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Charity Shop Evangelists

Written By Robert Vetter
Cover Art by

Description

This piece interrogates the purpose of faith in giving people a continued sense of purpose in America: a culture of perennial novelty that seeks to discard people when they are unable to find a place in the narrow routine of its population. This essay also opens up a further interrogation of one of the biggest problems facing our culture: how do we resist the urge to dispose of people, as we do our used items? And when people have been disposed of, how do they survive? Robert examines it through the behavior of these charity shop evangelists, while also examining his own relationship to this religious community as a queer man.

Editors’ Note

The question of how do we resist the urge to dispose of people, as we do our used items, is something that demands personal interrogation. On a baseline, does our culture believe all people are deserving of health, dignity, and respect- regardless of whether they are considered ‘productive’ or ‘useful’ to society? In this day and age, charity shops, thrift stores, and more of the like are places where the old and young congregate, often to locate the same items from a time long past. with a vigor for shirts from the 70s, long coats, and vintage shoes. Where these secondhand goods may have once been affordable, often the very good the stores acquire for free are marked up for this new target demographic of yuppies, college students, and well-to-do Instagram influencers. Charity shops and thrift stores are simultaneously symbols of poverty and gentrification.

“Chubby,” she mutters, jamming the ringlets of gold wire onto my middle finger. The raw ends of the metal dig into my skin with every forceful push of her bony hand. She is anointing me—her own version of the act, at least—with a homemade ring like those on all of her fingers, held in place by the wrinkles of her skin, loose around the bones of her digits like ruching on a dress. The stone atop the mess of gold is cheap. I recognize it from the necklace I sold her last week for two dollars. It’s massive and red, like a piece of aquarium gravel. She polished it before affixing it to the new piece. Now it shines atop my finger like a popped blister, complemented by the red skin scratched raw from her pushing back and forth. She gives it one last shove all the way to my knuckle. I wince.

“Do you like it?” she asks, her torso draped over the jewelry counter from the strain of reaching over to place the ring on my finger. The counters are designed to mitigate physical interaction between the cashiers and customers, but her determination to outfit me in her homemade bling took precedence over the layout of the register counter.

“I do,” I reply. She points a finger adorned with a blue acrylic gem at the tray of green-stoned
jewelry.

“Let me see those.” Her eyes peer up at me from underneath the bang that runs across the front
of her harsh black bob.

She’s imposing, despite her petite stature at four-foot-nine. She doesn’t even need to bend down to see what’s in the jewelry case. She’s a televangelist on a Korean-language prayer hour broadcast on local cable in a less-than primetime slot. She comes in once a week to pass out her handwritten business cards and paw through the secondhand jewelry. She is a blinged-out Virgin Mary, a neon fresco cast in flesh, a disciple of Tammy Faye.

The televangelist holds up a necklace with a large gem in an opaque lime neon color: a faceted octahedron dangling from a chain coated in green residue formed from the neck sweat of its previous owner. It likely belonged to a small time drag queen who pivoted careers to a desk job when their dreams of stardom didn’t find them before they were booted from their parents’ health insurance.

Her vanity—her total disregard for anything that won’t sparkle on camera—is refreshing. That’s
the televangelist in her.

She sets aside the pendant and nods to me, the signal to set it aside for purchase. She picks up a necklace made of green plastic beads. Costume jewelry is difficult to sell; the consumer mindset it appeals to is one of theatricality, of the self-conscious performance of glamor. The wearers of kitsch like this, tacky even by the standards of their years of manufacture, take pleasure in the effacement of modern tastes. In their shared simulacrum of wealth, they create the images of the culture of unapologetic plastic overflow they grew up in: the intentional kitsch of Dynasty, the series. An untrained eye would discount it as camp. The costume-jewelry buyers’s covetousness is paradoxical: the sheen of something like costume jewelry implies the kind of richness that is frowned upon in the Bible: “Proverbs 25:16: If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” But the actual value is little more than the materials it’s made of; they buy to invent the glamorous image that they feel represents them. Overconsumption, the performance of it, is a vice that they can only afford at a secondhand store.

