Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
“And what is the day of Mr. Milton’s coronation?”
Since much of the time I am my own janitor, I often think appreciatively and with a certain wistfulness of two church custodians with whom I was well acquainted, Cottrell Williams and Walter Markiewich. These two could not have been more different, yet each played a pivotal role in the churches they served. I am afraid they were not always appreciated or given the respect they deserved. Today I will write about Cottrell and save Walter for another day.
Cottrell was gray-haired and stoop shouldered. He had served my home church in Cleveland, for as long as I could remember. To me as a young adult, he honestly seemed older than God. But because I was a lowly seminarian who hung around the church, experimenting with the thought of becoming a minister, this kind-hearted, elderly gentleman took a special interest in me, encouraging my interests and warning me along the way.
Cottrell was famous for his malapropisms, many of which nonetheless expressed remarkable insight and truth. I blush now when I think of all the pomp and circumstance that surrounded my ordination to the ministry. There were music and flowers and all the pageantry and social entertaining that one would normally associate with a wedding. All that was needed was a bride to come down the aisle.
Cottrell doubtless took this all in, and as one of the few who could say something and get away with it, and so asked my father, “What is the day of Mr. Milton’s coronation?” The message (which Daddy passed on gleefully) was not lost on me, and having pondered Cottrell’s shrewd observation, I entered upon my vows with a much-greater sense of humility and awe.
Let me say at the outset that I do not think manual labor or the work of cleaning and polishing is demeaning. I am happy to do it when the occasion arises. But I do know that our culture, even in the church, often pays honor to those who do such work in patronizing ways. So such persons sometimes have to stick up for themselves, and this makes for interesting and varied situations.
Case in point. Cottrell was usually a light-hearted spirit — on the premises before anyone else and there until after everyone had gone. Always he had a cheerful wave and a bit of homespun wisdom to share. But one day, I sensed that things were different. For he announced to me, “I’m mad at the whole church!”
It did not take long to discover why this was because I soon learned that some of the church ladies had decided to clean out Cottrell’s closet. Besides the usual mops, brooms, and vacuum cleaners, the closet was full to the top with all sorts of bottles, jugs, and jars, balls of string, scraps of carpet, plastic cups and eating utensils — all the variety of things that any person who lived through the Great Depression instinctively saves in abundance. They had waited until his day off and had thrown this “junk” away, “organizing” what they deigned should be kept, and now the janitorial closet was clean as a whistle, a wonder to behold.
Cottrell nursed his wounds for several days, keeping to himself and doing his work without comment or complaint. Black men of his era, I think, understood that keeping mum was often the price of survival.
But having carefully bided his time, one morning when a group of church folks had gathered to drink coffee in the kitchen, Cottrell was able to exact his pound of flesh. He happened to be there also, with his back to us at the sink, washing dishes. One of the church ladies exclaimed that she was so busy that she did not know how she’d get through the week.
Without turning to face the group, but in a stage whisper loud enough for God to hear, Cottrell sighed and remarked, “Folks that are always taking care of other people’s business seldom have time to see to their own!”
The silence that followed was deafening, and the group quickly dispersed, each of us thinking of some other duty that summoned our presence. For all the piercing sermons that came from our pulpit, this one, “preached” by the church’s humblest person, spoke volumes more. It was only one sentence, but I shall remember the lesson for ever.
People on the lower end of the pecking order may have a remarkable perspective on events that surround them. Margaret Mitchell knew this when, in “Gone with the Wind,” she had Rhett Butler say that Mammy’s good opinion was one of the few that he really desired to have.
I miss Cottrell, and his memory is a reminder that there is a lot to be learned from those who occupy humble stations in life. For there is a wisdom and sense of fair play that perhaps only those who do not have positions of privilege and power can discern. Cottrell’s invariable greeting was not “Hello” or “How are you?” but “All right.” I am sure that if I could meet him again, this would be what he would say. Perhaps he understood God better, but I think his greeting expressed a confidence that was both remarkable and wise.
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