Frustrated and feeling just a smidgen of despair I approached my bride with the bad news. "The washer's broke". "What's wrong with it?", she asked. "The stator assembly mounting to the rotor harness is bad", I quoted from the online tutorial. Neither of us knew what this meant. What we did know was that we had a non-functional washer and the domestic handyman couldn't fix it.
This would be bad news on any day but on a laundry day after unpacking with mountains of clothing that comprised the majority of our garments and being the major task item on our to-do-list for the day, this was unwelcome news of the highest order. We both realized evening plans of an outdoor concert and fellowship with friends had just melted away before our eyes. Our afternoon and evening, instead, would be comprised of an encounter with an old nemesis - the laundry mat.
I've never liked the laundry mat. Early in our marriage before we could afford a washer and dryer the laundry mat was a weekly excursion to be endured. The only thing bearable about it then was being with my young spouse and playing cards, eating Chinese food, etc. In latter years, we visited seldom, for the same reasons we were doing so this day - equipment malfunction. People generally seem unhappy at the laundry mat. Concerns seem to weigh every person down as they are intently focused on a territorial game of Risk where the prize is to score adjacent rows of washers or dryers, or a prized area to fold clothing, a comfortable chair, or even a wheeled cart to empty their machine. Dark gazes frequent the laundry mat and I find looking people in the eye usually yields a suspicious and quickly averted gaze.
Enter children. Always an interesting variable as nothing tests a child's resolve for good behavior than waiting for hours in a hot room with nothing to do. Thankfully we had an iPad for movies (oh to have had those when I was a child), Barbie dolls, and coloring books and prayed this would occupy. We loaded the van to capacity with our baskets of clothing and set off.
Upon arriving we were fortunate to quickly find the machines we needed. As we carried our clothes in I immediately took note of a man standing over the free coffee pot watching us. Some people occasionally glanced up at the commotion of a family of five making multiple trips but this man gazed intently. My bride found a corner with some seating for the children and got them settled as I helped her load machines. It quickly became evident to me that there was something different about the man eyeing us. He was about 15 feet from my children's seating area so I kept glancing back at them to make sure they were seated, behaving, and were safe.
For children, one of the few fascinating things about a laundry mat is the number of slots in which you can place coins. Machines everywhere will take your bills and convert them to coins. Some will even convert larger denominations of coins to smaller ones. Our daughter found this irresistible and kept getting up to ask us to help plug the machines. After about four times of this I finally had to walk her back to her seat.
"IT'S GOOD FOR KIDS TO OBEY!" came a voice behind me. I turned to face the man who had been eyeing us earlier. "I CAN'T STOP AGING. I'M 62. IT'S GOOD FOR YOUR KIDS TO OBEY. YOU'RE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT!"
I thanked the man. As he spoke I noted spit would dribble down his stubbled chin onto his shirt. He had an intense stare in his steel blue eyes but upon looking at him I could see less a threat and more a desire for interaction. My bride came and sat next the kids and began to speak with him and for the next half an hour we conversed on everything from the mowing of lawns, which churches we attended, and repeatedly, the topic of aging. Finally he introduced himself as "Joseph" and left us to cross the room to fold clothes.
Our own machines were finishing and as my bride and I went to empty them, we left the children playing on the iPad. This drew the attention of a couple of other girls who soon had it in their hands. I was a bit wary of this so I worked my way over and suggested they select a movie to watch. One of the first selections was one that our littles are not permitted to see so I offered a different title and our eldest oversaw the equitable "voting" on which title was selected.
Within minutes a woman came up to us and began to apologize for her daughters. She was concerned they had behaved poorly in trying to get our children to watch inappropriate material. She was eloquent and sincerely troubled that we would be bothered by the intrusion. She wanted to make sure her daughters were not a bad influence on our children and apologized if they were creating any problems. We were taken aback. We thanked her and assured her otherwise and were amazed at her gracefulness and candor. My bride shared how grateful we were that they were here and how well behaved her daughters were. She immediately beamed with pride. My bride encouraged her to please let her daughters continue to watch with our children as they were enjoying their time together. The woman's entire demeanor seemed to shift as she returned to her task at hand.
Shortly after the dryers began to finish and we had the serious task of folding ahead of us. This was probably why there were so many stern faces because this was the work of the event. My bride is a pro and she flew through the loads. I clumsily attempted to keep pace as we sprawled our items across two tables and had multiple bins arranged in between. We attempted to stay out of the way as much as possible but this is an impossibility in a laundry mat on a Saturday. One woman squeezed past us to get to a dryer and we apologized. At first she only smiled slightly but as she had to squeeze past again, and we apologized again, and then she had to squeeze past to get to the soap dispensers, and we apologized again - it became apparent we were going be performing this dance for the long haul.
"At least you got you some good help! Mine's off fishing." Her face began to lighten. "You hold on to that one!" she said to my bride with a crooked smile.
We were both amused. In the dialogue that followed we learned that this young thin woman was actually getting married in only a week, was mother to five adult children, and was hurrying to get all of her laundry done so she could entertain house guests for the week ahead. Wedding details were discussed and she beamed with pride as she relayed information about her children and her family.
"I'm hidin' the towels or my own kids'll come over and use'em all up before my relatives arrive. Make'm do their own laundry - that's what I say!" We were growing to like this woman immensely with her infectious smile. It was evident that though we knew very little of her, she had walked a life with difficulties and prevailed a bit rough and toughened for it, but honest - speaking her mind into every situation.
As we finished folding our items, putting the last of them into our baskets and collecting our items. We said goodbye to our new acquaintance and congratulated her. But before we could get out of the door, "Joseph" approached again. "I NEED TO KNOW, DO YOU KNOW JESUS?" We expressed that we certainly did which brought a look of relief to his face. He told us again that he would be mowing tomorrow and said goodbye.
We left that place filled with an enjoyment and thankfulness for the hours we had just spent. In a circumstance that should have brought despair, drudgery and aggravation we had somehow been able to delight in people. For me, the key was following my bride's lead as she simply showed grace and love to those either not looking for or not expecting either.
A man with spit running down his chin that most everyone in the building was attempting to avoid, became our friend Joseph - who in the end, came back to make sure we knew Jesus before he left.
A woman, concerned for the behavior of her children, able to relax for a period of time and take pride that she was raising them to behave properly and to let them enjoy themselves.
Another woman, able to share her joys and offer her wisdom to strangers without judgement or repercussion, without criticism and able to break from life long enough to share family and laugh.
These are the people God brings into our path daily when we are willing to walk out his love and grace towards others regardless the circumstances circulating our lives. I have no doubt each meeting that day was a divine appointment, for reasons I cannot guess - possibly if nothing else than to teach that when we are open to walking in our Savior's footsteps, when we are willing to serve as he served, lay our selves down as he did, and love as he loved, - when we are willing to extend grace to the one with grim face or furrowed brow instead of mirroring a similar countenance, it is then that we discover we are surrounded by opportunities to be Christ to a desperate world.
And these opportunities are the hidden gems worth searching for.