As Basic as a Clean Rest Room

In England, they call them Water Closets or “WCs” for short. When a group from our church visited the London and Kent area some years ago, a man in a Sunday School class leaned over to me and asked about our deacon W. C. Thomas, who had just been introduced, “Why in the world would his parents give him such a name?” I explained his name was William Cledith, and that in America “W.C.” had no connotation about rest rooms–or anything else, for that matter.

People are funny about rest rooms.

You don’t hear “little moron” jokes any more, but one I recall from childhood went like this. “Why did it take the little moron four hours to travel fifty miles on the highway?” Answer: “Because he kept seeing signs that said ‘clean rest rooms’ and he must have cleaned a hundred that day!”

Here’s a question for you: in what public buildings in every town in America would you expect to find the dirtiest, smelliest rest rooms? Most people would probably answer: in the schools. The institution where we send our children to spend eight or more hours every day. The institution charged with molding these young lives and preparing them for the future. Dirty, stinky toilets.

Yesterday, Friday, a group of New Orleans high school students who have formed an organization they call “Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools,” held a news conference to talk about some of the more basic problems facing our city’s public schools.

Dudley Grady, age 16 and a rising senior at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, told the assembly that during the Katrina evacuation he attended school in Shreveport and got the surprise of his life. The rest rooms were beautiful. He wondered, “Why are their bathrooms so clean and ours are so not?”

The student organization surveyed 500 kids who attend local schools, asking for their complaints. They found that the most common gripes were dirty rest rooms and nonworking cafeterias.

“Food and bathrooms,” said Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to helping urban schools. “When we survey kids, it’s what we hear over and over again.”

Many restrooms in New Orleans have no toilet paper. “Nary a scrap,” said teenager and Rethink member Courtney French. “We believe that toilet paper should be like water, free to all public school students.”

The report named the offending schools and faulted various ones for “stench, no supplies, sticky floors, clogged toilets, dry faucets, dim light, and broken stall doors.”

Dr. Paul Vallas, the new superintendent of the Recovery School District, welcomed the report. He called the students assessments “very fair, very objective, very honest, and very direct.” He added, “There’s not a single proposal I disagree with.”

Vallas is promising these students that this year they will get hot lunches and up-to-code buildings and restrooms, all of them adequately supplied.

Many who read this will agree it’s not just a New Orleans problem. I grew up in the heartland of America, attending six years of classes in the same building, in what many would agree is some of the prettiest country in the USA, Winston County, Alabama. And yet, I recall those restrooms and the courage required to visit them. Enough said.

I’m on a couple of personal quests that relate to all this.

Whenever I go into a convenience store restroom and find it clean, as though someone takes pride in it, I make it a point to say so to the employees. When I’m visiting a church and find the restrooms unusually clean and well-cared for, I tell someone. This is hard work, usually thankless, and it should not go unnoticed.

Alas, I do not tell the church when their restrooms are dirty. Maybe I should. It’s difficult to do.

In the late 1970s while serving as a trustee of Southern Baptists’ Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, one day I noticed in the men’s restroom at the headquarters’ building that someone had put a small piece of masking tape on the mirror. They had carefully lettered this message: “Before discarding your paper towel, use it to wipe around the sink.”

So simple, and such a good idea.

Ever since, like the (other) little moron, I’ve gone through the country cleaning restrooms.

Last year, when the World War II Museum on Magazine Street held its great conference with leaders and visitors from all over the world, I served as a volunteer. Most days, they seemed not quite able to figure out where to send me. “Stand here and give directions to anyone who looks lost,” was about the gist of it. Afterward, when the volunteers were being debriefed, I wrote in a note to Walt Burgoyne, our leader, “The next time you hold such a conference, assign me to take care of the men’s restrooms. I’ll make sure they are amply supplied and mop up water and wipe down the sinks.” I assured him I could find a woman volunteer to take care of the ladies’ facilities in the same way.

I expect that was a new thought to Walt and the museum leaders. Like the rest of us, they probably take the “facilities” for granted. If so, it’s a big mistake.

The last church I pastored, the First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the New Orleans airport, as soon as we paid off the staggering debt on the sanctuary, we addressed the restroom situation. On opposite sides of the worship center were two tiny restrooms, four in all. Now, being a man and fairly realistic about these things, I know that men do not require a great deal from a restroom under normal circumstances. But with women, that’s another matter.

Women need more space. They need more stalls and more privacy. They would like it to look attractive. Sometimes they need a couch to lie down.

On the front side of the worship center, on the other side of the partition from the women’s restroom was a small classroom where the deacons met prior to the service. Beyond that was something called a pastor’s study, actually only a secluded room for the minister to retreat to prior to the service.

We decided all that space would be better devoted to the women’s restrooms. So, we knocked out partitions and enlarged the facilities, put an entrance way in the front, and asked the women to advise on making it more attractive.

I’d like to report that as a result of the larger and nicer rest area for the ladies that more people joined the church and they voted the pastor a substantial raise. Nope, didn’t happen. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to take care of people’s needs, to make coming to church an easier and more pleasant experience.

Every person reading this knows what it’s like to sit in church when you don’t feel well, yet dare not visit the restrooms because they’re not very pleasant, not clean, or not amply supplied. You decide to try to tough it out until you get home. Good luck about hearing anything the preacher said–or the Lord says!–that day.

I dare you to walk through your church next Sunday visiting the rest rooms. Check the waste baskets to see if they are being emptied. See if water is standing on the sink and threatens to dampen the clothing of anyone who leans over. Check to see if everything works. Are the floors clean?

If the report is good, find the person responsible and thank him or her. Then call it to the attention of that person’s supervisor.

If the report is not good, follow the example of 16-year-old Dudley Grady and take it upon yourself to do something about it.

The church that spends great time and a lot of money to make its outside appearance lovely–with mowed lawns and beautiful flowers and freshly painted buildings–yet neglects the innermost rooms not visible to the outside world probably earns for itself one of the most pointed terms in the Christian lexicon: hypocrite.

By the way, when you finish with your church, you might want to check out your school, too.

3 thoughts on “As Basic as a Clean Rest Room

  1. Brother Joe – as one of the many folks who had the privilege making temporary home literally “all over” the FBC Kenner complex when the Disaster Relief feeding unit set up shop there, allow me to add my compliments to the folks there on the beautiful, functional and comfortable campus they have built. It was a blessing beyond comparison to have such clean and comfortable facilities to be able to rest and refresh in between our work days. I remember thinking about the women’s restroom what a wonderful idea to have a room attached to the restroom but away from the facilities for nursing mothers too! Someone put a lot of thought and careful planning into those rooms. As is often said – God is in the details and restrooms are a critical and too often overlooked detail!

  2. Great Thought and reminder –

    Ask my staff – Clean restrooms and Good food – I’m OCD about it.

    Everything else we can deal with one at a time.

    Thanks for all you words of wisdom

    Camp Living Waters

  3. when we moved to the suburbs and built the new church, we were on septic tanks. The setup was that the septic tanks flowed into a 1,000 gallon water tank that had to be pumped up to the heading of the drain lines. Every three years or so, the pump burned out and had to be pulled from the water but it had to be dis-connected first. Since I was the smallest of the men, it was my job to go down into the tank and do the dirty work. Someone raised the question…’You as Pastor do that kind of job?’ I replied that someone had to do it and I was no better than any of the rest. I looked on it as serving God and never regretted a trip I took down into the pit.

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