Jane Knuth of Portage, Mich., used to believe that when you helped people, you could change them. She thought, she said, that if she did volunteer work, she could change the world to be a better place. 

Her encounters with the poor, the homeless, the desperate and the forgotten who came to the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Kalamazoo, Mich., taught her that what she really needed to change was herself. 

She learned that from “the street theologian” who came to buy pants and taught her a new perspective on forgiveness. The man who just got out of prison gave her a lesson on the dignity of the poor who want to give back, and she learned from others an “unfathomable” reality — that there are people who have no one, absolutely no one in their lives. 

Reluctant volunteer 

“You are not supposed to change these people,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “They are going to be your teachers, and once I got that through my head, that was transforming.” 

What she learned, and the people she met, are the focus of her new book, “Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents At a Time”(Loyola Press, $13.95). It is the story of her spiritual transformation in a store filled with donated clothes, household items and needy people who aren’t a problem to be solved. In the true charity and spirit of St. Vincent de Paul’s respect and empathy for the weak, from them she learned her way to God. 

Knuth, 52, became a reluctant volunteer at the store 15 years ago when she couldn’t say no to Dorothy, an 82-year-old Vincentian who sold her rosaries from the store’s religious gift shop. They needed volunteers, Dorothy told her sweetly. Knuth tried to say no, but couldn’t, and intended to be there only temporarily. 

She is still there, finding Jesus in the people who are jobless, wearing tattered clothes and living in bare apartments where the heat is about to be shut off. Or maybe they don’t have any place to go at all. They are grateful, she realized, to buy someone else’s castoff shirt or frying pan, real cheap. 

“They are wiser than I am,” Knuth said. “They have gone through struggles and learned how to manage with what little they have. They learned how to be grateful for little, and I am grateful for abundance. I am in awe of them.” 

Lessons in humility 

The lessons and spiritual growth didn’t come easy. Knuth grew up in a generation, she said, that believed themselves all to be born leaders and destined to save the world. So it was difficult for her to sit back and let herself be changed. “I couldn’t see my own flaws,” she said. 

Her ego was the first obstacle. She had plenty of ideas at the orientation meeting with the staff. She could organize the bills, client files and everything they needed on the computer, and even get them set up to take credit cards. 

“That’s nice, dear,” one old lady said. “But what we could really use is someone who would take out the trash every night and clean the bathroom.” 

Knuth was insulted, but silent. That kind of volunteering would waste her intellect and leadership skills, she thought. She considered bailing out until Dorothy stepped in and said that they could use someone to order and inventory the religious gift items. 

Knuth agreed, and they showed her the display cabinets and wholesale catalogs. They also showed her where they kept the toilet brush. 

Week by week, she was tutored by unlikely teachers. One was a telemarketer who called the shop from Tennessee to ask their help for an elderly woman he had phoned. He knew about the society’s work and had taken the time to find one in that area code. 

The Vincentians found the 92-year-old woman ankle deep in water from faulty plumbing, and trying to bail out with a bucket. She hadn’t slept for days. They called plumbers who donated their services, and the society paid for materials. 

“Telemarketers had always annoyed me,” Knuth said. “But this young man was real. It was a beautiful story about how somebody I didn’t expect to [taught] me something.” 

Her eyes were opened, too, at people’s homes. One time a nurse called for a bed for a woman who was about to be discharged from the hospital. Beds are always in short supply at the store, but in what was a small miracle, someone stepped forward with one that had to be cleared out of a house that was sold. When Knuth helped her husband, Dean, and a volunteer deliver it, they found an angry woman living in an apartment that had been trashed by invaders while she was away. 

“I don’t got no friends, and I don’t want any,” she told them. She softened when she realized that the nurse cared about her, and so did the Vincentians. Knuth made up the bed and the woman slipped between the sheets. There were tears in her eyes when she said, “In my whole life, I’ve never had my own bed before.” As the volunteers were leaving, she added, “I am so blessed. God is good.”  

Spiritual transformation 

Knuth has learned from the drug addicts and alcoholics that she patiently listens to, and she makes no judgments on the unexplained, like the man who needed a St. Michael the Archangel medal to protect him from evil. Or the well-dressed man who came in, asked if they accepted sweaters, pulled off the one he was wearing and left. There are other stories of customers who are ignorant about Catholicism, even surprised to learn that Catholics have Bibles. 

Knuth unfolds her journey of transformation in a touching, insightful, humble and humorous way without being preachy. 

“I no longer have the frustration of trying to do the impossible — changing someone else,” she said. “The Society recognizes that and releases that burden from your shoulders. I used to have the idea that I was supposed to be a hero or something, and all that burden has been taken away.”  

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Purpose, Not Profit (sidebar)

“At our meetings, we frequently get into discussions about how better to run the store. Should we raise our prices? Give away less? Not accept so many donations? Lock our dumpster? Move to a better retail location? All these issues would come up with any resale shop. 

“Eventually, it occurs to us that our purpose is not to run the most profitable, shrewd, efficient, riffraff-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.” — Jane Knuth, from “Thrift Store Saints.”

Society of St. Vincent De Paul; Then and Now (sidebar)

In 1833, Frederic Ozanam, a 20-year-old law student at Sorbonne University in Paris, was challenged when a fellow student acknowledged the past work of the Catholic Church, but asked, “What do you do now?” In response, he and five young friends began to visit the poor in the slums and those who were dying in hospitals. Their mentor was Sister Rosalie Rendu, a member of the Daughters of Charity, an order founded by St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) who ministered to galley prisoners, the poor and the oppressed. He also was the founder of the Congregation of the Missions and the Sisters of Charity. 

The students called themselves the Conference of Charity, and Emmanuel Bailly, editor of The Tribune Catholique, served as first president. They changed the name to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the membership quickly grew beyond France. In 1845, the Society was introduced in the United States in St. Louis. 

According to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul website, there are 352 councils and 3,565 conferences in the United States. In 2009, the 146,365 members served 14.6 million people and gave 7.6 million hours of service. They obtained jobs for more than 8,000 people, gave aid to 83,000 travelers and provided referrals for 382,000 people.  Expenditures totaled $329.4 million, and in kind value of food, clothing and furniture was an estimated $80 million. The total value of Vincentian services in the United States exceeded a half billion dollars. There are 750,000 active members worldwide in 142 countries.