Before I saw her, I could hear her. A rich, full voice singing a gospel tune. That was Hazel. She always seemed to be singing.
"I'll show you the ropes, honey," Hazel smiled at me, her warm brown eyes welcoming. It was my first day of training as a housekeeper at a local four-star hotel and I'd been assigned to work with Hazel.
Pushing our cart of towels, sheets, cleaning products and tiny bottles of shampoo down the hotel corridor, I sighed softly. This was not my ideal job. But as a college student with tuition and books to pay for, I couldn't be too picky. "It's only for the summer, " I kept telling myself.
Together Hazel and I stripped the sheets off the bed, then ballooned out the fresh clean sheets and tucked in the edges. Moving quickly and precisely with the confidence that comes from years of experience, she demonstrated how to fold crisp "hospital corners" on the bed, and the art of getting stubborn grains of sand out of a bathtub. (Sand, she informed me, was the nemesis of the housekeeping staff, an unavoidable evil of having a hotel near the beach in the summer.)
It was clear that Hazel took great pride in her work. Every washcloth was perfectly folded, each bottle of shampoo carefully straightened. But it was her consistent cheerfulness that got under my skin. How could she possibly be so happy about scrubbing toilets or cleaning up empty pizza boxes and soda cans after messy hotel guests - day after day, year after year?
"Why have you stayed here so long? Wouldn't you like to do something else?" I hadn't meant to ask that, but I couldn't help myself.
Laughing, the older woman put down her spray bottle and cleaning rag. It was a "you just don't understand" kind of laugh, yet not in a mocking or snooty way, but with a mixture of affection and pity. Shuffling my feet, I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I was the educated college student, and she was just a hotel janitor! Why was she looking at me as if she felt sorry for me?
"Oh, honey, it's a privilege to work here!" Hazel said gently. "It's my ministry! Every day I get to come into these people's rooms and pray over them. As I make their beds, I pray the Lord will give them rest and peaceful dreams. As I vacuum their floors and dust the furniture, I pray for safety and covering as they're out today. And most of all, I pray that they will know the love of God as I do. I wouldn't want to do anything else."
Those words bounced around in my head all through those hot summer months. I can't say I always had Hazel's perspective, though. There were plenty of days when I grumbled to myself about the occupants of the hotel room, chewing them out in my head for the extra work they were making for me. I often surrendered to the temptation to throw myself a pity party, thinking of other friends who were soaking up rays as beach lifeguards or sipping lattes in air-conditioned offices. Many a time I relished relating the horrors of some of my toilet encounters to my friends, dramatically re-telling my day's challenges and soaking up their sympathy.
Yet at the most inconvenient times, when I was deep in the throes of my "poor me" party, I would hear Hazel's voice interrupt my thoughts - "Oh, honey, it's a privilege to work here! It's my ministry!" I certainly didn't feel that way. And I wasn't sure I even wanted to have that kind of attitude.
But over the weeks and months as I worked alongside Hazel, I started to see that she really meant what she said. She had such a persistent joy - it was infectious! And I realized that I was only making myself miserable by insisting on being negative about my job. I decided to try to follow Hazel's example and pray as I went about my work. And it started to make a difference.
Now whenever I see hotel housekeeping staff pushing a cart of supplies down the hall, I smile and thank them for what they do. And I remember Hazel and her ministry. What an amazing opportunity we have each day to pray blessing over those we encounter at the office, at the supermarket, at the mechanic's, at the dentist, in the coffeeshop, or in our neighborhood. Like Hazel, a person of prayer is a person of influence - no matter where life takes you!
"For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers."
Romans 1:9 (NKJV)