“Don’t despise the small but significant act … learn to be symbol-makers and storytellers for the kingdom," says theologian N.T. Wright. A recent movement known as the Laundry Love Project seems to have taken these words to heart.
In East Hollywood, Calif., an Episcopal priest described the laundry ministry this way: “It’s a simple, simple thing. It’s quarters and soap, it’s dryer sheets and presence.” His words recall those of Jesus, speaking of another small, simple thing: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
It all started when a church in Ventura, Calif., asked a homeless friend how they could help make a difference in his life. The man said, “If I had clean clothes I think people would treat me like a human being.”
The Laundry Love Project began with this simple question. Following their lead, now over 70 faith congregations across the United States show their struggling neighbors this same sort of love. Participating congregations partner with a neighborhood laundromat one night a month, fill the room with detergent, dryer sheets and quarters and strike up conversations loud enough to be heard above the whir of machines.
If the kingdom of God is mustard seeds and foot-washing, why can’t it also be spin cycles and fabric softener?
Several of the volunteers featured in a NPR story said Laundry Love had become their new church. Of course, a symbolic act can’t replace the core relationship with Christ we rehearse corporately each week. Still, the act of gathering in a laundromat is a gesture that's vibrant with kingdom meaning. People of different backgrounds and economic need fold socks and underwear together against the backdrop of sudsy, churning, cleaning machines. They share quarters and conversation and, in this way, remind each other that to be human is to bear dignity.
Washing laundry is a mundane thing - a result of living in the decaying stuff of earth. Giving a single mom or an elderly homeless man $20 in quarters is not an extraordinary offer of life change. But it tells a story not unlike the time Christ gathered a basin and towel because He wanted His friends to remember He loved them after He was gone. And He wanted to soak their imagination in truth-telling action, to embody a parable they’d recall when loving each other got hard.
Maybe the Gospel author Matthew thought about this later when he wrote, “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, He said nothing to them without a parable.” Maybe Matthew realized that story and symbol brought out the best moments in his relationship with Christ and others. And that Christ’s imaginative genius in words and actions shows all of us a way to keep telling this good Story over and over and over again.
If the kingdom of God is mustard seeds and foot-washing, why can’t it also be spin cycles and fabric softener? The kingdom of God is like a laundromat. And this stack of lemony-scented laundry is a prayer for us all.