buying the result of someone else's "sin." Still, I'm putting my money where...
Where my mouth is.
Where we spend our money has a lot to say about our values.
This is not to say that any of us has the right to run around throwing our judgment onto others for the things they purchase. Far from that.
But if we're careful consumers, and we have the luxury of time to think about what we are purchasing, when we look around ourselves, what matters to us can be seen.
What is less obvious, perhaps, is what we haven't acquired.
See? I'm still using paper.
Being an ethical consumer takes more work than just popping into Tarjhay [note 2] and buying the nearest thing at hand. Sometimes it involves researching what you're buying, and asking if you really need that thing you'd like.
Being an ethical consumer is also important, though perhaps more difficult, when your economic picture isn't so rosy. Yes, it's lovely to have high, lofty ideals about only purchasing free-range, grain fed chicken eggs, like the ones that come from John and Claire's farm. But let's face it, without John and Claire, many of us wouldn't be able to enjoy good-quality, happy-chicken born eggs.
If you need a new suit for a job interview, and money is tight, you may well really believe that you should only purchase an American made, union made suit, but the cost could just be out of reach.
So, what can we do?
We can do our best. That's all we can do, right? We can do our best, and really, only after searching your own heart, can you know what your best is. No one can define that for you.
So go forth and do your best! In so doing you will honor your own spirit, and you will be celebrated by those who matter. Everyday each of us walks through this journey called "life." We can, and must, choose to live the best life we're able. To drink from the cup of life, deeply.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote: We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.
No doubt we will become ethical consumers by performing actions of ethical consumption.
Each of us is the hero of our own story. Go, and make your story one that inspires.
March 4, 2012 Date
Copyright by Rev. Joe Cherry. If you liked it or want to use parts of it, please contact him:
This is from a collection of sermons by Rev. Joe Cherry.
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.