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Humble Lessons from a Custodian

August 24, 2021


The summer before beginning eighth grade, I landed my first job. For three months, I would serve as junior custodian at Fairview Community Center in the West Minneapolis suburbs. Day in and day out, for $3.85 an hour, I was charged with setting up tables and chairs for senior citizen lunches, sweeping floors, emptying trash, and scrubbing surfaces (including endless, forever skin-shredding,, room-length Venetian blinds). I worked for two veteran custodians who had been with the school district for decades. Tony, my direct supervisor, was a soft-spoken and kind man. He always offered a wry comment with a subtle, but infectious smile. And Tony was unflappable. Whatever was asked of him and in whatever time frame it was asked, Tony would get it done and done well. Three times per week over the lunch hour, he would slip away to swim laps in the center’s twenty-five meter pool. And many times when I happened across Tony with a rare lull in his responsibilities, he was engaged in the grueling exercise of wall-sits to prepare himself for his yearly skiing trip to Aspen. 

Dave, his associate custodian, had broad shoulders, an unassailable hairline of gunmetal gray, and eyes that smiled without fail. During breaks, he would sit on the loading dock, tell charming stories, and smoke a pipe (like someone straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting) held firmly betwixt his right molars. Dave loved to eat pies and would buy them whole on the way home from work (even bringing leftovers into work the next day). Dave could fix anything he laid his hands on and never failed to indulge an eight grader who broke mowers, trimmed prized bushes embarrassingly short, or peppered him with questions for which he had no time, even though he always acted like he did.

By summer’s end, my hands were callused, my body sore, and I was eager to get back to school. But I never looked at custodians in quite the same way again. From day to gritty day, I came to recognize how hard these men worked, doing undesirable, tiring, and often thankless work. Is there a spill on the floor, a broken air-conditioner, an empty toilet paper roll, or a full garbage? Call Tony or Dave. Often, the only times these invisible people would get noticed was when something went wrong, instead of  the countless times everything went right. Now, I know better. Now, I can see. Since working with Tony and Dave, I’ve winced as people have dropped trash on the ground in full view of a garbage can. I’ve witnessed people speaking condescendingly to Tony and Dave, barely mustering the courtesy of making  eye contact, much less recognizing how intelligent they are. I’ve heard people joke about the lowliness of custodians’ work, as though it was beneath them. But Tony and Dave just smiled and worked on. 

In 1888, Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins penned a short poem celebrating a canonization, In Honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, whose life straddled the sixteenth and seventeenth century, was employed in the humble role of house porter, charged with the menial tasks of carrying bags, passing on messages, and most notably, answering the door for the College of Palma in Majorca, Spain. Alphonsus was a Jesuit brother who always wanted to become a priest, but his path was interrupted when his father fell ill and Alphonsus was called to take over the family cloth business. He married and had three children, but too soon his wife and children would die. When he returned to the Jesuit order, he was told that he was too old (at thirty-five) to continue studies for the priesthood. So Alphonsus remained a brother who, for forty-six years, humbly and charitably “watched the door.” 

As Hopkins would write:

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;

And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield

Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,

And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.

On Christ they do and on the martyr may;

But be the war within, the brand we wield

Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,

Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.


Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,

Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,

Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)

Could crowd career with conquest while there went

Those years and years by of world without event

That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez took on humble tasks with great love. He answered each call to the door with, “I’m coming, Lord.” His conquests were not on full display with shield and trumpet, but were instead quietly and heroically interior. In time, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez would offer spiritual direction and make a profound impact on a young Fr. Peter Claver, who would ultimately become a “slave of the slaves,” bringing thousands of enslaved West Africans to Christ in South America. It took the doorman of Majorca to teach the great St. Peter Claver how to open wide the door to Christ for thousands of the lowly and abused.

To be sure, in our weakness and humility, we are made strong. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the ostentatious, entitled, and alcoholic Sebastian Flyte would finally arrive at a complicated grace not in the aristocratic halls of Brideshead, but in a life of religious poverty caring for the wounds of another. Martin Luther King Jr. would shake off the rage of racism and insist on the dignity of one’s work, no matter how humble.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures; sweep streets like Michelangelo carved marble; sweep streets like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

And Jesus Christ would level his gaze at those hungry for power and pleasure, honor and wealth, and sharply remind, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

At the end of my summer with Tony and Dave, I learned that sometimes—oftentimes—being good is not something to be measured on a scale of wealth or social status. Instead, it is to be seen in steady integrity and quiet graces, a warm grin and smiling eyes. Sometimes angels walk among us—invisible to our stunted eyes—doing small acts with unfailing love. And as the world scoffs, tuts, or laughs, they simply smile and work on.

We are called to do our work, however humble, faithfully and well. When, like custodians, we are asked to do the small or thankless tasks, how shall we answer? 

“I’m coming, Lord.”