God's work unfolds at a Charleston laundromat
Photos courtesy of Loving America Street
Started by a young woman wanting simply to live out the gospel, loving her neighbor as herself, Laundry Matters is a vibrant community center and more. It’s church-as-laundromat, laundromat-as-church.
For a laundromat, Laundry Matters in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, is an inviting place. With the rhythmic swish-swashing of industrial washers, the hypnotic hum of dryers and the powdery-fresh perfume of dryer sheets, it is refreshing, industrious and, yes, incredibly clean.
But Laundry Matters is more than just a spic-and-span coin-op spot to wash a few loads.
The small “Mark 12:30-31” painted beside the “Laundry Matters” lettering just above the entrance might be the first clue. Or the cozy space in the back, beyond the washers and dryers, where weekly Bible studies, community planning meetings, computer coding classes and other events take place.
Sure, clothes get sorted, washed, dried and folded. That too is part of what writer Kathleen Norris has called the “work that God has given us to do.” But at Laundry Matters, God’s work unfolds in myriad ways beyond laundry.
Operated by Loving America Street, a faith-based nonprofit, Laundry Matters has become a vibrant neighborhood center, in many ways church-as-laundromat, laundromat-as-church. And though several Charleston congregations now partner with the ministry, providing volunteers and financial support, it began solely through the efforts of a young woman who moved to one of Charleston’s poorest neighborhoods to live in Christian community.
Is Laundry Matters “church”? Why or why not?
Though she approached several churches early on with her dream of starting a neighborhood ministry, few if any were interested.
“I was young and naive,” said Samantha Sammis, 27. “I didn’t really have a vision, so I went back and re-centered myself. I decided that God called me to love my neighbors, so that was what I was going to do.”
And she did, moving into Charleston’s Eastside neighborhood, starting a Bible study, creating a nonprofit, and renovating and operating Laundry Matters.
“I didn’t know what any of it would look like,” Sammis said. “Honestly, I was just trying to live life as God calls us to live it.”
What does it mean “to live life as God calls us to live it?”
A neighborhood fixture
A neighborhood fixture for decades, the laundromat didn’t always have walls painted in cheerful pastels and decorated with Scripture verses and motivational sayings. Or a seating area with books and hot coffee for customers waiting to switch loads.
In fact, as recently as two years ago, in March 2015, the place didn’t even have a front door, a roof over the office, air conditioning or a functioning hot water heater. That’s when the property owner asked Sammis, the founder and executive director of Loving America Street, whether she’d be interested in renting the space.
At the time, Loving America Street -- named for a major Eastside thoroughfare -- was little more than a conduit for Sammis’ loosely structured efforts to be a good neighbor. It was part of her attempt to live out the words of Mark 12:30-31, loving God with all her heart and soul and loving her neighbor as herself.
Sammis fell in love with the Eastside neighborhood in 2010 during her senior year at the College of Charleston, when she started coming to the playground on the corner of America Street on Friday afternoons. A religion and sociology major, she initially planned just to hang out and have fun shooting hoops with kids.
But the more time she spent at the playground, and the closer she became to the kids and their families, the more she discovered a true sense of community that defied the area’s reputation. A low-income, historically African-American and immigrant neighborhood, the Eastside had long been considered by some a drug-dealing danger zone. But Sammis found otherwise.
“The Eastside is amazing,” she said. “People look out for each other and really care for each other.”
After graduating in 2011, Sammis spent a year in Boston working with a nonprofit. While visiting Charleston on vacation in 2012, she stopped by the playground and was surprised to find that the kids not only remembered her but embraced her, begging her to come back.
She felt more than a heartstring tug; she felt called to come and plant herself purposefully in the community.
‘Love Jesus, love our neighbors, see what happens’
After moving back to Charleston, Sammis -- who supported herself with various part-time jobs -- gathered a group of seven other young adults from four or five different churches and rented a house in the neighborhood. They settled in with only one intention, Sammis said: “Love Jesus, love our neighbors, see what happens.”
