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.
They budgeted $200. They quickly realized it wasn’t enough. “We were three-quarters of the way through the session when it became apparent that we were going to go over,” Ambos said.
Christ Episcopal’s pastor agreed to cover whatever they spent, and they handed out $267 in coins. The ministry hasn’t stopped since.
Belmont Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, has one of the older laundromat ministries still running. The church started helping people clean their clothes in 2010, when pastor Greg Anderson heard through another ministry that poor people in homeless shelters and long-term-stay motels would regularly throw away their clothes.
“It was just easier to go and get new clothes at a clothing-center type of ministry as opposed to being able to launder them,” Anderson said.
The church decided to install five washers and dryers in a building on its property and open a laundromat. Today, volunteers estimate that they save people upwards of $25,000 per year—money they didn’t have, or if they did, they could now spend on food, gas, or medicine.
“This works along with the adage, ‘People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,’” Anderson said. “We let them know we care and God cares, and we share Christ through that and directly with our words when that opportunity arises. To do so in the spirit of Christ is an incarnational thing. … The spiritual needs that so often receive all the attention cannot be separated from the physical needs of the people who might benefit from a place to wash their clothes.”
While people are doing their laundry, they talk to each other and the church volunteers, and relationships form. The church has been able to help more people through those connections.
Church members have helped families with car trouble and others who needed clothes. Once, they helped someone cover funeral costs. Another time, a single dad got help with child care.
The church sees it as evangelistic because they’re sharing God’s love with people. But the laundromat hasn’t contributed to church growth.
“None of these people became members of our church,” said Barbara Lowery, who has volunteered at Belmont Baptist’s laundry for 12 years. “That wasn’t what it was about. It was about helping people in need.”
Margaret Brown says volunteering at the Belmont laundromat for the past 12 years has opened her eyes to the needs in her community. The people who show up at the church with their dirty clothes have a lot going on in their lives. They’re not lazy and they’re not pretending to need help.
“These are people who really need it,” she said. But at the same time, “they don’t expect something to be handed to them.”
Brown has formed relationships with many of the people she sees week after week. One woman found out how much Brown loves coffee and during her laundry time made a point of bringing Brown something—a fresh cup, or sometimes coffee cake or coffee candy.
“I would say 95 percent of them are so appreciative that it breaks your heart,” Brown said.
Susan Thomas, who runs an Episcopal ministry paying for laundry in Blaine, Washington, said this is what has surprised her most: how much a load of laundry can mean to someone.
“We started it because we were looking for something to help the community that no one else was doing,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to us with tears in their eyes thanking us for having this program. They have to decide whether to put gas in their car or put food on the table or have laundry.”
Blaine has a little more than 5,000 residents, but last year, Thomas said, the church paid for 1,600 loads of laundry, at about $7.25 per load.
Santa Maria, California, with a population exceeding 100,000 people, looks very different from Blaine, but the needs are similar. Frank Hall, a member of Crestwood Christian Fellowship, has run Morning Star Laundry for the past 10 years. Before COVID-19, they were helping around 50 people a week.
Hall has also worked with homeless ministries in the region in the past, and often he saw there was a place people could get a shower, but then they’d have to put their dirty clothes back on.
“Nine times out of 10 they’re walking around in dirty clothes, which isn’t going to help their health,” he said.
The nondenominational church gives $200 per week to Morning Star, and Hall collects recycling from church members to subsidize the ministry. He knew some local businesses could become critical of the church-run laundry because they didn’t want homeless people in the area and might worry about losing business.
To mitigate that, he’s developed relationships with them. He buys what he needs for the laundry from local stores and sets clear rules at the ministry about drug use, intoxication, and any antisocial behavior.
“We want to support the other businesses and not make them feel like we’re harming them,” Hall said.
Managing everything can be a challenge. It’s probably more work than a coffee shop. But Hall thinks it’s worth it.
“It allows us to help people, care for them, and help people to have some dignity,” Hall said. “When you’re doing it, you are caring for people that
Adam MacInnis is a reporter in Canada.
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