If you want to improve your community project, it’s important to pose questions. Ask early and often. Ann Morisy, a lay theologian based in London, describes visiting a church-run thrift shop located in a mining community. After asking a series of probing questions (especially, why), the leaders decided a mid-course correction would better serve its own volunteers.
I used to call in at a second-hand shop run by the church in a former mining community. The shop was like a permanent jumble sale, with second-hand clothes and bric-a-brac and mugs of tea and coffee for anyone who wanted them. The most significant place in the shop was around an open fire, where people would sit and chat and put the world to rights.
As part of a review of the shop’s ‘mission’, people were asked to say what was the most important thing to them about the shop. Almost without exception they said it was being able to sit around the fire chatting. This led to the next question: Why was the fire so important? Some said it brought back happy memories of their family sitting around the fire enjoying the warmth and conversation. They were asked why that didn’t happen now and the response came back that there was no one to sit around with at home any more. Why was this? Because people had left, leaving only the ‘old timers’ in the town.
The questions were posed ‘Who lights the fire each morning?’ and ‘Who stokes the fire?’ It was the men who did this and they were the ones who would stand in front of the fire to warm themselves. Did all the men do this? No, only the regulars; it would be presumptuous of a newcomer to poke the fire and put more coal on. Why was it the men who took responsibility for the fire? Because that’s all they’re good for, came the half-mocking response from the women in the group. Why is it that this is all the men are good for? From here the discussion came alive, it was no longer a quaint insight into the mores of a mining community. The discussion took full account of the pit closures and the sense of uselessness which the men felt. How everything about the town had gone downhill. How anyone with anything about them had moved, and those who were left were either old or ‘good-for-nothings’. And no, the shop which the church ran didn’t help very much either; what sort of man wants to fold second-hand clothes and arrange bric-a-brac?
The responses to those questions changed the ‘mission’ of the shop. The church took over a warehouse and set up a community café. This new stage in the project’s life would give plenty of jobs that both men and women felt able to do. There were vans to drive for the house clearance business. There was furniture restoration. Wardrobes and beds to deliver to needy families close by, as well as at the other end of the county. A skilled eye to develop in order to know what to send to auction and what to put on the bric-a-brac counter. The church saw that the emphasis on recycling was not limited to material goods, it was people who were being salvaged as well.
It all began with asking, “Why?”
 Ann Morisy, Beyond the Good Samaritan, (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 77-78.
Photo: “Holding Onto Your Why.” Mindstepsinc.com