The televangelist settles on the neon green necklace and a pair of earrings with resin stones dyed off-aquamarine. Four dollars. She walks out after promising to return next week. The bejeweled gift was accompanied by her business card. It’s a small piece of green cardstock with her name and channel number printed on the front and the words “Read Romans 5” printed on the back, followed by the word “sin” in parentheses.

I read the passage a few hours later in the breakroom. It serves as a short introduction to finding salvation from humanity’s inherent sin, with familiar characters like Adam and Jesus Christ, even to someone not raised in the church—any church—like myself. “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope,” declares the passage. This is the gospel that her rings symbolize: if trash can be made into something beautiful, so can the wearer.

That’s the ethos of this charity shop, named after Mount Sinai in the Old Testament, which serves a hospital on the West Side of Chicago bearing the same name. The store has resold the donated items of Chicagoans since it opened in the 1980s. The televangelist is one of the neighborhood oddities who traffic through the charity shop: day roamers like trust fund babies, night janitors, social security pensioners, and anyone else without a place in the normal working hours of the workday. These people are older in age. The youngest of the charity shop evangelists, as I have taken to calling them, are sixty.

Most of them have accrued the physical afflictions that come with age: liver spots, wrinkles, pallor, cataracts, varicose veins, and other signs of the body’s denigration. Many of them show signs of more extreme maladies. In the case of the lifelong smokers, they have blackened gums and missing teeth—much too expensive to replace at the same rate as they fall out (they just keep them out and stick to soft foods). Some have tumors hanging from the side of their larynx. Benign, suspended in a brief moment of inactivity like the life of the body it’s grown from. For now, we are together. And then one day we won’t be.

The unstoppable march of modernity has left these folks in an alien culture, a space-age landscape run on technology too sleek to have been created by human hands. While the world around them strives towards the future they, the oldest, have been left behind by digital payments and Instagram stories. They have been left behind by trend cycles in a culture of constant novelty. So as an expression of their style, for their unbridled confidence in old age, as a protest
against the sidewalk treaders who would rather ignore them, they dress boldly.

The women favor loudly patterned blouses adorned with shiny brooches. Sometimes they wear animal prints: leopard and zebra like the wealthy of yesteryear. Their furs aren’t real. The prints that adorn these archetypal church ladies, signal a love for the personal expression of glamor; a word that has come to mean very little when used to describe clothing made to order en masse from thin pleather, polyester, and wall insulation. The men dress in business casual, accessorize with feathers, rings, and uniquely-rimmed eyeglasses. If they require an aid for their mobility, they will often opt for a wooden walking stick, updated dressings of a Biblical prophet costume. Style is a lost art in the age of convenience, wherein an outfit can be made to order and shippedfrom overseas in minutes. But in a place like a charity shop, the customer must hunt for their purchases. The sensibility persists in those that the age of convenience is not convenient for.

Most are religious. Not as religious as the televangelist, but religious enough to make an occasional reference to God at the checkout counter: “God bless your customer service!” Every day they come, willing to trade their allotted spending cash from their Social Security for tchotchkes, jewelry, clothing, even electronics past their obsolescence in this economy of reduced capacity. Here, we all gather under the denomination of trade. The gospel of the manufacture of goods is recited: “Hardwood furniture really isn’t what it used to be,” and “It’s so hard to find clothing without any plastic in it nowadays.” Their belief in an unchanging higher power is hand-in-hand with the persistence of objects that have resisted obsolescence. True believers may find evidence of a higher power in the endurance of the trappings of a world that once welcomed them; a person may find evidence of God in a bakelite Mah-jong set.

The whole thing occupies a rented warehouse with enough donated furniture to give extreme home makeovers to the entire population of a small township. Once through the front doors, customers walk down the center aisle through the heaping piles of vintage furniture in the front to the cash register planted in the middle of the sales floor: the functional altar helmed by someone like me who has been in the store long enough to know them by name. Behind the checkout counter is everything else: the clothing racks, the shelves of books, the piled home goods. They stay, sometimes for hours, in the makeshift pews assembled from secondhand dining sets and office chairs (and at one time, an actual pew donated by a now-defunct Baptist Church in West Chicago). They’ve been coming for years, some since the store opened, during the daylight hours when the rest of the city is working or in school.

