Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Faith Works 12-10-05
Jeff Gill

Records On Display

There is an archive in most local churches; a time capsule of sorts opened once a year.
Not a history file in a cabinet drawer, or a shelf in the library. It is a closet, a particular one, with a rack and shelf set aside for this season.
These are the Christmas costumes, the outfits that endure from year to year. Some new clothes join the ranks each pageant, and every tableau set beside the cantata results in another pair of angel wings made or glitter halo set fresh on young heads.
But many churches carry a stock from year to year and decade to decade of the core characters, sometimes, depending on closet space and size of the congregation, with three sizes per role. Mary has her blue robes, Joseph usually a brown cloak with tan tunic, and a baby Jesus in reserve on the highest shelf in case no infant has been born since July in the church family to lie in the manger.
Three crowns, if not more, stack alongside a small chest, a pottery jar, and a tattered but still wrapped box. Old retired bathrobes of an assortment of stripes and solid designs hang below. Burlap jerkins usually dangle in quantity for shepherds, and a dark corner nestles a sheaf of staves (soon to be lightsabers during rehearsals).
White robes, sometimes terrycloth or, if there are skilled seamstresses enough, tailored robes cut in varying lengths, hang more neatly, with a plastic bag covering the massed bundle of wings, silver tinsel glued along the edges. If the tailors are truly talented, there are also a few more elaborate costumes: ox and donkey, sheepskin coats and eared hoods aplenty, even the stray goat or camel sometimes. Or there may just be a stack of cardboard or plywood cutouts leaning against the back wall behind the clothes, hinged props swung flush for storage but always ready for action with a slight freshening of the paint.
What makes this assemblage a very special archive in so many places is the massing of small details, and the knowledge of where they come from. This robe was Mr. Tilly’s, given by his wife after he died. The brocade trim on these shawls was out of Mrs. Shellhammer’s scrap bag, her now long deceased but still remembered.
The sheep costumes were made by Mrs. Franklin when she was still Miss Williams, and her grandchildren will wear them in a few years. The shepherd’s staves came off ol’ Miz Varia’s farm, cut by the men’s group when they were clearing brush and raking leaves for her before she passed.
See the wings? Not the newer ones made from foamcore, but the wings now in the back row made from corrugated and painted white (it rubs off, but the robes are white, too, they’re still perfectly good); my aunt made those back when Mr. Jones directed the youth choir.
Over in the west pews, Mr. Boles remembers when his son carried that wooden chest as Melchior. Will he and his family make it back in time for Christmas dinner tomorrow? In the choir Ezziebeth squints to see if her sequins are still even along the edge of Mary’s shawl, and thinks it would be a good idea to re-hem that after Christmas this year.
When the star creaks up into the Bethlehem sky, hanging from a pulley hidden behind the choir loft pillar, two men remember how much work it took to get that thing anchored twenty years ago, three boys now men recall when they got picked to pull the rope at the director’s cue from the front pew, and four women each think they were the ones to make that particular pattern of gold paint and glitter. Only one did the finish that the congregation sees that night, but they are all correct, in a way.
And the one who carefully cut the fourteen-pointed star out of a piece of premium plywood, getting the design from a book on the Church of the Nativity and its centuries old star set in the floor of the ancient grotto, and whispered a prayer under the bandsaw’s whine with each of the twentyeight cuts it took to make it: he’s been gone nearly a quarter century, and no one in the church tonight remembers his name.
Yet his star is still here, drawing all eyes up as it rises, until it descends to a safe place in the Christmas closet for next year.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your pageant at

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 12-11-05
Jeff Gill

What’s Up With Wal-Mart?

Bashing "Mall-Wart" isn’t new, but the latest rounds of piling on are a bit puzzling to me.
First, full disclosure. I own no stock in Wal-Mart, have never worked in one, and loathe going to them, as I have an active distaste for mob scenes of all sorts, whether sports-related or retail-generated. No matter how you slice it, big spaces filled with too many people make me edgy.
In fact, I grieve somewhat that the Heath facility will soon be super-sized into a Wal-Mart Supercenter, echoing its Newark North 21st St. cousin. But for myself only.
You see, I think of the older, smaller store as a third less crowded (it may not be, by the square foot) and twice as easy to get in and out of, and I want that because I go regularly, since I use things like toilet paper, light bulbs, and Starbucks coffee regularly.
So like 8 of 10 Americans, I shop at Wal-Mart. I don’t go there for groceries, which is the main development involved in becoming a "supercenter." I buy odd and strange things that places like Kroger and Ross’ Market provide more readily and at perfectly reasonable prices, given that I am buying unreasonable things (filo dough, dal tadka, couscous).
But here’s why, even as a confirmed Wal-Mart avoider in much of my own shopping, I want to stand up for Sam Walton’s modern successors.
A study out of New York University recently has shown that, for lower income shoppers, the impact on their food and staples budget can be as much as 25%, and that’s downwards. Yes, working at Wal-Mart isn’t a fast track to supporting a family, but most service industry front-line jobs aren’t, and little things like health insurance are actually more accessible at Big Blue (didn’t that used to be IBM?) than they are at most other hourly wage employers. You can get that key benefit, while your wages are certainly lower than at other grocery chains: but virtually all of that savings is passed along to consumers.
What do you think Wal-Mart’s profit margin is? Many folk say "30, 40, 50%, huh?" Try 3.5%.
What makes me, as a person deeply involved in poverty and crisis issues for our community, ready to take some flack on behalf of a store I prefer to avoid and could easily afford to not ever go to for paper towels, patterned or not, is what happens when you look at the real impact of a Wal-Mart type operation, and this is true for almost all of the deep discounters. The total savings to lower income families in the US of just this one chain (granted, the biggest of them all) in consumer spending is larger than the total of federal Food Stamp program expenditures. Poor people in America get more back into their budget by way of savings on the stuff they gotta buy (let’s leave DVD players out for the moment) than they get from the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is an over 50 billion benefit to lower income Americans.
So what is my point if I were to join one of the nascent protest movements or boycotts on Wal-Mart? That I can afford to be overcharged for shampoo and aspirin? That the poor should eat cake rarely from a local bakery rather than buy cheap cake mix, milk, and eggs in the Barn O’ Commerce? Sounds like reverse snobbery to me.
In a few weeks, I want to mock the myth of consumer choice, which the big box stores paradoxically do not provide, all their merry claims this time of year to the contrary. For now, I will ruefully appreciate the big changes in store down in Heath, suspecting as I do based on the hard facts that more Licking County residents who need a boost will get one, and I will have to edge through larger crowds to find my minty dental floss.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your shopping tales of woe or wonder to