Interview with Jane Knuth on ‘Thrift Store Saints’

THRIFT SHOPS are lifelines for millions. There are many nonprofit organizations around the world sponsoring these charitable stores. In Britain, people visit hundreds of Oxfam shops. In some regions of the U.S., particularly the western states, people may visit a Deseret Industries shop. Salvation Army, Goodwill and Arc all operate shops. Today’s author Jane Knuth (pictured below) works with St. Vincent de Paul shops. All are vital links for countless families, especially as winter sweeps across the Northern Hemisphere.TODAY WE’VE GOT A REAL TREAT FOR YOU! We are introducing Jane Knuth, whose first book, “Thrift Store Saints,” is a marvelous collection of her own real-life stories gathered at a little shop where neighbors gather to help each other. That’s certainly a great idea in this dark and chilly season.

Three Ways to Learn from Jane Knuth, author of ‘Thrift Store Saints’

  1. Meet Jane: Below, you’ll meet Jane in our interview with her about “Thrift Store Saints.”
  2. Celebrate Diversity: In our Friendship and Faith page, you’ll find more from Jane—and from Zen writer Geri Larkin, who appreciates Jane’s work.
  3. Buy the Book: It’s a great holiday gift and Amazon has “Saints” on sale right now.

    We love this book because it’s such a cut-to-the-chase approach to faith. Don’t misunderstand! The Catholic church is a vital part of Jane’s life, but she’s also quick to tell readers that she simply doesn’t have time to spend arguing about theology. There are too many lives awaiting a kind word to spend time dividing people through religious argument.

    In the opening pages of her book, she writes: “We’re not very pious … Usually our prayers are seat-of-the-pants petitions, no preambles and no qualifiers; people are waiting in the rain after all. ‘Lord, we need money.’ ‘God, give me patience.’ ‘Help us to listen better.’ ‘Don’t let the roof leak again.’”


    DAVID: You’re an educator. You’re teaching the world a lot through this new book about your experiences at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in western Michigan. But, you’re actually a professional educator, as well. You worked for many years as a math teacher, right?

    JANE KNUTH, author of ‘Thrift Store Saints’JANE: Yes, I live now near Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I grew up. My husband Dean and I both went to Kalamazoo College. He was a chemistry major and I was a math major. This year, I’m not teaching. I decided to take this year off, but I’ve been a part-time math teacher over the years. I’ve taught 8th graders and I’ve taught at the community college and I still tutor in math.

    DAVID: You’ve got a very practical approach to faith and life, but now at age 52 you’re suddenly a nationally known author. Many of our readers may wonder how you made such a big transition here. Part of the answer is in the pages of your new book. Your work with St. Vincent de Paul encourages people to remember and share stories—so, the truth is that you’ve been developing as a storyteller and a writer for quite a few years.

    JANE: From the very beginning of my work at St. Vincent de Paul, I was taught that we try to learn from everyone we help. We’re supposed to share that with each other. We ask ourselves questions like: What did you learn this week?

    Not everyone works the same shift at the store, so I started writing down stories to share with people who weren’t there in the shop at the time. We actually have a three-ring binder that contains stories, notes of thanks from people and things like that. We can share this binder with new volunteers to show them what goes on. That’s how we share the wisdom.

    DAVID: You’ve shared some individual stories with a national audience already.

    JANE: In chapter 3 of the book, “A Street Theologian,” you’ll meet a woman whose story I wrote down one day. Then, a friend of mine suggested I send that to St. Anthony Messenger. They printed the story. To me, that was like: Woah! I was surprised, but it was several years before I got another story printed in a magazine. Catholic Digest printed one. I started writing a column for the Diocese of Kalamazoo newspaper.  Finally, Loyola Press decided to do this book.

    DAVID: You’ve got some influential friends. I was very impressed to see David and LaVonne Neff recommending your book. David Neff is best known as an evangelical writer and editor with Christianity Today. Your book might be mistaken for a strictly Catholic book with the rosary on the cover and the Loyola imprint. But you strongly emphasize the universal spiritual calling to help one another.