Items are donated to the charity shop for lack of need, lack of love, lack of life. The largest donations are from deaths. Sometimes the death is inferred, like in a shipment that contained a marked up copy of the book “Live Free of Cancer” and the remnants of a last meal putrefied on the surface of an unwashed dinner plate. Other times it’s more obvious, such as when the previous owner’s belongings are shipped alongside the person’s ashes in an urn. The disembodied connection between donor and customer is like the relationship between saint and reveler. The continued subsistence of the store and those that depend on it comes from gifts of these deities of outgrown paraphernalia; and thus we are rewarded with shipments from the Patron Saints of Neiman Marcus Cashmere and Nabokov literature.

A young woman bought a night light in the shape of the Virgin Mary for three dollars. It was an opaque piece of plastic molded in the shape of the Madonna holding a baby, from the crook of her swaddling arms up to a halo around her head. A lightbulb was placed inside her cranium via an opening in the back and when the figure was plugged into an electric socket, a glow emitted from her halo, casting light onto the open wall beyond her. It had likely been donated by another Christian who had found enough comfort in the Lord’s protection that they no longer needed the light while they slept.

Religious objects are bought quickly. These are things like wall crucifixes, Jewish prayer books, even a tee shirt from the extreme end of the evangelical spectrum that said “Vaccinated in the Blood of Christ” (which, unless owned ironically, likely arrived as part of a death shipment). As it functions in America, religion is an institution that the masses participate in by buying the pieces of their own shrines at home: small fetishes made from the reappropriated artworks of the Romantic Period, endowed with no ephemeral divinity other than the shared belief held by buyers—the essence of the American free market.

The American spirit of self-determination claims that the spirit of God can reside within everyone, but is best shown outwardly by purchasing. Most of the modern empires of faith have had less to do with the holiness of their geographic location and more to do with the naivete of the surrounding people who live there. Many have crumbled beneath the weight of the crimes perpetrated by the con artist behind the gilded desk at its megachurch headquarters: the Falwells, the Bakkers, the Shamblins. And evangelical sites that aren’t taken down through the conventional method of prosecution for white-collar crimes often dissolve after an FBI raid and a classification of their beliefs as a cult.

That was the version of religion that I saw growing up: a cult of hypocrisy that used the image of an omniscient creator to hide behind their bigotry about the things that they did not understand. And as I got older and grew into myself as a queer man, my disdain for their way of thinking only festered. I was raised in an atheist household. I had no conception of a higher power at a young age except for my parents, who I knew were responsible for bringing me into the world. I was a product of love—not divine love but mortal infatuation un-entwined with any sense of cosmic destiny. I was a product of hormones and a honeymoon in Eastern Europe. There was comfort in the simplicity of my birth—I navigated the world without residual guilt of the suffering of any saints at the behest of my inherent sin. I felt nothing at the sight of the crown of thorns, at the figure of Jesus emaciated on the little cross jewelry that my classmates wore. But when I felt lonely I had nothing to turn to for comfort.

Belief in a higher power was an immaterial concept, a shared falsehood I couldn’t comprehend during my developmental years. Because the way that evangelical religion functions in America rests on tiny acts of divine intervention. These were any happenings before the eyes of the congregation that gently stretched the laws of physics: bursting stage lights, speaking in tongues, the face of Jesus inscribed in toast. The faith I was an outside observer to was merely an audience captivated by sleight of hand magic. No matter how hard I squinted, the browning on my toast remained absent of even minor gods.

Without experiencing the devotion that is built out of religious rituals, there was little for an outside observer like myself to find appealing. Every interaction I had with prayer, every time my skin prickled at the utterance of the word “God” was colored by the fact that I thought I was too smart to fall into the mindset of religiosity. But could I be blamed? There is little appeal in modern Christianity: the brash, bulldog ideology that was created from the attempt to merge the New Testament with American mass culture. I had, and have no interest in erudition from Mark Wahlberg or the crucifixion pageant performed by Marvel superheroes.

