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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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'Washing clothes?'

Learning the meaning of vocation in Haiti

Some days I’m asked “Washing clothes?” 15 times in a row by different people as they pass by, even though the answer is clear—I’m sitting out in the yard for several hours with my hands in a washbasin filled with suds and dirty laundry. Yet this is the custom in the Haitian village where I live.

Kent Annan, author Shelly Satran’s husband, and Berlin Auguste look up from doing the laundry as they hear a passer-by call out a traditional Haitian greeting: “Hello, how are you? Washing clothes?” The Auguste family hosted the couple when they arrived in Haiti.
Greeting someone doesn’t just include a “Hi” or a “Hi, how are you?” It involves both showing that you see a person as you pass and acknowledging what they are doing in the form of a question—“Hello, how are you? Washing clothes?” or “Working in the garden?” or “Sweeping the porch?” or “Cooking dinner?”

Since it’s never really a question that needs answering, the reply is always affirmative: “That’s right” or “Yep.” But in the exchange the greeter has positively named whatever it is that the greeted is doing.

In response the greeted might return with something like, “Going to the market?” if she sees the woman is carrying an empty basket. Or “Off to the field?” if she sees the man has a hoe slung over his shoulder.

The answer is once again “Yep” or “That’s right.” These brief habitual exchanges involve seeing and affirming whatever happens to be your neighbor’s task at hand.

As a newcomer to Haitian culture and the Creole language, this custom was an initial boon to my education. All I had to do was start an activity for which I didn’t know the Creole name and soon enough someone would come by and name it for me. “Wap kale pwa?” (You shucking beans?) If I didn’t catch the phrase the first time, I could count on three or four more people coming by in the next few minutes with the same question. “Wap kale pwa?” I learned the Creole phrases for most daily activities like this.

Now that I no longer need this greeting custom to help build my Creole vocabulary, I’m still thankful for it. I also haven’t tired of it, even when the 15th person comes by and asks, “Washing clothes?” And I’ve never seen anyone else appear tired of this custom either. Think of how many thousands of times the Haitian grandmother I’m living with has answered that question in her life. Yet I haven’t heard her irritatingly respond, “What else do you think I’m doing here with suds up to my elbows, building an ark?”

The response is always positive and appreciative.

Observing this custom has led me to wonder about its significance. In a place like Haiti where life is grindingly poor, brutally wearing and where unemployment is endemic, I wonder if this is a way for people to uplift the value of each other’s lives.

I’m reminded of the way Martin Luther talked about vocation. He wrote that the maidservant on her knees scrubbing the floor was as pleasing to God as the priest on his knees saying a mass. Luther wasn’t saying God wants everybody to be scrubbing floors or that those who scrub floors without a choice should be content with their lot. Rather, he seems to be saying that whatever your state in life, whatever your task—be it one that finds you scrubbing floors or washing clothes by hand—to God you are as precious and worthy as the most highly esteemed person on Earth.

It helps me understand that vocation isn’t so much about finding the most satisfying position or job that leads to the greatest fulfillment (although it may include that) but about knowing that in our daily work, God is smiling down on us, pleased with us simply because we are God’s.

Certainly God wishes that many were paid better wages and were part of a more just economic system. Certainly we can suppose God is angry at how some must suffer through as they try to earn just enough to eat. But still, amid the hard work and struggle for survival, wherever you happen to be and whatever your work, each day God sees us and loves us simply because we are God’s.

It’s like God says each day: “Hello, my child. How are you? Washing clothes today, I see.” And we, assured each day that our Creator sees us, knows us and loves us, need no other affirmation.


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