When Things Get Messy

It’s Friday morning. Our basement office reeks of sewage, with brown sludge covering the shower floor and overflowing out into the laundry room.  We’ve got towels on the ground in hopes of soaking up the brown puddles and have cleared out the contents of the bathroom into the hallway to be sanitized. I’m putting on rubber gloves and sucking in one last deep breath of fresh air before opening the door to the bathroom. Somehow, there’s a smile on my face as I chuckle to myself and think, “this is ministry.”

The most recent odd job here at SYM was tag-teaming the clean-up of the mess left by backed up pipes in our bathroom shower.  For some reason, our plumber fixed the pipes, but didn’t have to get into the shower to do so—so we were left to handle the poopy sludge on our own. I’ll spare you the details, but it was pretty disgusting. My Friday morning was spent bent over our shower floor with a janky handmade cardboard shovel, scooping up poopy sludge.

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I say that it was gross, and it was—but to be honest, I spent most of the time laughing with other staff as we sanitized. And maybe it’s the fumes from the sewage talking, but it ended up being one of the most refreshing days I’ve had in a while and it reminded me how much there is to learn about the mess of life.

Reality is, there are messes that just come along with being human—one example being the occasional sewage back up…but sometimes, the mess feels a little more vulnerable and scary than that.  

Often, when those vulnerable pieces of life come up, we spend all our time and energy trying to avoid the mess because we’re afraid of just how bad it will get. I was certainly hoping to get out of the stare-down with the shower drain by hiring a plumber because I could imagine the horror of the smell and already feel the gag reflex starting before I even got close. And though I hate to admit it, I sometimes want to do the same with my own life and the messy, vulnerable things that come up. It’s easier to disengage and try to get things taken care of without needing to get too close.

But I’m confident that if we can get over this fear of the mess and step boldly into vulnerability, there is an unexpected beauty and joy to be found.  There’s that book, Everybody Poops we use to teach kids potty training—well, if that was written for adults, I think it would be called Everybody’s Broken and it would teach us about raw, vulnerable relationships and break us of the need to keep up an image of being without mess in our lives.

It would be easy to start talking about brokenness and vulnerability and immediately turn to stories about the work we’re entering into at SYM—to talk about the hurt and pain that comes out in conversation with young people caught in the systematic and relational brokenness of homelessness.  But the urge to jump there scoots by the truth that I’d like to avoid, which is that “my bathroom” is overflowing with sludge, too. I’m broken too, and I think this is a necessary stop in this conversation if we’re going to be able to engage well.

We have the privilege of jumping into the messy parts of life with young people—and we do it because we’ve had to wrestle with the reality of our own messes too.  It’s from a place of shared brokenness, shared need, that we can enter into life with young people. The beauty of showing up to work at SYM is that we get to set aside any pretense of life being put-together and perfect.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humility.    - Pema Chödrön

And so I’m not cleaning up a poopy mess without prior knowledge—I’m helping to clean up because I believe that young people deserve the dignity of a clean, functioning bathroom and because I too, have needed my own metaphorical bathroom to be cleaned. I get to serve young people, desiring for them to know they are valuable—because I too, have needed to be shown that I am valuable.

It’s messy work—raw, vulnerable, and sometimes it might smell a bit—but I believe it’s good. We are pulling on our rubber gloves and jumping into the broken parts of life, choosing to be unafraid of what diving in means. This is ministry.

* Written by SYM Case Manager, Emily Bunch