Free Laundromat

Simply reading the title of this inspirational piece would not suggest anything spiritual.  I had to use laundromats back in my graduate school days and in those first few years of marriage when the tiny apartment had no room for a washer and dryer.  And I am sure I never thought about spiritual things in the laundromat and I never had a spiritual experience while doing laundry!
As I was reading my usual range of things on the internet, I spied a headline that immediately drew me to read the short article.  The headline read: “Pope opens free laundromat for homeless.”  My initial impulse was to smile and nearly laugh out loud.  Pope Francis continues to do things that are surprising and really cool.  He really has pastoral heart.  I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I am ok calling him my Pope, too.  It is easy to dismiss anyone with this much power and prestige.  But Francis pulls it off very effectively.  If he is on an ego-trip, it does not show.
So I jumped into the article by Josephine M. McKenna.  The first sentence of the article is a great lead in to the story.  “First came the showers and the haircuts.  Now the washing machines.”  Again, I laughed.  I did not know about the showers and haircuts.  Where was I when the Pope inaugurated the shower/haircut program?  So I read on.  McKenna tells us the Pope is determined “to help the poor with practical actions…”  That is why he is known for emphasizing the pastoral approach.  When you need a shower, haircut and clean clothes, you do not need a lesson in theology and, certainly, not a lecture!  You need a shower, a barber and a laundromat.
Why is Pope Francis doing this?  McKenna thinks she knows.  She says he is doing it “to help restore their dignity.”  That does sound a great deal like Jesus.  When we read the stories associated with Jesus, he is almost always restoring dignity.  I know the word dignity really refers to one’s worth.  The Pope is saying everyone---the dirty, the shaggy, etc.---is a person of dignity.  And when they are down on their luck, the Christian and human response is to help to restore their dignity.  If it were I, I would deeply appreciate this move.  And in fact, we owe it to them, even if they don’t appreciate it.
As I read further, I learned two companies are helping out the Pope.  Whirlpool is donating six washers and dryers for the Pope’s work.  And P&G, based in Cincinnati, OH is donating the detergent for the process.  Of course, I’m sure some will criticize both companies for taking advantage of this for their own publicity purposes.  There are always cynics in the crowd.  But in my mind I say give the credit for their willingness to help.  I don’t know their motive, so I assume the best.
The almsgiver’s office provides more detail (I did not know there was an almsgiver’s office at the Vatican!).  The Pope wanted to do this because it “gives concrete form to charity and works of mercy aimed at restoring dignity to so many people who are our brothers and sisters.”  Once more, I note the pastoral concern.  The Pope wants to do something concrete.  This does not call for a new theological statement.  It calls for pastoral action.  Let’s give concrete form to charity and works of mercy.
The thing I like about this is effectively the Pope is saying charity and mercy are not merely theological ideas.  Of course, they are that.  It is easy to say that Jesus taught about charity---love---and about mercy.  But he also enacted these ideas.  He was loving and he was merciful.  As a follower of Jesus, the Pope is doing the very same thing.  If the person needs a shower, then build a shower.  If he needs to wash clothes, buy a washer and dryer and find some soap.  Done!
Of course, the Pope is not done.  We come to the end of the article and read this.  “In the coming months, showers, barbers and medical services will also be added to the new laundromat, which will be run by volunteers.”  Kudos to the Pope.  But we all know, there are people doing this papal work of kindness all over the place---in my hometown and yours.  They do not get the attention the Pope can get.  My prayer is what the Pope is doing brings attention to all the nameless folks helping out in their own small ways. 
We all know too many folks who are homeless and who are laboring with life without a sense of dignity.  And too many of us avoid or deny their existence.  I certainly am guilty of this.  Many of our cities are so constructed, we can avoid the “folk like this.”  Even our language betrays our complicity of neglect.  I laud the Pope for stepping up and stepping out to address the issue. 
To restore the dignity of another human being is a noble calling.  It also happens to be a spiritual calling.  It does not require a seminary degree.  It can be as simple as providing a washing machine.  Restoration of dignity is charity enacted and mercy incarnated.  If I were in Rome, I would volunteer at the free laundromat.  Since I am not, I want to figure out how to be involved in my own local, figurative “free laundromat.”

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