To raise money for my church’s youth group, I participated in my first car wash at Grace Covenant this summer. We attend the first service, so my son and I were some of the first ones there at 8:30. I was mentally prepared to be there all morning and to help with the clean up. From arriving at 8:30 to being home between 12:30 and 1:00, I was ready for a marathon. It was not long before I was seeing the simile between washing cars and washing feet. Is there anything more intimate than our car that we could wash for each other?
Volunteers cleaning cars is going to be a chaotic process. And being a process improvement kind of person, this caused some discomfort for me. But I tried to just let it be. Some people were having fun. Most everyone was trying to do a good job. First rinse, then scrub, then second rinse, which revealed some spots that were missed. Another wash and a third rinse. Repeat as necessary.
I dedicated myself to cleaning the bugs off the front of cars and the side view mirrors. I thought of them as road kill, and saw that “It’s a long road to be forgiven” (a line from Chickenman by the Indigo Girls about road kill and redemption) not only applies to dogs, deer, and people but also to insects. As I scrubbed off bug guts, I realized that I couldn’t bring them back to life, but I could get the car back to a somewhat clean condition – except for the paint chips, stains, and rust. Just driving it would kill more bugs, requiring another wash. Like Jesus said, you do not need to wash your whole body all the time. Just get the bugs off every once in a while.
For our work, we raised about $500 for the youth group. Like Caballo Blanco (in Born to Run), we did stuff for rich people who would pay us. And I thought, instead of washing their cars, I would love to plan their runs.
Someone brought their dog. At first, I thought it was a stray because it had no collar, and I thought we were doing something at once generous, stupid, and dangerous. But soon my concerns were answered: “It’s Julie’s dog.” Someone thought the dog wanted a drink, and I thought of how wasteful we were being. All morning long, drinkable water was being spilled all over the parking lot so we could clean a few cars. I said, “We have clean water here. It comes out of a hose!” And I thought of people who had to hike for water that might be just barely potable. And that water wouldn’t even be close to drinkable by American (or Johnson County Kansas) standards.
Our Education Coordinator brought her SUV, and she had a special request. When she visits her dad, she drives in the country, and the fine grit from the dirt roads gets into the back window gasket, which was fecund with ripples and crevices. A friend and I took on this delicate task. We popped open the back window and realized what we were up against. On my first swipe, although I was being careful, a rivulet of muddy, soapy water snaked its way out of the window gasket, over the window sill, and into the SUV. “Yuck! Sorry! I’ll be more careful!” The creases in the window gasket reminded me of my own toes, which I had recently pulled apart, peered between, and realized that the talcum powder I had been sprinkling on them had formed a sticky paste there. Now I’ve begun flossing my toes after my showers, adding to my already elaborate cleansing and maintenance rituals. This was no longer a simile. This was washing feet.
As the day drew on, people peeled away, and there were exchanges like, “I gotta go!” “Good-bye!” “Thank you for your help.” I stayed and remembered that I had promised to move the car of an elderly couple into the handicapped spots near the entrance. I was sympathetic because I helped my own grandparents for a long time in their fading years. I spent many Sundays chauffeuring them to church and restaurants, and helping them into and out of the car. The couple had gotten out of their car after parking it for washing, and then carefully made a longer than usual journey to the sanctuary over hoses, towels, sponges, and buckets via the side door under my watchful and anxious eye. I found the keys, started the boat – I mean car – and staked out the sanctuary doors. People poured out, and then the flow slowed to a drip. Still no elderly couple. Finally, I decided to drive up and park in the handicapped spot, and that’s when they emerged. They thanked me profusely, asked me the most questions about the car wash of anyone, and said, “We love our youth.” And “It’s such a great program.”
For the car wash, I decided to be the grease (the fat of the land and the person who makes things happen) without expecting any thanks or praise. I tried to be like Jesus, who humbled God’s-self and found God’s-self in the body of a person in 1st century Palestine under the authority of the Roman Empire. God was born of a young, single, rural mother. God was dirty, unclean, and marginalized. God was not welcome in the synagogue. And I was born on the cusp of the 21st century, and I ride the crest of the United States’ hegemony, and I have been called to figure out what Jesus would do in this time and place. And I realized he would do more than wash cars.
But when I was washing cars, I did not accept “That’s good enough. That’s not coming off,” until I had scrubbed hard. I spent a lot of time on my own car. I cleaned off the chipped Obama 2012 bumper sticker and left only the gleaming backing on the white of my Corolla’s trunk. It looks better, but it’s still a long road to be forgiven.