I met the first toilet bowl ministers I had ever known in May of 2001. My dear friend and I had driven up, eventfully, from Orlando.
On the way we had been rear-ended by a kind enough fellow who had the severe disadvantage of not being able to notice things around him (such as stopped cars) while chatting on his cell phone in a car that was neither insured nor his. He was arrested, because he lied to an officer who indicated his displeasure at his deceit. Oh, and for seven other reasons.
It was evening when our long journey terminated on Lookout Mountain. We had come to secure housing for my family and me when we were to move here the following month. We were to stay with a kindly couple whom I had never met.
They lived in a quaint little house nestled in between the bustling Scenic Highway and a stunning brow overlook.
The folks that opened the door had not been living in suburban Orlando. They were not tan. They did not have any hair styling products in their hair. There were no designer clothes.
They wore warmth and an elegant simplicity complemented by a tremendous welcoming kind of love.
The man's name was Charlie.
He wore a beard the way men should wear a beard. Unruly, large, un-sculpted. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail. His wife, Deb, was a beautiful woman with a long, I'm guessing homemade, skirt that kissed the floor as she walked.
A Near Fight At First
Not long into our introduction we had a disagreement.
These folks were unorthodox and disarming in their insistence that we sleep in their bed, because it was bigger. We almost had a fight. My mama had taught me better than that. But their kindness almost could not be refused. I got a hint that night of the mettle of these who would later become my precious friends. They did not know how to hang onto their possessions as if their possessions were only theirs.
There was a largeness of heart and generosity of spirit that characterized them which made them unable to do anything but offer their bed, their truck, their kitchen, their time, their ear, their tears, their service or their hearts.
“Toilet bowl ministers.”
That's how they described their job to me at the newly toddling church I had just been called to pastor. Their’s wasn't a paid job. It might just have been the job no one else wanted. I didn't ask. They just said they were the toilet bowl ministers. Latrine duty was theirs by request not by conscription. But not only latrine duty. They mopped and swept, fussed over and readied the otherwise shabby, but beloved little cinder block building in West Brow which was our first borrowed home as a congregation.
Sure their lives had been dented in ways in the past, banged up like the bullet-pocked, red door leading into our worship space at the community center, and they had endured their fair share of injury to heart and soul. But this produced in them a certain agility, compassion, and ease with other people who had been "broken down on the wheels of living.” And it was always instructive to me.
A Help to A Scared Pastor
Once I began my duties as scared pastor of this lovely one-anothering community which aspired to embody Jesus in simple, tangible ways throughout our community, I realized that our toilet bowl ministers not only shared their service in unheralded ways but also were eager to open up their home which was in walking distance from our gathering place.
So our first Sunday school class (“The BrowMinster Class”) met in Charlie and Deb's living room with natural cooling in the summer and a wood-burning stove to warm the chill in the winter. Their home was open for use. It became the place where desperate, expectant prayer might happen or a Sunday school class or even worse, (or better!), a foot washing service.
On those worn floors in that simple home, for several years each Holy week we re-enacted Jesus' own toilet bowl ministry. We removed shoes and socks. We took towels and basin. We took one another's feet-- grubby as they were, and normally unseen and calloused, and washed them and rehearsed our Master's mandate to one another with a repetition that got burrowed into our souls:
"A new command I give to you, love one another. As I have loved you, so should you love one another."
As months elapsed these two folks became more and more precious to me. And I learned, because they had chosen to live a less frantic, less acquisitive, and more-open-to-people-life, than most folks I knew, that these were the people who were willing, able, eager AND available to help when help was needed, so they got disproportionately called upon by me, and by others.
But they were toilet bowl ministers, and service was their calling. Doing unseen things to benefit others was their joy. I was stunned.
At one point they decided they would participate in a six-month jaunt of voluntary homelessness. At least that is what I called it. They called it a through-hike on the storied Appalachian Trail beginning in the North Georgia mountains in February’s gray chill and ending up, haggard and exhilarated some 2500 miles and four pairs of shoes later at Katahdin, Maine’s lush green in August.
The toilet bowl ministers didn't purchase their gear from Rock Creek Outfitters. I'm not sure that any of their warm clothes for bitter cold or maddening wet were produced by Patagonia. They made them. They improvised. They moved simple.
It was these toilet bowl ministers who opened up my inquisitiveness into the virtue of and calling for Christians to be involved in creation care. Before I met them, most environmentalists seemed like self-righteous, sophisticated idolaters who knew not their Creator but lusted after and adored his creation. But Charlie and Deb taught me gently and humbly, as deep God-adorers, that land and people and creation and Creator are all inextricably linked in a web of beautiful and intended inter-dependence. I began to see that this indeed was the biblical view of things.
Our toilet bowl ministers, because of their manner and mode of being as carriers of our servant-Master Jesus were our leadership’s natural choice when the idea of a caretaker for the new property we would inhabit as a body came upon us.
"Let's get the Charlie and Deb,” someone blurted.
There was no discussion. It was an easy choice. We asked them if they'd like to move with us. Happily, they said, "Yes."
For the better part of nearly 8 years those toilet bowl ministers used their artistry, hospitality, elbow grease, and affection to help make our worship space a true worship home. The plain, flat, front yard became a prayer garden landscaped luxuriantly with native plants. An organic garden emerged to benefit our entire worshiping community. Stray animals flocked for they knew they would receive care. The place became a dwelling where living things, whether plants, animals, or image- bearers could flourish and thrive.
Food That’d Draw an Atheist to a Prayer Meeting
Our most heavily attended Summer, Supper and Prayer gathering was the summer we hired Deb to be responsible for the Wednesday night cuisine. People who’d never prayed a day in their life were banging down the doors. Deb's food could make an atheist eager to join a prayer meeting!
Meals were prepared, communion bread was baked, worship services were readied for. Rock 'n roll parties we hosted for the nearby college were endured until the wee hours. Frantic Sunday mornings, they were on standby: "Do you need my help with anything?"---This was Charlie’s mantra to me and, Deb would ask too. Baking classes, bulletin covers, prayer, visiting, hosting--- a rainbow of service wonders we received, even in many ways unseen, from our beloved toilet bowl ministers.
When we behold a banner festooned on our walls reminding us of Jesus' promise "I am with you always,” we’re looking at the work of a toilet bowl minister, in whom Jesus lives. Whether assistance with the sound system or checking on a shut-in, they could be counted on. But most their work was unrealized. One just got to experience the effect of their service.
So much of the warmth of our space was made possible by the hands of these toilet bowl ministers who spent themselves so well for so long.
In classes at our church, when I’ve talked about leadership or membership, I've often employed the moniker "toilet bowl minister." It encapsulates so much of the guts of Christ-following and church-being for me. One man once said, "All sorts of Christians want to be called servants, but nobody wants to be treated like one."
My toilet bowl minister friends exemplified, vivid, beautiful, yet often obscure, service without any apparent concern to be noticed or heralded.
When they left to be a bit more nomadic and hit the AT again, I knew they’d soon assume the role of "trail angels", a more elegant way of speaking about toilet bowl ministers---those who leave surprise and needful gifts of “trail magic” for the benefit of other weary travelers along the way, but never get or take an ounce of credit.
I’ve been the astonished recipient of that trail magic. And thought such wonders ought to be acknowledged.
So if you’d ever like to learn more about generosity, or prayer, or worship, or love, or hospitality, or service of any sort, come talk to me. And I'll tell you about a couple of toilet bowl ministers that Jesus once let me come to adore.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com