If you know where to look, you can find Christ in all sorts of unexpected places — even the local laundromat.
Laundry Love is a movement that has spread all over the country, beginning in Ventura, California, more than a decade ago. The idea is to provide economic relief to those struggling financially by offering free laundromat services, and it’s been embraced by different organizations and churches from Oregon to Vermont and everywhere in between — including, now, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The idea was hatched in March when Pat O’Brien, a parishioner at Old St. Mary, became involved with the Archdiocesan Urban Ministry, and was intrigued by the variety of ways the ministry could find to reach out to the community.
Her daughter-in-law had previously been a volunteer with a Laundry Love supported by a Presbyterian church in California, and O’Brien suggested to Fr. Tim Kitzke and other Urban Ministry staff that they launch one in Milwaukee.
“I thought that this might be a very simple way to begin, easy for people to understand,” said O’Brien. “And the week before I presented it to the Urban Ministry, the pope had installed free washers and dryers in the Vatican for the homeless. Timing is everything.”
Beginning in September, from 9 a.m. to noon on the third Monday of each month, free laundromat services have been offered to the community at Your Laundry, 801 E. Capitol Drive, Milwaukee. With no income requirements for the service, anyone is welcome to show up with up to four loads of laundry to be washed on a first-come, first-serve basis. The last washer load of the day is at 10:30 a.m.
The ministry is meant to be more than just relief from a financial burden for participants, said Anne Haines, Respect Life director for urban ministry. Laundry Love is about reaching out, encountering people wherever they find themselves in life and bringing Christian fellowship and love to their very doorstep.
“It’s the whole idea of building relationships,” said Haines. “It’s all about accompaniment and getting to know people, hearing their stories and praying with them. That’s equally important as the laundry. That’s a major focus in the Office of Urban Ministry — just to be in relationship, hear the voices of people who are impacted by poverty and marginalization. How can we know what to address if we don’t hear from the people themselves?”
Because the laundromat accepts debit cards and electronic payment, volunteers don’t have to worry about “hauling suitcases of quarters to feed the machines,” said O’Brien. And owners Doug and Sally Klingler also offer a loyalty program that provides a 20-percent discount, which has enabled the ministry to do more loads for less money.
Other groups have also stepped in to collaborate, including Collars on the Corner, an interfaith initiative started by Deacon Kevin Stewart of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee and Deacon Jim Banach of St. Gregory the Great. The Ladies of Charity of Milwaukee have also sent volunteers and donated laundry soap and baked goods for patrons to enjoy.
“It’s a real feeling of hospitality and community,” said Haines.
The number of customers served by Laundry Love doubled between the September and October events, said O’Brien, and word is starting to get out about the ministry. “One of our customers told us that the bus driver on her route told her about it.”
Customers have included people of all ages and demographics — parents with small kids as well as older individuals, some of whom are doing laundry for friends who work inconvenient shifts.
“That kind of support that they provide for each other is such a beautiful witness of God’s people working together,” said Haines.
“The energy is lovely,” said O’Brien. “Customers are so delighted with the baked goods that the Ladies of Charity volunteers bring. It’s what everybody hoped it would be.”
The launch of the ministry has been self-funded by the committee of volunteers who organize it, but O’Brien said that the group is always open to monetary sponsorships and the donation of laundry pods.
Organizers say they look forward to seeing what Laundry Love can become in the coming months. Haines said that she hopes Laundry Love will prove to be a powerful tool for interacting with and serving the community in a variety of ways.
As the ministry develops, the hope is that more unmet needs can be identified and more resources made available.
“For example, if it seems like someone is looking for some parenting help, we can bring brochures on Catholic Charities’ parenting programs,” said Haines. “We can reach people where they are and point them in the direction that could be helpful.”
The next Laundry Love event will be Monday, Nov. 20.