What would it mean for your church to simply “love Jesus, love our neighbors, see what happens?”
The housemates held a weekly Thursday night Bible study, initially as a means of household fellowship. But soon, they opened it to the neighborhood, along with a communal potluck supper. Those events, together with the Friday afternoon playground time, became the focal points of their ministry. They added other neighborhood activities as well, like seasonal cookouts, and before long, churches and individuals began offering funds to help sponsor events and the ministry.
“I didn’t know how to handle that,” Sammis said. “I couldn’t have them writing personal checks to me.”
So in August 2014, she established Loving America Street as an official 501(c)(3). Its mission: to bolster existing community assets to enhance conditions and empower Eastside residents.
Operating a laundry, however, was never on Sammis’ radar.
So when her landlord approached her about renting commercial space, Sammis wasn’t interested.
“We just play with neighborhood kids and have people over to our house for Bible study,” she told the man. “Why would I need commercial space?”
He thought she might consider turning what was a dilapidated laundry into a tutoring center; though skeptical, she agreed to take a look.
“When I first saw the laundromat, it was nasty, nasty,” she said.
Asbestos and mold were everywhere. The ceilings were falling down. Few of the machines worked.
“Why would I want to turn it into a tutoring center?” she said. “That would take a ton of work, so I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and went home.”
And that’s when Sammis had a change of heart.
“I realized, ‘Oh wow, what’s wrong with me?’” she said. “Our mission is to focus on asset-based community development, which means we find strengths and assets within the neighborhood to empower people toward Christ and toward community transformation.”
Despite the disrepair, the laundromat was a huge asset. The only laundromat in the neighborhood, it was a place people relied on for their personal cleanliness.
So she called the landlord, signed the lease and told him she was keeping it as a laundromat.
When he asked whether she knew how to run one, Sammis replied, “No, but I’ll figure it out.”
Laundry Matters opens
That was early 2015. Within four months, Sammis and a small corps of volunteers had raised $50,000 to overhaul the space and open Laundry Matters. They ripped out the old machines, installed a new roof and a new floor, built shelving and painted walls.
Today, 13 brand new washing machines and 12 dryers stay busy sudsing, rinsing and tumbling. Frankie Gadsden, a 68-year-old Eastside neighbor, keeps Laundry Matters clean, closes it up every night at 9 p.m. and generally oversees security.
“He’s the laundromat bouncer,” Sammis said. “He was here before we were -- everybody knows him.”
Ramsey Hamilton runs the drop-off laundry service and makes sure customers have what they need. His official title is laundry attendant, but really, he’s the resident cheerleader.
“Can I get you some free detergent?” he’ll ask customers.
Sammis has known Hamilton ever since she began visiting the neighborhood in 2010, and she calls him “a good friend and hard worker who really loves the Lord.”
Without Laundry Matters, both men would likely have a hard time finding a job, Sammis said. Gadsden never finished high school, and Hamilton has a physical disability and no car.
“But we’re able to give them a place to work that gives them pride and dignity,” Sammis said.
In addition to clean clothes and jobs, Laundry Matters offers the community other benefits. It has become a hub of activity, and a safe, welcoming place for parents and children to hang out.
The Thursday night Bible study that Sammis used to host in her home is now held at Laundry Matters, which makes Thursdays a particularly popular laundry day. On Mondays, a local church sponsors free laundry service and a meal for the homeless. And on Wednesday evenings until recently, Laundry Matters transformed into a neighborhood tech hub, with free coding instruction for kids offered in conjunction with a group called Charleston Women in Tech.
The coding class for elementary and middle school students became so popular that it recently moved to a larger community space nearby. But Sammis is already planning to offer evening coding classes for adults in 2017, with new computers provided through a partnership with the College of Charleston.
“The kids’ program was great, but this we hope will help adults improve computer literacy skills and job opportunities,” she said.
