Why Laundry, Like Ministry, Needs to be Culturally Relevant

A missionary to Europe told of her first months living in an apartment in her new city and wondering why the neighbors seemed to avoid her. Finally, someone was bold enough to tell her that everyone thought she was a dirty pig. Why? It had something to do with her laundry, as you’ll see below.

Doing laundry is defined by culture. So is the way we do ministry. And sometimes the two overlap. It doesn’t matter how well you can do either of those in your own setting, you’ll need to learn again how to do it appropriately in your new cultural context.

I’ve done both (laundry and ministry) in various cultural settings and have learned this: though essentials remain, the methods must be adjusted. Otherwise, frustration and possibly failure, could be the outcome.

For instance, when doing laundry, the unchanging essentials are soap, water, and air, but there are varying methods and possibly social rules in each local context. For ministry, the unchanging essentials are the Gospel (Good News) of Christ and a love for God, but here too unique methods and possibly social rules must be applied in its local context.

In a sordid mess of confusion and cultural adaptation, those methods and rules are learned only by doing…and that, usually, via ignorant mistakes (note the plural of that last word).

Laundry – Do it Right, or Else…

So why was the missionary to Europe considered a dirty pig? She didn’t hang her sheets outside the window to dry like everyone else did, so it was assumed she never washed them. She was considered filthy; probably thought to have bed-bugs and carry disease.

The Gospel message wasn’t initially heard because the messenger didn’t do her laundry correctly.

The missionary changed her method. Instead of washing and drying her sheets inside as had been her habit, she began to hang them out to dry for the world to see. And only then did the world begin to hear the news she was sent to tell them.

in Mexico, I've always hung our laundry out to dry...
In Mexico, I’ve always hung our laundry out to dry. This photo from Oaxaca on a typically warm and sunny day.
...here I use my "adjustable height" dryer!
…here I use my “adjustable height dryer” –sticks propping the line higher– so (1) nothing would hang on the ground and (2) our dogs would stop running through them.

When we lived in Northern Mexico among the Old Colony Germans (much like the Amish), I learned by way of snide gossip that not only did I do laundry on the wrong days of the week, made obvious by everyone seeing my laundry hanging out to dry on the wrong days, I also hung certain clothes the wrong way. (That was only one of about a hundred things I did wrong in that community, for which there was little grace and much vilifying of my person).

When I finally realized my mistake, I did my best to mend it, wanting to remove each stumbling block, one by one, for people to accept me, but especially and ultimately, the message of Christ we carried.

Change Will Cost Us (Don’t expect Easy St.)

As we have moved from place to place, I’ve adjusted my laundry methods. The photos below show us (namely my daughter while I took a break to snap the pics) doing laundry in yet another way: by hand, on the roof. This was in Huatulco, where we temporarily rented a small apartment while ministering in the Pacific coastal region.

laundryHuatulco2
My daughter learning how to wash clothes by hand. The red bucket on top is the water and soap “soak” bucket, while the blue bucket at the bottom is the clean water “rinse”.
laundryHuatulco3
Miss Perfectionist working hard to remove a spot. The circular metal stairs are seen to her left, next to the neighbor’s roof. And if you look carefully at the top of the photo, you’ll see a glimpse of the neighbor’s  laundry on the roof of a house on the next street over.
after rinsing them in a bucket and twisting out excess water by hand, we hang out clothes, underwear and all, flying like flags for the neighborhood to see! (but since everyone does it, nobody cares)
After rinsing them in the bucket and twisting out excess water by hand, we hang out clothes– underwear and all flying like flags– for the neighborhood to see! (but since everyone does it, nobody cares)

Changes, though necessary, aren’t always welcome or easy. I didn’t like doing laundry by hand, but it was the only way to get it done right, in that location. Sometimes we’re forced to do things differently than we’ve ever done before. And remember, different isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just…different. The important thing is remembering the essentials. Whether I did my laundry on a roof or in a basement, on a mountaintop or in a valley, used machines or used my hands, I always maintained the essentials: soap, water, and air.

Similarly, in ministry we have had to learn to adjust our method, to do things differently, depending on our cultural context. Those changes have not always been easy and have usually come on the heels of blunders. Most often we don’t realize we’ve done something wrong or strange until we see certain looks, hear the gossip, are avoided, or outright confronted. Our purpose is moot and our message unheeded until we change our method…

…Without changing the essentials: the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a fervent love for God.

Like the apostle Paul, it is possible, yes even necessary, to maintain those essentials as we adjust our method.

“So…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God…even as I try to please everybody in every way, I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

I Corinthians 10:31-33, I Corinthians 9:22,23

Culturally Re-Defined

As it is, many missionaries end up adapting so well to certain changes, we can’t leave them behind when we return to the USA. We’ve spent years and tears trying to please others for the sake of the Gospel and now find ourselves ministering, interacting, or behaving awkwardly to and with our own patriots. Some things simply become automatic…

Like hugging and kissing everyone we meet in church…

Like calling everyone hermano or hermana

Like shouting salud! in public when someone sneezes…

…or, if you’re like me, hanging our laundry in the basement when a dryer sits idly by.

laundry1
Method or madness? We found our clothes last longer and fit better (!) when kept out of the dryer. It’s more work, but keeps the family happy.

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