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The Rest Room Test

The bathrooms are the litmus test," the pastor told me. As the minister of a struggling urban congregation that attracts a variety of suburban volunteers, he was explaining how he recognized a sensitive Christian who can transcend differences of class and culture from a well-meaning but insensitive person who would alienate the members of his inner-city church. "There's nothing really wrong with our rest rooms, but the plumbing does not work perfectly and sometimes, well, they're smelly. The suburban volunteers who come in and immediately fix up the bathrooms--I know they won't make it here."

When I responded that the condition of the bathrooms is important for a church, and every little bit helps, the pastor explained, "I know it sounds like a small thing, even a generous act, to clean up a bathroom and stop the dripping faucet. But the suburban volunteers who have the gift of genuine empathy, who can be comfortable with our members and also put them at ease, do not impose their judgments about how the place should look or the way we do things. They begin by accepting us as we are, warts and all."

Was he encouraging the suburban volunteers to check their personal standards and social values at the door? No, he protested. "Those who hang in with us have deep faith commitments, high moral standards and, perhaps above all, strong egos. Spiritual wimps or shrinking violets don't Survive in this city ministry. Perhaps it's because the sensitive volunteers are so strong that they need not assert their assumptions as soon as they walk in the door. They enter listening, respecting what they find, especially that which is different from what they left behind. They don't change anything until they know why things are the way they are, and who, if anyone, wants it changed. After our people know and trust them, then the volunteers can be helpful. They can become one of us, just like our own members."...

I persisted, noting that perhaps the volunteers who fixed up the bathrooms on their own initiative are problem-solvers at heart. I suggested that they are simply bringing their natural gifts to the situation, and would likely do the same at their own churches. Shouldn't they also be accepted for who they are?

The pastor answered with appreciation, but also with what may be the unkindest cut of all. '~Yes, they mean well--just like my mother-in-law. She starts cleaning our house every time she visits. She means well, but we live a mellow life style, and she does not slow down enough to accept us the way we are. She's a very loving woman, but is not in tune with who we are. She has always got a better way. It's a gap between us that's hard to bridge."

I began to think our conversation was taking a crazy turn, from rest rooms to cultural sensitivity to family tensions. I tried to make light of the situation by mentioning that do-gooders need love, too. But my long-time city pastor friend still had the last word. '~he problem is not in the good they do, but in doing good before they have accepted, and have been accepted in, the community. In every cross-cultural contact, where misunderstanding and distrust loom, what you do or don't do is more powerful than what you say or think. The problem with these self-starter volunteers is not their doing good, but their doing it for our church, not with us. We need help, lots of it. But we need the kind of help that will strengthen us and the kind of people who will work with us, together."

Whether we are trying to reach across class or race lines, across religious and cultural barriers or even across the intimate fissures of a marriage or generations within a family, it takes a strong, comfortable person to begin by listening especially when it seems so easy to clean up and fix things for the other.

May-June 1995




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