Honoring the Washerwoman

Honoring the Washerwoman

Phyllis and I hosted a breakfast recently with the Building Services team on our Pasadena campus. We wanted to thank them for their work, and to find out more about their daily duties. It was an inspiring conversation, with folks who are deeply committed to the mission of the seminary.

During my many years when I devoted myself primarily to teaching and scholarship, the “support” folks—the people who fix the plumbing and clean up the messes and shelve the books and do data entry and sort the mail—these folks were for the most part invisible to me. When I moved into administration I learned many important lessons about what it really takes to keep a campus functioning properly.

Recently I went back to a book that I read a few years ago, David Newsome’s stimulating account of a unique time in 19th century academic and church life in England: The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning. Along the way, Newsome offers an account of what is for me a memorable scene at Oxford’s Oriel College. The occasion was the inauguration of a new provost. The Fellows of the College, led by the dean, John Henry Newman, and dressed in full regalia, lined up in two rows near the closed gates to the College, ready to honor their new leader. The ceremony had the provost-elect arriving and knocking on the gates to announce that he was ready to assume authority.

The moment arrived when a knock was heard. Dean Newman asked the question in Latin: “Quis adest?” an almost inaudible voice  answered, “Sir, it’s me.” The gates were then opened and the College’s washerwoman marched between the two lines of Fellows, carrying her buckets.

I hope that washerwoman held her head high as she passed through the ranks. And I hope the Fellows of Oriel applauded as she marched. Every academic community should see to it that folks like her receive the honor that is due to them.


  1. I have a whole stack of past articles of stories, etc, from Christianity Today Magazine. One article tells the story of the president of a Bible college or seminary in which every year, during the summer months, after the students were gone, he would slip out from behind his presidental desk and cut the grass and shrubs and tend to the school grounds. Never a story has had such an impact on me in terms of humility, connecting with the guy on the street and staying grounded.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — July 21, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  2. Three cheers for Randy and his team! What a nice gesture for you and Phyllis to do for the Building Service team, they are such hard-working folks. When I was part of your team I remember them as always working with smiles on their faces, no matter how difficult or stressful the job was.

    Comment by Janice Ryder — July 21, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

  3. As the pastor of the same smallish church in a small town in economically challenged rural Michigan, I have always considered “facilities management” (sexton/janitorial tasks) to be part of my work for the church. I would guess that most pastors have this work in their unwritten job description. A plunger in one hand and a Greek New Testament in the other? The combination has been good for my soul, especially on days when I catch myself grouse about the plunger!

    Comment by John Becker — July 22, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  4. This reminds me of when I attended Princeton Seminary many years ago. The staff person who had one of the greatest influences on me (and many others) was not a professor, but the custodian of our dorm. His name was Al, and he taught us much by his genuine Christian living. He was a generous, humble man who genuinely loved others and who readily would offer encouragement to us ego-inflated, faith crisis prone seminarians.

    Comment by Will Jackson — July 22, 2008 @ 11:55 am