Washing away our sins

By Lauren R. Stanley

PETION VILLE, Haiti – The power went out – again – the other day, leaving me with little to do on the computer. No power, no Internet. No Internet, no connection with others.

So I did what I usually do: I washed my clothes.

Washing clothes in Haiti is arduous work. Most of us do it by hand, in round rubber tubs, sitting, in my case, on the edge of the shower stall. It’s not like washing clothes at home: There, we dump the clothes in the washer, add detergent, turn a few knobs, push a few buttons, and walk away. After a while, the washer stops, we take the clothes out, toss them in the dryer, turn a few more knobs, push a few more buttons, and walk away again. When the buzzer goes off, we take our clothes out, fold them and put them away.

Here, washing clothes is intentional work. You pour water in the tub, add soap, dump in the clothes (not too many at once), let them soak a bit, then start churning away. You try to replicate what the washer does back in the States, agitating and swishing and swirling the clothes around. You take the special bar of laundry soap and scrub at stains and dirt. You examine each article of clothing individually to make sure it’s clean. You rub the material together to get the clothes cleaner. Then you wring each piece out and put them in another tub. When you think everything in this batch is clean, you start the rinse cycle. Each piece of clothing gets dipped and swished and swirled through the clean water. You wring again and again. Then you hang up your clothes in your bathroom, or out on a line if you have one (but they’ll get dirty outside, hanging in the polluted air, so drying them inside seems to be the better option). Finally, you wait … sometimes overnight … for your things to dry. Haiti may be a hot climate, but in this rainy season, it’s also a humid one. Few things dry quickly here.

It can be a tedious job, doing the wash by hand, but even so, I’ve found some blessings in it. All this cleaning and scrubbing has become good prayer time. As I wash, especially those collars on my shirts, I find myself thinking about the people and places I love, and sending prayers to God for their well-being. I pray for the end of war and violence and oppression. I pray for others’ happiness. For peace in the world. For the people with whom I served for four years in Sudan. For my incredibly extended family, moving in my mind from place to place, hop-scotching across the country and around the world. I give thanks for the blessings of my life, and pray for guidance in my ministry. My hands do the work and my eyes watch for stains, but my heart and soul are with God the whole time.

And I reflect on how washing my clothes in this time-honored fashion is rather like being washed clean by God. You see, as I’m washing and scrubbing and agitating the waters, swirling the clothes around, I see all the dirt come loose. I watch the water, which is more or less clean at the start, turn gray, and then, sometimes, dark gray. Occasionally, the water turns almost brown. Haiti is not a clean place … we have dirt, we have dust, we have all the pollution from cars and trucks. It’s hot, and I sweat a lot. All that combines to make my clothes pretty dirty, sometimes after just one wearing. As I pour out the now-dirty water and watch it swirl down the drain, I think of how washing the dirt from my clothes is rather like washing the dirt from my spiritual life. Sometimes, I can leave my spiritual life to soak, and that’s enough. Usually though, I think God has to put me through a wringer, swirling and agitating and scrubbing hard at those sinful parts of my life, those times when I was not nice, when I hurt another person, when I have been frustrated and thought of tossing this whole ministry-in-another-country out with the wash water. I think that some days, God has to work especially hard to get me clean again, dunking me again and again into the waters of forgiveness, not because God has to work to forgive me, but because I can be so stubborn I don’t want to be forgiven, or I won’t forgive another for some perceived slight.

But God doesn’t give up on me. God keeps scrubbing away, keeps checking for hidden stains, keeps soaping up and rinsing and wringing me out until, when God is done, when I have finally acquiesced to all the God freely offers me, the stained, dirty parts of my life wash down the drain and God’s love and forgiveness make me clean again.

By the time I finish my wash, even a small load, I am exhausted. My arms get a great workout from all the wringing out, I’m covered in sweat and the clothes I wore to the do the wash are the next ones to go into the wash basket.

And each time, I am left to wonder: Does God have to work this hard to get me clean?

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Haiti, where she works on the Partnership Program and Development. Her website is http://web.me.com/merelaurens/GoIntoTheWorld.net.

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