Some come with track marks from years of drug abuse. Others come with children in tow. Some are struggling through a bad week. Others, a bad decade. All bring their dirty laundry.
They wash it and dry it for free at church-run laundry services throughout the United States.
“Christ said we should feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and I think those clothes should be clean,” said Catherine Ambos, a volunteer at one such ministry in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Of course, it’s not really about hygiene, but dignity.
“If someone is dirty, unkempt, you tend not to look at them. You don’t want to meet their eye,” Ambos said. “If you can’t afford to wash your clothes and you’re a budding teenager, it’s an embarrassment.”
Churches have been washing clothes across the US since at least 1997, when a minister at First United Methodist Church of Arlington, Texas, started doing a circuit around the city’s coin-operated laundries, passing out change. There may well have been others before this. Today, these ministries exist across the country, run by churches of all traditions and sizes.
They’re not as common or as well known as church-run coffee shops, which have been promoted as “third places,” locations separate from work and home where people create community. But a growing number of churches see laundry ministries as a better way to connect with their neighbors and witness to the gospel.
Some churches buy their own washers and dryers, renovate a space so it has enough electrical outlets, and open a church-run laundry. Others, like Christ Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, send out volunteers with quarters. Ambos started doing that four years ago.
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