When God calls us to clean floors
I had no choice but to enter the Gents at the end of the car park. It was to change my life, a bit. I recalled this epiphany some 30 years ago in a conversation this week with one of my daughters. We were talking about the furore caused by the resignation note left by a cleaner for her boss. You will probably be aware of the story – it appeared right across the media, how Julie Cousins walked out of her job as a cleaner for HSBC after 35 years. It seems that her sudden resignation had been prompted by being "dressed down" in the office by her manager. However, what gave the story legs was a tweet by Mrs Cousin’s son of her resignation note, which soon went viral. It needs to be said that we do not know what actually happened between Mrs Cousins and her female boss: HSBC has yet to comment. But clearly it hit a raw nerve as people shared their own experiences of being demeaned for their job. One of the more printable responses summarises the overall response: “Never understood why people think what they do for a living reflects their importance. I was raised to believe that a job is a job and anyone getting up and going to work deserves the same respect, whether they pick up the trash or run the company!” Which brings me back to my original story, from when we lived in Rochdale. It was a lovely Spring day and we went to Milnrow, nestling in the foothills of the South Pennines, to behold the sea of bluebells in the Old House Ground Plantation. On returning to the car I realised that I needed to go to the loo but I hesitated when I saw the public lavatory. Needs must and so I took a deep breath and stepped inside, expecting the very worse. And then breathed out, for to my astonishment these Gents were in pristine condition. Highly unusual as my male readers will appreciate. There were even some cut flowers.
I think I can say it made my day, encountering someone doing their job, albeit one of the lowest status, to the best of their ability. Some weeks later I was back in Milnrow, for the Deanery Synod, one of the very few I can recall in over 40 years of Anglican ministry. I was chatting with some of the locals over tea and biscuits, and mentioned my visit to the Gents in the Ogden Lane car park. “Oh, that will be Joe,” they answered. “He cleans them for Jesus.” Which takes me straight to the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, to his words to those members who were slaves. “Work from the heart for your real Master.” Don’t forget, in Roman society you couldn’t get any lower that being a slave; you didn’t even have a legal identity. You were no more, to quote Aristotle no less, that a “talking tool.” The apostle continues: “Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work.” (Colossians 3:22f, the Message.) One of the few bonuses of the Covid pandemic was our appreciation of those people in low status jobs who kept the country running, often at some risk to themselves. It seems that those most vulnerable to infection were the cleaners of Intensive Care Units, many of BAME backgrounds. And many would have relied on public transport. For the Gospel fundamental is quite clear – no one is to be defined by their job, their place in society, whether they are slave or free. And as human beings we share the same incredible status: we are all made in the image of God and more, again in the words of the apostle Paul, people for whom Christ has died. (1 Corinthians 8:11). No exceptions. But certainly in Roman culture, this was breathtakingly cutting edge, even as Paul urges Philemon to welcome his wayward slave Onesimus (i.e. “Useful’) as “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” (Philemon v16). This is radical stuff, so radical we can’t see it such is the effect of 2000 years of the Christian message on our culture, on our mental operating system. Very simply we are to respect other people as equal – which works both ways. We refuse to look down and demean: we refuse to look up and grovel. “Treat everyone you meet with dignity.”(1 Peter 2:17) For how we treat other people is a good measure of how we see ourselves. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was prepared to stand up to those in power, to those who would degrade him for his race. The most defining moment of his life occurred when he was nine years old, outside the Blind Institute in Roodepoort where his mother was a domestic worker. He recalls: “We were standing on the step when this tall white man in a black cassock, and a hat, swept by. I did not know that it was Trevor Huddleston. He doffed his hat in greeting my mother. “I was relatively stunned at the time, but only later came to realise the extent to which it had blown my mind that a white man would doff his hat to my mother. It was something I could never have imagined. The impossible was possible.” That’s how God works, even/especially when he calls us to clean toilets in Jesus’ name.