Next To Godliness

This isn’t a Christmas story, per se. It’s about soap. It takes place in Louisiana in June, far removed from the climate and symbols traditionally associated with Christmas, but the more I contemplate the “Christmas spirit” the more this story pushes to the front of my mind.

The June in question was 2001, before specific calamities befell the nation and region, but the locus of this story was – and is – in the midst of a long-running calamity. It was New Sarpy, just upriver from New Orleans. The citizens of New Sarpy are low-income African Americans. Over the years their homes have been continuously encroached upon by several oil refineries.

On that June day, Greenpeace was conducting a tour of several communities that were struggling with health effects and pollution that result from the heavy industrialization of the area. One of my colleagues asked me to help with security.

“Security” seems odd and unneeded for a group of activists escorting politicians, celebrities and journalists on a tour of poor neighborhoods, but such tours are distinctly unwelcome in those parishes of Louisiana. All day, as members of the group descended from buses onto narrow streets, we’d had to contend with white men in large pickup trucks, often adorned with confederate flags and/or gun racks, revving their engines and driving perilously close to children. The same trucks seemed to follow us from town to town.

Distracted as I’d been and sandal-shod, I’d twice stepped on fire ant nests and my feet and ankles burned with a hundred bites. Our final stop was at a small evangelical church. By the time the crowd was ushered, the building overflowed. I was content to stay outside and catch my breath.

A low galvanized steel tank brimmed with water, the perfect respite for my ant bites. As my first foot was about to plunge into the pool, it occurred to me that this was probably where the church baptized the faithful and I probably ought not use it to soak my feet.

I withdrew, disappointed. The speeches inside ended soon after and as each person emerged from the sweltering sanctuary, she or he carried a box supper, provided by the congregation. They refused to let anyone come to their house and leave with an empty hand or stomach. A lady from the church who’d seen me outside came and pressed a meal into my hands and thanked me for visiting. (I hoped she hadn’t seen my visit to the baptismal pool.)

I thanked her, but what I really needed was to visit the men’s room. She directed me to the correct place inside and I visited an immaculate little room with a hooked rug on the floor and fresh flowers by the sink. The walls were lined with shelves and the shelves were lined with more toiletries than a chain drugstore. Soap, small bottles of shampoo and mouthwash, razors, deodorants, combs and brushes. It was as if someone with a cleanliness compulsion and wad of cash had gone a little over the edge.

Emerging, I found my new friend and asked what was up in the bathroom. She looked on me with eyes that were kind, but surprised someone could be so naïve.

“Some folks who worship with us don’t have much money, but they’re proud,” she said. “If we leave those things in there, they can slip them into their pockets where no one can see them. Deeds of mercy should be performed in secret.”

That was 2001. Those other calamities have since occurred and members of that congregation may have since been scattered far from home by hurricanes or war. I imagine they’ve taken the compassion of that community with them.

The snow in Vermont is deep and getting deeper by the hour. My back yard looks like a confection of spun sugar, but my thoughts are in that poor community in Louisiana, Bethlehem on the Mississippi.

If we are to survive the calamities that lie before us, the spirit that rekindles light in a time of darkness has to rely on more than a cloying clutch at our heart at the end of a television Christmas special. It’s less about elaborate buying and giving and more about sharing simple necessities. It can be found in every week of the year. It can overtake us in the strangest of places, even in the restroom.

© Mark Floegel 2007

One Comment

  1. Trish
    Posted 12/26/2007 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    I’ve probably said this before about other floegel posts but…this one is my favorite ever. Thanks, Mark.

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