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Susan Elzey
Wednesday, February 23 2011

Cleaning the Church, a Surprising Experience

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Cleaning the church building is not usually thought of as a pathway of spiritual enlightenment, but this past December the task surprisingly proved to be one for me.

I live in a somewhat smallish southern Virginia ward that always seems to fall short of the attendance required to gain us a full-size gym and a kitchen large enough for the number of sisters and crockpots needed for a church dinner.

I had been teamed with a single adult member and a couple to clean the church two weeks in a row in the busy month of December. December? Isn’t that the month that there is no extra time?

So one night before the advent of grown kids, grandkids and a grand-dog and grand-cats started to my house, my sister and I stood in front of the cart of cleaning supplies. The couple couldn’t come.

I grabbed the gloves, the cleaners for the rooms, the cleaners for the bathrooms, and the cleaner for the chalkboards.

Well, the first cleaner for the chalkboard, which I discovered after the first five chalkboards was the wrong cleaner. Until this publication, no one has noticed or tracked me down.

And let me qualify this from the almost-beginning. All spiritual feelings I experienced that night stop at the door to the men’s bathroom. Need I say more? The high priests group leader happened to show up after the job was done and got a thorough lecture from me on bathroom cleanliness. I asked him to pass it on the next Sunday during priesthood meeting.

Moving Quickly On

Moving past that task as quickly as possible, I went to the Primary room where for years before the second stage and chapel of our building was added in 1992, we met for sacrament meeting. The memories flooded back as I moved chairs and vacuumed the floors.

It was there certainly the Most Egregious Disruption of Sacrament Meeting ever occurred, my oldest son being the Most Egregious Disruptor.

At that time, we had a linoleum floor and sat on metal chairs that all connected together with little, well, connectors on the side. My son, maybe five or six at the time, dropped something on the floor and proceeded to go in after it. He stuck his head sideways through the front bars of the chair and then in a what-was-he-thinking-of-moment turned his head up and tried to pull it out.

It didn’t work, he started to scream, and the harder he tried to pull his head out, the more the chairs on either side of his empty one began to clank. Then a well-meaning brother a few seats down decided to help, leaned over, and began pulling my son’s legs to get his head out of the chair.

I leaned over with a toddler on my lap, tried to pull him away from the brother, and turn my son’s head sideways again. We finally got him out, red ears and all, as he screamed, and those who saw what had happened tried to stop laughing.

Is there any reason I remember this scene most every time I return to the Primary room?

Cleaning the room, I also remembered the 14 years I spent as Primary chorister and/or counselor. Towards the end I begged the bishop to find another calling for me.

Finally we found ourselves at a Harvest Festival at a rural North Carolina ward in our stake. One of the activities required the bishops to stand behind a big plywood wall and stick their heads through a hole so member-friends could try to hit them in the face with wet sponges.

I, the worst sponge thrower in history, stood in front of my plywood-imprisoned bishop and yelled, “If I hit you, can I be released from Primary?”

“Sure,” he called back.

I can only believe it was time for me to be released because I, who my boys have always said in the worst insult ever “throw like a girl,” hit my bishop squarely in the face. I was released the next Sunday and said good-bye to the Primary room.

Down the Hall

Off I went to the small Relief Society room with the baptismal font behind the partition. As I moved chairs, vacuumed, and dusted that room, my thoughts were turned to my youngest son’s baptism. His was the first baptism there after our building was expanded and rededicated in 1992. I spent a few quiet moments remembering that.

His father had just left us and with his being unable to baptize my son, my oldest son did it. For just a few moments, my heartache at his father not being able to baptize him was tempered by the pride of my son—yes, the one with the stuck head—being worthy as a priest to baptize him.

Three years later, he also baptized my youngest daughter. And the Lord’s course being one eternal round, last year he baptized his oldest daughter.

Moving to the chapel, I polished the tops of the pews and straightened up hymnbooks. I could imagine who sat on every row in their self-assigned seats.

And there on the front row on the left side is the pew my sister and I are self-assigned too. When I let myself dwell on the past, which is too often, I see my seven kids lined up there, my four sons just having helped pass the sacrament. I see tall sons giving painful (to me) farewell and jubilant homecoming talks, daughters receiving Young Women awards, and all of them giving their first stumbling testimonies.

People joke about my sister and me still sitting in that front row that is now just the two of us, but the “new people in the ward” don’t remember that we chose that spot because it was where my daughter’s wheelchair fit the best without being in anyone’s way. When she comes home to visit, that spot is reclaimed. When my children visit, we now fill up three rows.

Memories of Activities Past

Soon I move on to vacuum the half-gym/cultural hall/ all-purpose room I decorated so many times for my children’s wedding receptions, thinking of new and better ways each time to hide or ignore the basketball goal. In my 10-year stint as ward activities director—we stopped going to the Harvest Festival—I vacuumed that carpet too many times to count. I was so excited as I cleaned the church to find out there was a new, lighter vacuum cleaner!

I thought about a forgotten memory a friend reminded me of recently: I was in the Young Women’s Presidency with his wife while he was Young Men’s president. I had bought her a huge, lemon-filled birthday cake and with the cake in the middle of the gym, we demanded the boys stopped throwing the basketball, give it to the YM president, and join us for the opening prayer and blessing.

“I looked at that basket and thought I had time to make just one more shot,” my friend related.

Well, he did. He threw the ball, the prayer was started, and the ball landed right in the middle of his wife’s cake.

“Oh no, I thought,” he said. “What is Susan going to do? I ruined the cake.’

Well, what Susan did was scoop up a generous handful of frosting and chase him until I could smear it in his face. Plus, I made him vacuum.


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