george, the archbishop, and the story of the apartment

This is an account of a story about Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who served as bishop in the Archdiocese of Seattle from 1975 to 1991. During his time, there was a man who attended St. James Cathedral in Seattle, who went by the name of George.

George was a developmentally disabled person who was known among the cathedral parishioners for photographing Bishop Hunthausen in the middle of Mass. He would walk right up to within ten feet of the podium, in the middle of the homily, hold up his camera (circa 1975 – so you know, it’s not Instagram on a tiny iPhone) and take a picture right then and there with his bulb flash. The bishop didn’t mind. He just wasn’t the kind of guy who got upset by that sort of thing.

A time came when George received an eviction notice. Apparently, due to his disability, he had become unable to keep his apartment clean and was now facing the real threat of losing the roof over his head. Bishop Hunthausen, having heard of the situation, was not about to let this happen. So he went to his office staff and said, “I’m going to George’s apartment to help him clean up so he doesn’t get evicted. Whoever wants to come with me is welcome to help.”

Clearly, this is an outrageous invitation to get from your boss…but Bishop Hunthausen was no ordinary boss. And somehow, he managed to inspire his staff to join him.

So they file into George’s apartment, on a mission, gloves and cleaning materials in tow. In the middle of their frenzy, they suddenly realize that the bishop has gone missing. They start looking for him throughout the apartment, only to find him in the least likely of places: in the bathroom, scrubbing the toilet. In an apartment so filthy it was almost deemed uninhabitable, he chose to work where he knew nobody would want to go.

In my mind, I am imagining the number of photographs that George has captured of this holy man, preaching at his podium in this grand cathedral with its gilded walls and marble floors, wearing the regal robes fitting a man of his stature, his authority, his anointing. Yet I’m sure that the image most likely to have been etched in the minds of his staff was of him with brush in hand, at the lowliest task in what was already a very humble and selfless undertaking.

I wasn’t even there to see this myself, it probably happened before I was born; yet the story and the mental image of this man scrubbing some other man’s toilet over 25 years ago left a real imprint on my heart today. There is more grace, more love in this one story than some of us see in real life. We need so much more of this kind of selflessness. We as a culture are starving for this kind of love. Today, I got a taste of it through a second-hand account of an incredible story. Tomorrow, I pray that one of us actually becomes the story, and another becomes the witness. Maybe it will be me, maybe it will be you. Either way, I hope that generations from now some other person will talk about a time when they witnessed one of us in an act of total selflessness, and maybe they will also be changed just like I was changed today.

I’m nowhere near perfect or holy, but God can inspire saintly selflessness even in ordinary people like me. That’s why we call him God. In the meantime, I’m keeping my hopes up, my heart open, and my proverbial toilet brush ever near.

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