Laundry Matters has also become an unofficial community center, a gathering place where kids gravitate especially during the summer, and parents are glad they have a safe place to be.
If the children read for 10 minutes, write a paragraph, recite the alphabet or perform some other age-appropriate academic skill, they can earn a snack. And many of them volunteer to help keep the laundromat clean.
“Believe me, giving a 5-year-old a spray bottle is almost as good as giving them candy,” Sammis said.
Though crime rates are dropping, Charleston’s Eastside continues to have challenges. The neighborhood’s public schools have a high percentage of students from low-income families, and relatively low performance ratings. The rate of home ownership is low, and the neighborhood’s only major grocery store recently closed, making access to affordable, healthy food much more difficult.
Meanwhile, gentrification is becoming a serious concern. Regional population growth and the neighborhood’s relatively affordable real estate and enviable downtown location are fueling the renovation of derelict properties, which then command the higher rents that millennials are willing to pay.
And redevelopment is putting pressure on the neighborhood. Just two blocks from the playground where Sammis and her Loving America Street volunteers hold forth every Friday afternoon with games and food, the Cigar Factory, a new high-end retail, office and event space has opened in a renovated manufacturing facility.
Sammis understands the complexity of the issues the neighborhood faces. She realizes that playground games and clean laundry aren’t enough to solve the difficulties confronting many neighbors. But she has learned that by being faithful in these and other activities, she is building healthy relationships and earning trust among her neighbors.
The Thursday Bible study and Friday playground events, the adult computer classes and other creative uses of the Laundry Matters space are a natural outgrowth of Sammis’ efforts to create a safe and inviting community hub. Over the years, most of the original group of housemates moved on, but Sammis is committed to the Eastside. She continues to live there with two roommates and keeps her focus on building relationships.
“People are just people -- they’re not projects -- and making the Eastside out to be a service project or a charity case is really condescending and hurtful,” Sammis said. “I never wanted to be just another person who came in once a week, offered a free meal or some service and then left. I wanted my neighbors to be my neighbors, my community, my friends.”
More churches are helping
Now that Laundry Matters is up and running and word has spread throughout Charleston, more churches are helping the ministry, providing money and volunteers.
“Donors and volunteers wanted to see something tangible, and we got a lot of support after that,” she said.
How does your church or organization decide where to invest resources?
It’s a far cry from a few years ago, when Sammis was “begging churches to come alongside me,” she said. She doesn’t begrudge that initial lack of support, and readily admits that she didn’t have a clear vision of what she wanted to do. Even so, she finds it “kind of heartbreaking.”
“I didn’t want to do it by myself, necessarily,” she said. “But a lot of churches and ministries operate in their own bubble and mission, and collaboration doesn’t take place.”
How can your church better nurture young people's dreams and visions for new ministry?
Sammis said that Loving America Street grew organically out of her intention to live out the gospel. Once she resolved simply to love her neighbors, her efforts began bearing fruit.
“Not because it was forced, but just because it’s what you do for your friends, for your family, for your neighbors,” she said. “And my neighbors are no different.”
In keeping with that intention, Sammis hopes to raise a half-million dollars to buy the Laundry Matters building and adjacent corner store, to protect the property from being bought by developers.
She also is working with other community leaders to better coordinate the neighborhood’s many social and charitable services and advocate for Eastside needs in the broader Charleston community.
“Loving America Street has become a strong bridge between residents and government authorities like the police, the mayor, the school system,” said Sammis, who serves on the steering committee of the Charleston Illumination Project, a program to improve community-police relations.
Ultimately, asset-based community development is about relationship building, Sammis said. Whether it’s hosting an open-door Bible study or reviving a neighborhood laundromat, Loving America Street is about nurturing relationships. It’s about trying to do what Jesus did.
“He finds our assets, he finds our strengths, and builds on them,” she said. “This isn’t about being the nice white Christian girl in the historically black neighborhood. It’s just about loving people. You can do that anywhere, with anyone.”