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June 1, 2012
Notes from the Ministry of Shoes
by Jeff Lindsay

One of my favorite concepts from Chinese culture is yuanfen, the somewhat mystical concept of how fate brings people together through seemingly random encounters. Since moving to Shanghai, my life has been full of numerous interesting connections that just feel like something more than chance. Call it yuanfen, or call it seeing "the hand of the Lord in all things" (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21), or call it having a great time in the world's most fascinating city.

A recent yuanfen experience was meeting Jeff Fletcher, an American musician with many talents who has been in Shanghai for about five years. Jeff is currently recording music that incorporates healing sound and designs corporate stress management programs with an integrated, multifaceted approach.

Jeff is a serious Christian (but not the LDS flavor). His approach to work as a ministry touched me, and with his permission, I'll share an episode from his life that might help all of us in our own ministries here.

Jeff grew up in Philadelphia without a lot of money. As a kid, he worked in the restaurant business, starting as a dishwasher. This is filthy, nasty work. But he maintained a positive attitude: "I would think of all the people who might not get a clean dish unless someone cared and had enough integrity to act responsibly, to see that as a ministry."

Work, even tedious, mundane work, as a ministry - what an interesting concept. "Whatever you are doing could be a ministry," he told me, "if you had the wherewithal to imagine it that way."

His work as a ministry is best illustrated by an experience he had later while selling shoes. Here are Jeff's words that I transcribed from an interview with him:

When I was young, I went from one lousy job to another, as most people do. After working in restaurants, I also sold shoes. First I was a stockboy. I worked in a dark, smelly basement processing the shoes when they came in.

Then one of the salesmen quit, and they invited me to come upstairs occasionally to help. I had already begun wearing suits in the basement to work because I envisioned myself as working on the floor upstairs. They complained: "Why do you wear suits? You work in filth." But I was thinking about the future.

Working upstairs, since I knew the inventory inside and out already, I was able to help customers quickly. I loved selling and was able to talk with customers, engage them, offer good conversation, and help them want to buy shoes from me.

We had a guy come into the store who just reeked of not having had a bath for years. His shoes and socks were stuck to his feet. My boss said, "Get him out of here. He's just some homeless guy, get him out of here!" But I invited him to sit down and asked him what size he wore.

My boss whispered, well, he didn't so much whisper, he just told me, "This guy doesn't have any money. How could he buy shoes? You're being ridiculous. Just get him out of the store. He'll run all the customers off."

The guy mumbled for a minute and I thought I heard "ten and a half" in there somewhere. I knew we had some closeouts in that size that were very cheap, just $10. I grabbed a pair and took his shoes off, and then I realized the condition of his feet. They had pus and boils all over.

In light of the teachings of Christ, I thought that if this man needs shoes, I couldn't assume that he didn't have money just because he needed a bath. Now shoe salesmen also tend to have low self-esteem, and that limits what they are willing to do for others. I realized that perhaps the only shoes salesman who could help him - the only one who would be able to get on his knees and pull of the pus-infected socks off this man's feet, put fresh socks on, and try shoes on him - was me. So I pulled his socks off.

I saw his feet. I took a cold towel and kind of wiped the liquid from his feet, put a fresh pair of socks on him and put the shoes on and asked him to walk. He got up and walked around the store, and made noises, reached in his pocket, asked how much the shoes were, then paid me and left.

My boss was astonished and said, "You could sell shoes to anybody."

"Why? I didn't really have a conversation with him. He came to a shoe store. I assumed he might need shoes. He couldn't really speak clearly. He may have gone to several stores and they turned him away because no one could understand him."

The experience reminded me of the scene in the New Testament where Christ washed the feet of his disciples. I thought of that and I was convicted. I thought of all these people working here, and felt that maybe thus guy was sent here because I am here and I'm practicing.

I won't say I'm a Christian, but I'm an aspiring Christian. And I looked at this guy as an opportunity to practice. To me that's far more important. If you're actually practicing Christianity, then whatever you're doing, whatever your job is, the beauty of Christianity is that it cannot be impaired by circumstances. So if you're a dishwasher, you can be an upright dishwasher. If you're a waiter or you're selling shoes, you can be an upright practicing Christian in that profession.

I love this story and so appreciate the example of service and refusing to "foreclose" on someone, as Jeff puts it. He told me that through these early work experiences, he learned that his value wasn't a function of his job, and "that a human being's value is in no way a reflection of their accomplishments, their education, or their net worth." With that perspective, Jeff had the imagination to not let a difficult tedious job depress him. He used his imagination to see his work as a ministry, and to see a lowly client as a son of God deserving kind and fair treatment. May we all have that kind of ennobling imagination in our own work.

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