- Associated Press - Friday, September 8, 2017

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. (AP) - The painting of Jesus above the bank of dryers was put there by the longtime owner of Classic Coin Laundry.

It is positioned next to a small cross with a crown of thorns hanging from it.

On owner John Sadl’s business card is a well-known New Testament passage quoting Jesus: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

So when the Rev. Mike Angell approached Sadl about an outreach idea for his nearby Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, Sadl was a friendly ear.

Angell wanted to begin offering free laundry service one night a month - a basic that can sometimes be out-of-reach financially for a family struggling to get by. As a Christian, the idea struck Sadl as the right fit for the business he has run across from Heman Park since 1981.

“Following Jesus means following Jesus out into the neighborhood,” Angell said. Otherwise, it is hard to know what kind of help people need, he said.

A laundromat provides a captive audience, customers flipping through magazines or staring at their phones waiting for washers and dryers to run their cycles.

“We have the gift of time. Why not engage people?” Angell said. “What if we turned doing laundry into something you looked forward to?”

Tapping into a national model, Laundry Love was introduced this summer in University City. It may not be washing away sins, but it is demonstrating that ministry comes in creative forms.

One evening last month, the parking lot of the Classic Coin was filled to capacity. Trunks popped open, exposing heaping baskets and bulging bags of laundry. Children helped their moms carry the mounds into the laundromat, where they were met with church volunteers.

Customers were asked to sign in and include their ZIP code, number of loads of laundry and how they found out about the service. They were given quarters, laundry detergent and fabric softener.

“We’re not here to proselytize or evangelize,” Angell said. “We have wanted to make a bigger footprint in the neighborhood and our folks get to know our neighborhood.”

It was a noisy affair, with dozens of washers and dryers running simultaneously. Large fans circulated humid air. From a corner speaker, pop music from the 1970s seeped through on occasion - the Eagles and Kool and the Gang.

Kenna Sutton, 43, stood near one of six washing machines with her sudsy belongings inside. She has a washer at home, but a broken dryer. With six boys and a husband, dirty laundry is a perpetual condition.

“This is a big help for me,” Sutton said. Not only can she get a large amount of laundry done at one time, it’s also a significant cost savings.

Jessica Jones said it can cost her family $80 a month to do laundry. With those funds freed up, “you can use the money for buying groceries, gas for the car, taking the kids out for ice cream.”

Jones, 30, an early childhood educator, said churches often seem to be the ones with their hands out, “asking for tithing and offerings.”

“This shows humanity,” she said, looking around the crowded room.

Patsy Norwood came out of a back office pushing a cart filled with bottled water. She wheeled it to the front of the laundromat, where church volunteers were helping keep children occupied with crayons, coloring books and pizza.

“This is really good. I see a lot of people I don’t normally see,” said Norwood, a longtime employee, as she held a cup full of change for the soda machine.

For Classic Coin, it’s a bump in business on a typically slow night. Despite the windfall for the laundry, Angell said his congregation spent about five months hopping from laundromat to laundromat looking for the right fit. They wanted a place close to their church, at Delmar Boulevard and Jackson Avenue, one large enough to handle a swell of customers and one whose owner would be comfortable handing it over to a church group for a night a month. After meeting with Sadl, they knew they had found the right spot.

The idea of a congregation taking over a laundromat has been around about a dozen years, beginning in Venice, California, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. It started as a way to help the homeless, who seldom have access to clean clothes, but through the years expanded to help anyone who needs it. It has grown to at least 100 laundromats across the country, according to Laundry Love, a nonprofit that took the idea from an act of kindness to a national movement. Although Episcopalian congregations are the primary operators, synagogues and mosques also have started similar programs.

The program run by Holy Communion is one of the newer ones. The congregation held its first free laundry night in July. Thirteen people signed up and the church spent $57. Last month, through word of mouth and fliers posted at the library, community center, groceries and food pantries, the amount spent on providing the laundry service was five times higher, Angell said.

It’s good to see the response so strong, he said. But the congregation will have to troubleshoot how to best handle a crush of people. With most customers showing up as the doors opened, some were left waiting to get access to dryers, keeping the laundromat open later than expected.

Paul Jokerst helped start a Laundry Love program in St. Charles County two years ago, thanks to a speech he heard Angell give in 2014 at the annual conference of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

At that time, Angell was serving on the Presiding Bishop’s national staff focusing on young adult and campus ministries. He spoke at the gathering in Cape Girardeau on going outside the church walls to better connect with the community. As part of his presentation, he showed a video promoting a Laundry Love program in California, started by one of Angell’s friends, also an Episcopal priest.

Jokerst, who was a St. Charles police officer at the time, took the laundry program idea back to his congregation at Transfiguration Episcopal Church in Lake Saint Louis, which partnered with Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Charles. Their first laundromat adoption was two years ago in St. Charles; two months ago, the congregations added a Wentzville location.

” If you make the gesture that you are there to help without being a sales rep for the church, it goes farther in today’s world,” said Jokerst, who is serving as police chief of Paola, Kan., while finishing up his schooling to become an Episcopalian deacon.

Last month, Angell, sipping a diet Dr. Pepper and wearing his clerical collar, walked through the busy laundromat asking customers how they were doing. Children talked about their first day of school. Parents expressed gratitude at the free service. Angell introduced several people to his husband, who was serving as a volunteer- an indicator of the church’s inclusion of all.

On the two Sundays following the violence in Charlottesville, Virgina, on Aug. 12, Angell talked from the pulpit about racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. They are topics that had to be discussed directly and honestly, he said.

“Churches have been reticent in some ways about talking about these issues, and we want people to know who we are. People sometimes see church and have a lot of assumptions.”

Those kinds of discussions may find their way into the monthly laundry gathering. Angell wants to see where the program takes itself. He never wants it to appear like a bait and switch. Staying true to the mission to help those in need must be the priority.

“Churches are supposed to be a blessing to their neighborhood,” Angell said. “As Episcopalians, we’re almost apologizing beforehand. ‘No, you don’t have to do anything. This is an offer to do laundry. There is no catch.’ There are folks who are deciding between going to do laundry or to have dinner.”

He said the third Tuesday of the month was selected on purpose. It’s a slow night for the laundromat. And as the month grows longer, families on limited incomes find themselves stretched thinner.

Sadl said watching the program unfold in his laundromat has been the perfect communion. As a Catholic, the mission of the Episcopalians fits just fine, he said. The painting of Jesus is a reminder as to why we are on this planet, he said. Jesus always showed a soft spot for the poor. His followers should, too, Sadl said.

“I appreciate everything they are doing,” Sadl said of Angell and his flock. He plans to give a donation to Holy Communion to help keep the program going.

“It’s one thing to say you are going to do something,” Sadl said. “But they are walking the walk.”


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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