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Lay Vocations in Otherwise Places

By David Teel

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I recently attended the yearly gathering of the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders (AACLL) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As Eastern Pennsylvania lay leader David Koch was “PowerPointing” his way through a report on an important lay initiative in his conference, an ancient emotion surprised me – an odd mix of grief, boredom, and embarrassment. Out of nowhere a buried memory took me back to a forgotten ritual by the river on North Front Street in Dardanelle, Arkansas, circa spring of 1977: the weekly trip to the laundromat.

At the time my single mom was struggling to provide for two kids on a small salary and waning government assistance. As a parking enforcement officer (what we sadly called back then, a “Meter Maid”) she wrote tickets in nearby Russellville. Her job, in short, was to anger most of the community’s “quarter-less” residents with expired meter citations, unwittingly transferring a share of the local outrage (and shame) to her seventh-grade son.

This often took the form of junior high “friends” greeting me at the bus top singing “Lovely Rita (Meter Maid)” by the Beatles (substituting my mother’s name for Rita’s). Or worse, students and sometimes even teachers at school would share tales of perceived government overreach and a friend or family member’s (always unjust) ticketing – as if I had something to do with it.

The shame was compounded one spring Saturday when I was on the phone with a boy from our lunchroom gang who overheard my mother’s exasperation as she yelled, “David, you know Saturdays are hell for me.” From then on, the guys would greet me in the cafeteria with that very phrase (instead of Lennon/McCartney lyrics). Thanks, Mom.

Of course, I didn’t know that – that Saturday’s were “hell” for her. Not really. And if I did, I forgot or repressed it. Even though I watched each week as she carried a large bamboo laundry basket on her hip packed with dirty clothes to our dirt-brown’74 Pinto station wagon for the journey across the river to Dardanelle’s less-crowded laundromat (literally a block away from the Methodist Church), I was too bored and self-preoccupied to recognize how this rite symbolized and embodied for her the distresses of too many bills and not enough paycheck. I just couldn’t see it.

When we ask (or pray) “how can we see all the people?” we’re really asking God to awaken us from a kind of slumber or empathy amnesia, from the slow, steady forgetfulness that is an unintended consequence of our best laid programming and plans, of business (and ministry) as usual that can’t quite remember what it’s like to hear God’s call in places outside of sanctuaries and education wings.

Now I’m no weepy Methodist. My daughters can count on one hand the number of times they’ve seen me moved to tears (the warped gift of growing up with certain manly expectations in North America). Still, when the Eastern Pennsylvania lay leader told the story of two amazing lay women in his conference with a heart for providing books in laundromats to children who have little or no access to them at home, my seventh-grade self felt seen for the first time in 42 years and I was moved (click here to read about the Laundromat Library League [LLL]). I like to think my mom would have felt seen and weepy, too.

I know it seems like an unlikely mission field. Not all “washeteria” patrons are struggling (some are just college students, the environmentally conscious, or those with an appliance on the fritz). If I’m honest, I don’t really notice laundromats and the people who use them – and if I do, I usually think, “Glad I don’t have to do that anymore.”

But lately I’m thinking about the children and their financially strapped parents who make the weekly sojourn there – people made in the image of God whose Saturday (or Thursday or Sunday) might be more hell than I know. People whose children might not have access at home to the stories that would awaken empathy or amplify the seemingly impossible dreams God has already (preveniently) placed in their hearts. People whose children will be blessed beyond measure by access to a good book. And I’m thinking about them because lay people like LLL founders Karen Iacobucci and Arlene Rengert in Pennsylvania actually saw them.

When we ask (or pray) “how can we see all the people?” we’re really asking God to awaken us from a kind of slumber or empathy amnesia, from the slow, steady forgetfulness that is an unintended consequence of our best laid programming and plans, of business (and ministry) as usual that can’t quite remember what it’s like to hear God’s call in places outside of sanctuaries and education wings.

But God is still calling, right? Calling us in and through desperate and not-so-desperate places. Places with an address. Otherwise places. Places where parents and children gather who might need something as simple as a good book with a promising story – a story that by some exceptional grace things can and will be otherwise. I believe that, anyway. Do you? So today I’m thankful that laity are leading the way. And I’m praying: “Jesus, help me remember. Help me see. Help me help.”

If you would like to know more about ways you can engage your community, go to seeallthepeople.org and download the free pdf of Engaging Your Community: A Guide to Seeing All the People by Junius B. Dotson.

David C. Teel is Director of Laity and Spiritual Leadership at Discipleship Ministries and a writer, editor, and Christian educator in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School, serving United Methodist Churches since 1997.

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