If you lived off-campus at BYU in the ‘70s or early ‘80s, you’ll remember this gimmick practiced by Storehouse Markets (a private commercial enterprise, with no connection to the church’s system of bishops’ storehouses):
Storehouse Markets were cavernous, cold, and dark warehouse-type grocery stores that students and young families patronized because they were much cheaper than national chains. In those pre-barcode, pre-electronic scanner days, grocers stamped prices on every single can and box in a case, and individual items were rung up by hand at the checkstand. To keep prices down, Storehouse didn’t hire clerks to do that labor-intensive price-stamping work; instead, they posted prices on the shelves by each product, then furnished customers with grease pencils to write the price on each can and box themselves as they put items in their baskets.
The advantage of that system went away as computers became more common, and I think the entire chain may have since gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.
In the late 1990s I lived in an Orem ward whose youth delivered a Christmas food box each year to the poor and needy of the ward. Apparently their definition of “poor and needy” included single sisters, even those like me with good jobs who hadn’t asked for, didn’t need, and didn’t want the stuff they dropped off, collected from their mothers’ kitchens and pantries. I asked repeatedly not to be included, but the bishop insisted.
The food in those boxes was … odd. The youth and their leaders made no attempt to balance the contents – I remember one year when the box contained six cans of baking powder. There were always boxes of jello, usually a cake mix or two, and the rest was canned vegetables, usually mushrooms. Cans and cans and cans of mushrooms. The stuff was all in dusty, dented, sometimes bulging cans, and the real kicker was that many of the cans had the tell-tale grease pencil-marked prices of Storehouse Markets, branding them as being at least 15 years old, maybe older. Every year, most of the contents of that charity box ended up in my garbage can.
That experience has made me keenly aware of the “stuff” I donate. I no longer donate clothes to Deseret Industries if they’re stained or are missing buttons – I give clothes that have never quite fit right or that didn’t match the skirt I bought to wear with them, but nothing torn or seriously worn. When the ward or the mail carriers do their drives for the community food pantry, I buy new jars of peanut butter – name brand – and donate that. Why should I expect “the poor and needy” to wear rags I wouldn’t wear myself? or to eat what I wouldn’t dare feed to a dog I loved?
Memories of those distasteful charity boxes were revived recently by talk in the bloggernacle about a possible new thrust of charitable church activity. Commenters shared unverifiable anecdotes of church welfare cheats, and created the mental image of a cadre of fiscal spies searching through the garbage cans of charity recipients to be sure they weren’t being wasteful of holy Mammon: How dare the poor feed a pet? How dare they order a Domino’s pizza? How dare their phone bills show long distance calls? In other words, why aren’t they eating decades-old cans of Storehouse Markets mushrooms? Beggars can’t be choosers – eat my garbage, you despis-ed poor and needy!
I am reminded of a letter written by Ned Desaules in 1876, when he was helping to build the St. George Temple as his united order’s donation to that effort. He wrote to his aunt:
I work without pay, and I depend on the good Saints for my support and the means to clothe myself. At present my board is not of the best, and my clothes will soon be all worn out. But I am patient. Although it seems to me that when you work for the good Lord you work for a poor payer, seeing that he receives nothing for tithing except a little flour, some bad butter and a little meat. There are so few Saints who pay their tithing as they ought to.
And I am reminded of a story from David O. McKay:
I thank my earthly father for the lesson he gave to two boys in a hayfield at a time when tithes were paid in kind. We had driven out to the field to get the tenth load of hay, and then over to a part of the meadow where we had taken the ninth load, where there was “wire grass” and “slough grass.” As we started to load the hay, Father called out, “No, boys, drive over to the higher ground.” There was timothy and redtop there. But one of the boys called back (and it was I), “No, let us take the hay as it comes!”
“No, David, that is the tenth load, and the best is none too good for God.”
That is the most effective sermon on tithing I have ever heard in my life.
(Cherished Experiences in the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955], pp. 19–20).
If we are ever going to be a Zion people, each of us needs to learn to “esteem his brother as himself” (D&C 38:24). If worn out clothing and mushrooms old enough to qualify for a driver’s license are the best we have, so be it and God bless. But “the best is none too good for God.”