The Missionary Barrel

Laura and Miriam Kiehl playing with a barrel, Fort Lawton, Washington

Back in the day they used to call it the “missionary barrel.” Some frontier church in New England would gather up everything they couldn’t really use anymore – little boy’s breeches, navy blue; old candlestick holders, slightly tarnished; fifty embroidered handkerchiefs, a little yellowed; the pieces-parts of a phonograph, now that everyone has a radio… and pack it in a wooden barrel and mail it off to their dear missionaries in Africa. In the books I’ve read it comes as a source of pleasure and amusement for the missionaries on the receiving end… 50% the pleasure of any package, and 50% …you sent us what?!

The Missionary Barrel Arrives

Now I’ve seen it for myself. Now, I am not a missionary, and don’t ever intend to be! But this fall, I’ve been visiting family who live at a fifty-year-old mission to the Navajo in northwestern New Mexico. While other churches in the area have packed up and headed home, this one is still kicking: helping people access education and social services, providing for those without electricity or running water, and responding to conflicts and injuries in an area without effective police or emergency services.

And like many other outreaches, the mission periodically gets donations from Anglo churches around the U.S., mostly affiliated with the Church of the Brethren.

So last week, the FedEx truck rolled up and dropped off several boxes, which I eagerly sliced open. You know, being the good volunteer that I am.

And inside I found:

  • A shipment of towels: heavy-duty blue bath towels, 3 sets of eight; heavy-duty blue washcloths, 1 set of twenty-four; 3 white towel/hand towel/washcloth sets;
  • Used Sunday school pamphlets, concerning the providence of God (as evidenced by the towels, presumably)
  • A couple of checks, carefully made out in longhand from dear old ladies in Kansas.
  • And someone’s old jewelry, not for us to wear, but for us to mend and send back. I’m not clear on who here is expected to do this, for the above dear old ladies.

Cupboards and Closets!

But it gets better! Today I sorted the cupboards in the community building, a long narrow room, dingy and white. Inside are folding tables, a double-fridged kitchen, three bedrooms with narrow guest beds, two bathrooms, and many cupboards and closets. And it seems that most of what I find in those closets has also been donated. We have:

Category 1: Household Items

  • piles of unmatched sheets (generously given, I am sure, by half of the ladies of eastern Iowa during some ‘sheet drive’);
  • boxes of yellow yarn and green yarn and purple yarn and half-knitted yarn, along with bins of glitter and googly-eyes for the children;
  • an assortment of books and puzzles;
  • melamine dishware from the 1970s;
  • antacids and pain relievers that expired in the 1990s;
  • curious ‘antiseptic tubes’ with cardboard stoppers and red-brown liquid inside that say “please crush to open” (1950s?).
  • And there’s a flour sifter, a punch bowl dusted with flour, a box full of little faded coffee whitener packets, and some white powdery stuff in the baking cupboard, which tasted vaguely of flour.

Category 2:

Then, there are the terrifying “Indian” themed items:

  • An informational book from the 1960s explaining to the difference between white, red, and black people, according to the magical workings of melanin;
  • Indian picture books and Bibles;
  • stuffed teddy bears dressed in beads like “Indians;”
  • handmade dolls with no feet;
  • many photos of “white Jesus,” with his soft brown hair and doe-eyed smile, staring down at the children (totes awkward in a Navajo church),
  • and coloring books with pictures of feathered Indians, also meant for white kids (and also totes awkward).
Old West Indians by Jason Verwey

No… please, no.

Category 3: Soap

Finally, I uncovered a huge box of assorted bath soaps, upwards of 100 sturdy bars, a mix and match of brands. This is reassuring. And it also fits right in with my Dickensian image of what missionaries do. Like religious folk for generations, they may live on the edge financially, waiting for Providence to keep the lights on —  but they’ll be well-scrubbed no matter what, and smelling like an Irish Spring!

Irish Spring Soap by Cindy, on Flickr

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