Cathedrals have been called “Sermons in stone,” and having worked one or two days a month at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., I have had that experience of the building as teacher. It makes it challenging to preach a sermon that is something worthwhile to say, when the cathedral itself is such a wise, awesome and compassionate teacher.
There are other teachers at the cathedral, too, and not all of them wear clergy clothing. Over the three-and-a-half years that I have served as day chaplain and celebrant there, I have noticed a woman who seems to know everyone, and who seems to serve as a leader among the housekeeping staff there, many of whom are Hispanic. She is tall, has a friendly smile, says hello to everyone, tourists and staff alike, and seems to be someone to whom other staffers come with questions and problems. I have said hello to her, but until this past Friday, never had the chance to have a conversation with her.
The verger — a ceremonial assistant — Jane Gilchrist, with whom I have worked a number of times was talking to the housekeeper when I went into the slype (the long, narrow room where vergers and celebrants prepare for services). Jane said, “Georgia, you need to know this lady, because she works so hard to make the cathedral beautiful. This is Reina, and she does the laundry and ironing for us.” Reina had over her arm the alb (white robe) that I had just worn for the noon-day Eucharist service. It’s one of those things you take for granted: you go to the closet on the other side of the slype and there is a clean, ironed alb to wear beneath the chasuble.
Jane continued, “Reina irons like an angel. The linens we use at the altar are her responsibility.” Indeed, as a priest, one notices things like clean and well-ironed altar linens, and the ones at the Cathedral always look perfect. I said to her, “Thank you for your work. That is a lot of responsibility; I hope you have a good staff to help you.” Reina responded, “I am the only laundress. I do all the robes and altar linens. It is a big responsibility, but I see it also as a way of serving God. I love my job, and it gives me joy to do it.” As our conversation continued, I learned that Reina was born in the mountains of El Salvador; her family moved to the capital, San Salvador, when she was in school, and she came to the United States as a young adult. Her fluent and strongly accented English was musical; she is one of those people who sounds like she is smiling all the time as she speaks.
Reina became the laundress at the cathedral when the previous laundress retired after 22 years on the job. “I feel like I have a big job, because I must do as well as the person who came before. Everything about this place needs to remind people of God, and I always think about that when I do laundry and iron altar linens. My work needs to remind people of God, and give joy to God.” Reina also volunteers at the Cathedral: she ushers people to their seats for the huge Sunday services, and she also helps to keep open the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, a contemplative space and library in the crypt area of the Cathedral.
“How do you find time to do all that, with your job?” I asked. “It is what is important to me,” she said. “I want to be of service. On Sundays, I take the bus to Rockville, and I go to church there with my sister. One Sunday, the priest says, ‘We need someone to wash and iron the towels and purificators we use at the altar,’ and I think, ‘That is for me. God is speaking to me; his hand is on my shoulder.’ It is easy for me to do at home.”
Reina Duran works in a place that demands her time and attention and nearly constant standing and walking. Then, she volunteers at the same place on Sundays, travels to a suburb, worships with her family there, and volunteers to do similar work for that church. “No trouble,” she says. “I bring the linens back and forth to Rockville in a plastic bag. This is work for God. I try to remember—all my work is work for God.”
At the cathedral, every stained-glass window tells a story; everywhere one looks, there is a carving, a painting, a tapestry, a piece of iron work, a statue or a needlepoint kneeler worked for the greater glory of God, asking the viewer to give attention to the Divine. Merry elephants and lawyers with briefcases carved in stone serve as gargoyle water spouts to clear the roofs of rainwater.
In the case of Reina Duran, it is a human who does the reminding by example. In monastic orders, the monks and nuns speak of people who are “living rules,” embodiments of what a monk or a nun should be according to the precepts of the order. From our conversation, it seemed to me that the example Reina Duran offers is, like that of a “living rule,” one that other people who seek to follow Jesus can profit from imitating.
St. Paul told the followers of the Way, in the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” It is my blessing to have met at the National Cathedral someone who seems to follow that instruction. She also reminded me of what St. Francis said to his followers: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
— The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry and at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Leetown