Those words of Oscar Romero, the martyr of El Salvador --- they were meant figuratively, weren’t they? The spare coat in your closet is stolen from the poor. We were asked the question: “What might that mean if you applied it to your life?” I didn’t have an answer at the time, but thankfully someone else did, so I escaped attention. I don’t think I dared to have an answer. And then another question, perhaps more difficult to escape: “What would happen to you if you really took that seriously?”
So I did take it seriously. When I got home I opened my closet. I took out the spare coat, and the spare jackets and pants and dresses (summer and winter), and the spare shoes and sneakers and trainers, and the spare scarves and beanies and caps. And then I opened the drawers and took out the spare tops and shorts --- and even the spare sox because I decided I didn’t need fourteen pairs of anklet sox. I lay them all out on my queen-sized bed, and they stared back at me, accusingly. I called my Mum and showed them to her. She looked at them, and looked at me, and said: “What did they teach you while you were away?” So I told her about the spare coat in her closet, and she thought about it for a moment, and then said: “Just wait a bit.”
We needed the SUV, our spare car, with the back seats down, and we dropped it all at St Vinnie’s. They thanked us for our contribution.....and for those from the rest of our street as well.
When my group was on Young Marist Neighbours we asked the teacher for some sports gear to set up some games for the young people at lunch time. He took me to the cupboard where the sports gear was stored --- and there was a set of plastic wickets with the middle stump missing, and a cracked plastic bat. That was all. He was a bit embarrassed, and started looking around for what we both knew wasn’t there.
That moment haunted me. I love sport, and I’ve always had the gear that I’ve needed. I remembered Oscar Romero’s words: “The spare coat in your closet is stolen from the poor.” I thought to myself that our school, boasting over twenty rugby and soccer teams, all of which get brand new rugby and soccers balls every year, must have some spare ones. What happens to the used ones at the end of a season? Do they wear out?
A quick visit to the Sports Coordinator, a few words of explanation, and next thing we are standing in the sports equipment room. A room, not a cupboard. There’s stuff for every sport you can imagine, and some of it must get used only once or twice a year. There must be fifty rugby balls, all in good condition. The same with soccer balls, basketballs, volleyballs, cricket gear, bats and pads and balls and wickets --- just there, just spare, because the new stuff hasn’t been unpacked yet.
So into a huge net bag go balls of every type of sport you can think of, and into gear bags go cricket bats and pads and wickets, and there’s a couple of pumps thrown in to inflate the balls, and a bunch of jerseys and tracksuits, all brand new, that had the wrong crest printed on them. And somewhere some young students who didn’t have anything now have something, and one rather large closet doesn’t have quite so much stolen stuff, and a couple of us have tried to make a start.
Imagine a school running out of paper? That actually happened while we were visiting that school a few years back. We were on the floor making paper shapes with the new entrants (five of them), when we needed more paper. And the principal told us there wasn’t any because they had run out.
Our leaders had told us about Oscar Romero and how he had changed --- from supporter of the rich to apostle of the poor. They had challenged us with one of his statements: “The spare coat in your closet is stolen from the poor.” It was an inspiring challenge, but hard to relate to because we don’t really have rich and poor in New Zealand. Until you are at a school, and you run out of paper.......
In those days I had an after school job as a swimming teacher. It paid well, and I saved some of my earnings for something I wanted to buy, and the rest of it went on social life, school life, life in general. I didn’t ever think too much about what it went on. It just went.
But then that school ran out of paper. And I had all these spare “coats” in my “closet.”
I told my mother that I would put aside half of what I earned for the rest of my time at school, and somehow send it to that school. She told me she would match what I saved. We kept an eye on sales at Warehouse Stationery and Rebel Sport, and over a period of time we built a huge pile of art supplies and sports gear. We sent it away, anonymously, but they found out who sent it because we got all these cute letters of thanks. Those letters made us wonder just who was rich and who was poor.