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Free Sale: Oxymoronic, Idealistic, Subversive

April 18th, 2008 by dk

Published Friday, April 18, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Leave it to those crazy kids. What will they think of next? We’ve all heard of bake sales for private schools, so this Saturday’s yard sale at Wellsprings Friends School seems familiar. Except for the “sale” part, which assumes a seller and a buyer and an exchange between the two. Their fourth annual “Free Sale” gets its oxymoronic name because no money is exchanged. Everything at the sale is free.

A sale without prices, that’s not unheard of, but a sale with no money? Blasphemy! How will seller and buyer agree to value if there is no “quo” to pro the quid? Who will be taking advantage of whom? How will winning and losing be scored? Wide-eyed idealism can take you to strange places, and young people can be excused for indulging their fantasies for a world where everybody is equal and stuff isn’t attached to people’s esteem.

These utopia-addled adolescents will give good and worthwhile items to anyone who happens by, for nothing. Zip. Nada. Need a toaster? Toast for the masses! A bed roll? Sleep well tonight. Art to go with your sofa or a sofa to go with your art? Load it up and take it out.

These kids haven’t earned money beyond what a paper route can provide, so they don’t understand its importance to our way of life. Money is the water we all swim in, the grease in the economic gears, the arbiter of all values, the power that makes the world go ‘round (and ‘round and ‘round.)

Money allows no mercy. You get what you pay for. But these high schoolers haven’t yet learned this lesson.

Wellsprings Friends School was founded on Quaker values and is housed at a Mennonite church in southwest Eugene. These traditions have been part of the peace movement since 1536. They know how to question authority, conscientiously object, wage peace, work for justice. But if you’ve ever tried to get free apple butter in a Pennsylvania Dutch gift shop, you know they also acknowledge the value of money. Whether it’s apple butter or needlework or a rocking chair, they don’t mind earning money with the quality of their work. There’s justice in that too.

But free? “Free” is a subversive little four-letter word, calling on people of good will to “f*** the system” — that is, free the system from its own limitations. “Money can’t buy me love.”

Do-gooder religious and social justice leaders declared last Sunday “Jubilee Sunday.” Drawing from an Old Testament tradition, they are calling for a year of Jubilee. Specifically, they want the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to forgive loans made to two dozen countries whose economies rely on subsistence farming. They reason rightly that debt burdens in these cases perpetuate isolation and instability, two factors the World Bank (and the world) would like to end. Every dollar that goes to repaying the debt can be spent more efficiently eradicating starvation and social unrest. An ounce of national debt forgiveness is worth a pound of military and humanitarian intervention.

We listen intently to Bono and other celebrities calling for these changes. We’ve been watching the Pope this week, celebrating mass in baseball stadiums. We might tune in a fundraiser on television; we may even call that 800 number on the screen. But checking out a yard sale, a few blocks from where we live? Whoa! Too close for comfort.

It’s as if these students believe the bumper sticker. You can say you’ll think globally, act locally, but really. What can one person do? We prefer to rage against the machine, savoring the momentary power surge embedded in the rage. But “be the change you want to see in the world”? Leave it on the bumper, kids, where it will do no harm.

They offer the community something as simple and unassuming as a free sale. They don’t know what havoc they could wreak. Or maybe they do.


Don Kahle ( published a free weekly newspaper in town for a decade. He attends Eugene Mennonite Church, which is also home to Wellsprings Friends School at 3590 W. 18th Ave. Items not given away at the school’s Free Sale will be donated to local social service agencies.

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