Shall we gather at the river?
A few weeks ago I wrote a feature article about a group from a church in Willow Springs who had made the long trip into Central America to assist in the building of a church. After a five-hour plane trip and a four-hour drive, the group was required to continue their odyssey on foot via a trail that went deep into the jungle. Three hours later they finally reached their destination, a remote Panamanian village.
The villagers who eagerly greeted the missionaries proved to be more of a blessing than anyone could have possibly imagined. In my experience, this is always the case. At some point during their time together, the women of the village asked to do the missionaries' laundry. The following is a paraphrased excerpt taken from the piece I wrote.
Just before the last hill into the village the team stopped at a river to cool off. It is the same river the villagers used to scrub their clothes as well as the clothes of the team.
"When the villagers asked us for our laundry, we were a bit concerned, but it was explained to us by a local pastor that to refuse would be an insult and that we should give them all of our laundry. Someone asked, 'do you mean all of it, underwear, too?' and I told him, yes, underwear, too."
It was after the paper was on the newsstands that someone asked me, "Do you mean that the missionaries had to stand by the river naked while the ladies did their laundry?"
I grabbed a paper and reread the article. "Gracious," I thought as it became apparent that if read in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, my wording could indeed suggest such a situation. Then for some reason, I recalled the humorous words of the late southern writer Lewis Grizzard who differentiated between the two pronunciations of the term naked by explaining the "nayked" version as meaning you don't have any clothes on, and the "nehkid" version as meaning you don't have any clothes on and you're up to something. (I have actually heard this used by a Presbyterian minister during a Genesis sermon.)
At prayer meeting that week, our pastor, asked me to read the article to those gathered in the sanctuary, several of whom had made the trip to Panama. I obliged, but only after explaining the problem with my poor choice of wording. As soon as everyone finally quit laughing, I began reading. Most of the men, but especially the women listening agreed that the terms laundry and clothes, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, generally refer to two different things. We agreed that the context in which the term laundry was used in the article was meant to refer to the dirty clothes that needed to be washed, not to the clothes that were actually being worn at that point in time. I have to agree since I have never once said to my children, "Would you please put on some laundry." Nevertheless, if I had to do it over again, I would have been more careful with the wording -- even though the article, as written, could very well generate a good bit of interest in next year's trip.
One of the team members summed it up beautifully when she said, "It was so humbling to see these people work so hard to take care of us. We had come here to bless them, but we were receiving a double blessing. One morning I looked outside and there was the pastor hanging up our laundry for us. I was reminded of the scripture about Jesus washing his disciples' feet."
Truer words were never spoken, but regardless, I don't believe I will ever again be able to listen to, let alone sing, the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River" with a straight face.