It was about 5:30 a.m. and I was in the middle of my morning prayer. The sun had yet to rise. The coffee was hot and the house, serene. Just then, in the middle of my prayer, apprehension gripped my body and shattered my peace. “Oh no! It’s bulk trash pickup today!” I sprang up from the couch in our prayer room, threw on some warm clothes and within minutes found myself in my back yard. The sun was peeking over the wall and the sound of the city garbage truck echoed through the neighborhood.
I had only minutes. I began furiously transporting splintered wood and metal – once my kids’ rust-covered, tetanus-shot necessitating swing set – weighing a few hundred pounds from my back yard to the front curb. As I rushed to get it moved, the truck pulled up to my house and out jumped the crew. Along with the bulk trash team was my normal garbage man, Joe. Over the past couple of years, Joe has become one of the people whom I respect and admire most in the world. He is wisdom personified, a sage teacher disguised in filthy workman’s clothes.
No doubt noticing that I looked a little stressed and fatigued from running so much debris to the curb so quickly, he smiled and offered to give me a hand. As usual, he asked me how my day was going with a sincerity that cannot be confused as mere small talk.
“Well, my morning was great until I remembered bulk pickup was moved up because of the Holy Day.” I offered with stress and desperation.
He smirked. (Joe and I have had conversations about faith and life before. I was hoping that referring to All Saints rather than Halloween would elicit a deeper conversation today, but he didn’t bite.)
Joe replied, “Yeah’, we’re all on double-time this week, making sure the streets are clear for all the kids this weekend.” As he said it, though, there was an unmistakable smile that came across his face that confused me.
“You’re happy about working double-time? That must be some great pay, brother.” I suggested.
Smiling, Joe said, “Nah, it ain’t about the money. It’s about making sure the little ones can walk down the streets trick-or-treating and be safe.” And then Joe said the line that spoke to my soul, sharing, “It’s a lot easier working extra long days and pickin’ up other peoples’ crap when you remember who you’re doin’ it for.” With that he gave me his customary salute (in lieu of shaking hands covered in garbage) and was on his way. The diesel truck emitted a cloud of black smoke that enveloped me, as I stood there speechless.
He had done it, again. Joe, my garbage man, floored me with his wisdom.
I think that Joe understands something many of us in Youth Ministry too readily forget, namely: always remember who you are doing this for.
Youth Ministry means long hours. It means dealing with a lot of “interesting” individuals, sorting through minefields of hidden agendas, ecclesial politics, family problems and parish drama. And that’s all okay – all of life’s debris and all of the garbage that piles up along the way is okay – effective ministry and real relationships can be messy.
This is where it becomes even more essential for you and I to keep the goal in mind. Remember why you do what you do. Remember for Whom you do what you do…for Christ and His Church.
Every missing permission slip you track down, every sheet of butcher paper you hang, every kernel of popcorn you sweep up off that linoleum floor serves a purpose if you remember what your goal is…leading teenagers (and their families) closer to Christ. That’s what this Life Teen movement is about and, more to the point, that’s how we build the Church, God’s Kingdom on earth, every day.
Joe has become a trusted teacher in my life, though he does not know it. His joy and humility witness to me in ways I thank the Lord for, daily. He’s not perfect but he is authentic. He’ll tell you everything wrong with the world but do it in the right way – with wisdom and humility. And Joe is always positive. The trash keeps coming and he expects it. He looks at himself not as someone who hauls around and removes other peoples’ garbage, but as someone who makes the world better and more beautiful.
How great if we could hit the pillow each night trusting in the same, not stressed about the Church’s garbage but rejoicing in Her glory.