The current world shaped by the Industrial Revolution has begun to rapidly depreciate as it reaches the limits of what can be gutted. Paradoxically, the Bible preaches against loving the world in place of the higher power that created it: “John 2:15: Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Yet there is an innate desire of the world’s inhabitants to find meaning, even pleasure in the state it has been left
in, in lieu of reverence to a higher power. The garbage is already here. It can be enjoyed at least.

In the case of entirely secondhand decadence sold at a charity shop like this one, the items have already been consumed and discarded. With a new owner, the synthetic undergoes a resurrection, which offers a different way to interpret the definition of “decadent.” For a culture like America’s, one that shrugs off the principles upon which it was founded in favor of perennial modernity, lots of waste is left behind. So when confronted with photographs of landscapes decimated by chemical runoff and sea life asphyxiated on shoelace aglets, a rational person would feel compelled to clear out their Amazon cart and rescue some pre-loved items from their destiny as trash, to thrift. Overconsumption isn’t the problem, it’s hyper-metabolization, the secular shame of fetishized novelty.

Despite its service, desire for new things has reached such a fever pitch that the store has begun to fall into obsolescence. Most of the clothing that has been donated displays the tags of already-defunct fast fashion retailers, made from more plastic than actual cloth. The housewares have more frequently come from the shelves of Walmart and Home Goods which the original buyer tired of after a few uses. Though they’re returning to the economy, these things weren’t meant to last very long anyways. The line between donations and tax-deductible waste disposal has begun to blur.

The cash register receipts must be wound by hand now that the gears of the machine no longer turn. The clothing racks sway with every shove of the hangers, thrown off balance from the weight of the load they bear. And when a counter drawer collapsed beneath the weight of miscellany, doomed to otherwise be forgotten among safety pins and sticky notes, a small piece of paper inscribed with the Virgin Mary was revealed, shoved between the cabinet wall and the drawer slide. It was a flier given by a Catholic Church with the Memorare prayer: “Remember, O most compassionate Virgin Mary,” it read, “that never was it known that anyone who fled your protection, implored your assistance, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.”

The store’s inventory grants customers intercession, a deliverance from the weight of a necessity that can only be alleviated with a purchase. “Things tend to find people here,” is what my boss told me when I started, “so don’t worry about trying to push people to buy things. If they want something, they’ll buy it.” But in order to complete the transaction, to receive the offering made, they must actually buy it at the cash register, the altar equipped with altar people like myself to aid them. And while I do not believe in divine providence, I believe in the power of a salient community united in the religious-adjacent belief that if they revere the charity shop, it will return blessings unto them. I am a part of an intangible network that is much larger than myself. I receive from them for my servitude to their holy site, most often loose cigarettes, even though I tell them I don’t smoke: “Let this humble gift bring you a little bit closer to Heaven in exchange for your kindness.”

The televangelist comes back one evening, within the hour of the store’s closure.

“I’ll be quick,” she says. “I want to see that.” Her bejeweled finger hovers over a necklace of warm-toned glass beads like a string of hard candies.

“That’s pretty,” I say.

“I know,” she replies. “I’ve got good taste. You see what I buy.”

“Are you going to make it into rings?”

“Yes.”

“Can you save one for me?”

“Maybe. There are some people at a jewelry store over there—” she gestures eastward, “that want to buy some.” She winks at me and leaves. She will be back for more supplies soon, just like the rest of the sidewalk roamers that find themselves drawn back to the store each day. 

They, the practitioners of the secondhand gospel, will tread the sidewalk every week until their hip, or heart gives out. And when it does, their estate will send a truckload of their leftover belongings to the shop, which I will sell to another wanderer, just like them.

About The Author

I'm a writer based in Chicago by way of the California Bay Area. My work has previously been seen in McSweeney's, The Auto Ethnographer, Functionally Dead Magazine, and The Museum of Americana Literary Review wherein I was the featured humorist for their "Queer Voices" issues. I also perform freelance ethnographic and documentary work in Chicago, most recently directing short documentary pieces for FORA, Foraging Opportunities for Refugees in America, on the ongoing success of their efforts to teach literacy to Rohingya refugees escaping genocide in Myanmar. When I'm not doing that, I am working my day job in a charity shop.