    JANE: I don’t know how else to say this: I want Christianity to be something that people don’t have to be afraid of or disgusted with.

    I was at a book signing at this bookstore and one of the people who was there had come with a friend. This friend said, “I don’t like religious books at all.”

    And the bookstore owner said, “I know what you mean. I don’t go to church. But you’ll love this book. She never goes near a church in this book.” That just cracked me up!

    DAVID: There is a whole lot about religion and spirituality between these covers, but the book really is focused 100 percent on people and their lives. There are a lot of revelations in this book about poor people, in particular.

    JANE: You won’t find statistics in my book. This isn’t a study of poverty in America. But I do tell you about people. And one thing that’s true is this: If I meet someone and they tell me, “I’m poor”—that’s strange. We all know who the rich people are, but even people who may not have much money don’t call themselves poor.

    The other day, I had lunch with a woman who is really bad off. She doesn’t have an income. Yet, she told me that there are lots of other people worse off than she is. She’s always trying to help other people. That’s part of the beauty of going to the poor for wisdom. They are wise. They are worried aobut many things, but they see themselves as people—just like you and me. Most people do not think of themselves as poor. And most people don’t want to feel sorry for themselves.

    DAVID: The flip side is true, too. Rich people often don’t know they’re rich. Jesus found that to be true!

    JANE: That’s right. People don’t see themselves as rich, either, even though I’ve met many people who have everything in the world—yet they’re worried about their taxes or the cost of sending their kids to college.

    DAVID: That’s one reason I think your book will make such an impact in readers’ lives. This isn’t a book-length argument about poverty or about social class. It’s not a guilt trip, either. This is a book about people learning to help each other in honest and practical ways. There’s a deep spiritual connection in starting life right there.


    JANE: I don’t spend a lot of time on theology. To me, theology usually is trying to say what’s true and false about our religion. I’m not doing that. I’m trying to talk about how people live. To me, theology should be seeing Jesus in people. Jesus teaches me through people. Not everyone learns this way, but I am taught through people and their stories.

    DAVID: I think that’s true for a whole lot of us, if we’re honest. In the book, you describe how you kept testing the boundaries of what it means to care about your neighbors. Of course, that’s something Jesus talks about in the Bible, the huge spiritual question: Who is my neighbor? There’s a chapter in your book in which you and Dean take a trip to France. You spend part of your trip expanding your vision of your neighbors. That’s an important section of your book.

    JANE: It’s easy to see that we should go out and help poor people who live near us. They’re our neighbors. But how about people in the neighborhood next door? I live near Kalamazoo. Are people in Detroit and Chicago my neighbors? Then, I traveled to France and, at first, it looked to me that these people were not my neighbors. These people were French, of course. But, I kept finding myself stretched—further and further. God is so patient and gentle in taking me through all of these steps in my life and teaching me so much. Of course, the French are my neighbors! Of course, people around the world are neighbors. But it’s hard to see it all, at first.

    DAVID: That’s a great example of your refreshing honesty in the book. You take us through that part of your life and, as a reader, I was sitting there saying to myself: Oh, yeah! That’s so true! It’s a very engaging story about how the world opened up for you. There are a number of things in this book that will surprise readers. For example, you don’t like people to use that old adage about “giving to the poor ends up giving us more in return.” Why does that bother you?

    JANE: Lots of people do say that. When I’m introduced as an author, people will frequently say something like this: “Her book shows us how, when you give, you receive more than you’ve given.”

    My response is: No! No, that’s not the point. I don’t do this expecting to be thanked in some way. That’s not why we do this. In fact, if you start doing this kind of work with that expectation—you’re going to get very frustrated. If you start working with the poor and you keep your eyes and your mind open, what will happen is: You’ll be disturbed. I love the quote from St. Vincent de Paul where he says, “If you’re willing to be uncomfortable and cry a little bit, then you can get back more than you gave.”

    First, he says you’ll feel uncomfortable and you’ll cry. You can’t start working with the poor and expect you’re going to get something back. You have to focus on what you’re willing to give up. And the biggest thing we have to give up is—our fear.

    Learn more from Jane Knuth, author of ‘Thrift Store Saints’

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